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Emperor of Nostalgia


At the apogee of a reign that commenced in 1848 and ran until 1916, Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, ruled over some fifty million subjects. Of these fewer than a quarter spoke German as a first language. Even within Austria itself every second person was a Slav of one kind or another—Czech, Slovak, Pole, Ukrainian, Serb, Croat, Slovene. Each of these ethnic groups had aspirations to become a nation in its own right, with all the appurtenances of nationhood, including a national language and a national literature.

The mistake of the imperial government, we can see with hindsight, was to take these aspirations too lightly, to believe that the advantages of belonging to an enlightened, prosperous, peaceful, multiethnic state would always outweigh the pull of separatism and the push of anti-German (or, in the case of the Slovaks, anti-Magyar) prejudice. When war—precipitated by a spectacular act of terrorism by ethnic nationalists—broke out in 1914, the empire found itself too weak to withstand the armies of Russia, Serbia, and Italy on its borders, and fell to pieces.

Austro-Hungary is no more,” wrote Sigmund Freud to himself on Armistice Day, 1918. “I do not want to live anywhere else…. I shall live on with the torso and imagine that it is the whole.” Freud spoke for many Jews of Austro-German culture. The dismemberment of the old empire, and the redrawing of the map of Eastern Europe to create new homelands based on ethnicity, worked to the detriment of Jews most of all, since there was no territory they could point to as ancestrally their own. The old supranational imperial state had suited them; the postwar settlement was a calamity. The first years of the new, stripped-down, barely viable Austrian state, with food shortages followed by levels of inflation that wiped out the savings of the middle class and violence on the streets between paramilitary forces of left and right, only intensified their unease. Some began to look to Palestine as a national home; others turned to the supranational creed of communism.

Nostalgia for a lost past and anxiety about a homeless future are at the heart of the mature work of the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth. “My most unforgettable experience was the war and the end of my fatherland, the only one that I have ever had: the Austro-Hungarian monarchy,” he wrote in 1932. “I loved this fatherland,” he continued in a foreword to The Radetzky March. “It permitted me to be a patriot and a citizen of the world at the same time, among all the Austrian peoples also a German. I loved the virtues and merits of this fatherland, and today, when it is dead and gone, I even love its flaws and weaknesses.” The Radetzky March is the great poem of elegy to Habsburg Austria, composed by a subject from an outlying imperial territory; a great German novel by a writer with barely a toehold in the German community of letters.

Moses Joseph Roth was born in 1894 in Brody, a middle-sized city a few miles from the Russian border in the imperial crownland of Galicia. Galicia had become part of the Austrian Empire in 1772, when Poland was dismembered; it was a poor region densely populated with Ukrainians (known in Austria as Ruthenians), Poles, and Jews. Brody itself had been a center of the Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment. In the 1890s, two thirds of its people were Jewish.

In German-speaking parts of the empire, Galician Jews were held in low esteem. As a young man making his way in Vienna, Roth played down his origins, claiming to have been born in Schwabendorf, a predominantly German town (this fiction appears in his official papers). His father, he claimed, had been (variously) a factory owner, an army officer, a high state official, a painter, a Polish aristocrat. In fact Nachum Roth worked in Brody as agent for a firm of German grain merchants. Moses Joseph never knew him: in 1893, shortly after his marriage, Nachum suffered a brainstorm of some kind on a train journey to Hamburg. He was taken to a sanatorium and from there passed into the hands of a wonder-working rabbi. He never recovered, never returned to Brody.

Moses Joseph was brought up by his mother in the home of her parents, prosperous assimilated Jews. He went to a Jewish community school where the language of instruction was German, then to the German-language gymnasium in Brody. Half his fellow students were Jewish: to young Jews from the East, a German education opened the doors to commerce and to the dominant culture.

In 1914 Roth enrolled at the University of Vienna. Vienna at this time had the largest Jewish community in Central Europe, some 200,000 souls living in what amounted to a ghetto of a voluntary kind. “It is hard enough being an Ostjude,” a Jew from the East, remarked Roth; but “there is no harder fate than being an Ostjude outsider in Vienna.” Ostjuden had to contend not only with anti-Semitism but with the aloofness of Western Jews.

Roth was an outstanding student, particularly of German literature, though for the most part he looked down on his teachers, finding them servile and pedantic. This disdain is reflected in his early writings, in which the state-run education system appears as the preserve of careerists or else timid, uninspired plodders. He worked at a part-time job as a tutor to the young sons of a countess, and in the process picked up such dandyish mannerisms as kissing the hands of ladies, carrying a cane, wearing a monocle. He began to publish poems.

His education, which was leading him toward an academic career, was terminated by the war. Overcoming pacifist inclinations, he enlisted in 1916, at the same time abandoning the name Moses. Ethnic tensions ran high enough in the imperial army for him to be transferred out of a German-speaking unit; he spent 1917–1918 in a Polish-speaking unit in Galicia. His period of service became the subject of further fanciful stories, notably that he had been an officer and a prisoner of war in Russia. Years later he was still peppering his speech with officer-caste slang.

After the war Roth began to write for newspapers, and soon gained a following among the Viennese. Before the war Vienna had been the capital of a great empire; now it was an impoverished city of two million in a country of a bare seven million. Seeking better opportunities, Roth and his new wife, Friederike, moved to Berlin. There he wrote for liberal newspapers but also for the left-wing Vorwärts, signing his pieces “Der rote Joseph,” Joseph the Red. The first of his Zeitungromane, “newspaper novels,” came out, so called not only because they shared the themes of his journalism but also because he broke his text into short, snappy sections. The Spider’s Web (1923) deals presciently with the moral and spiritual menace of the fascist right. It appeared three days before Hitler’s first putsch.

In 1925 Roth was appointed Paris correspondent of the Frankfurter Zeitung, the leading liberal paper, at a salary that made him one of the best-paid journalists in Germany. He had come to Berlin to make a career as a German writer, but in France he found that at heart he was “a Frenchman from the East.” He was enraptured by what he called the silkiness of French women, particularly the women of Provence.

Even in his youth Roth had commanded a lucid, supple German. Now, using Stendhal and Flaubert—particularly the Flaubert of Un Coeur simple —as models, he perfected his characteristically exact mature style. (Of The Radetzky March, he would remark, “Der Leutnant Trotta, der bin ich,” consciously echoing Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.”) He even toyed with the idea of settling in France and writing in French.

After a year, however, the Frankfurter Zeitung replaced him in its Paris office. Disappointed, he put in for a trip to Russia. His habit of (in his words) “handling in ironic fashion certain institutions, morals and customs of the bourgeois world” should not, he cautioned the editors, be assumed to disqualify him from reporting on Russia and the “dubious consequences” of the Russian Revolution. His series on Russia was a great success; reports from Albania, Poland, and Italy followed.

He continued to write fiction, taking pains to keep his distance from mere newspapermen. “I don’t write so-called witty commentaries. I sketch the features of the age…. I am a journalist, not a reporter, I am a writer, not a fashioner of lead articles.”

In 1930 he published his ninth novel, Job: The Story of a Simple Man. Despite, or perhaps because of, its sentimental, fairy-tale ending—the aging Mendel Singer, buffeted by the blows of fate and sinking into penury in the slums of New York, is whisked to safety by the idiot son he had abandoned in the Old World, a son who has unbeknown to him become a world-famous musician—Job became an international success (Roth confessed that he could not have written the ending without recourse to drink). Hollywood turned Job into a movie under the title Sins of Man, with all its Jewishness purged. Job was followed two years later by Roth’s most ambitious book, The Radetzky March. Six more novels appeared in his lifetime, all of them smaller in scale, and a number of short fictions.

The Radetzky March, incomparably Roth’s greatest novel and the only one on which he worked without undue haste, follows the fortunes of three generations of the Trotta family, servants of the crown: the first Trotta a simple soldier elevated to the minor nobility for an act of heroism; the second a high provincial administrator; the third an army officer whose life dissolves into futility as the Habsburg mystique loses its hold on him, and who perishes without issue in the war.

The trajectory of the Trottas mirrors the trajectory of the empire. The ideal of selfless service embodied in the middle Trotta falters in his son not because the empire has gone wrong in any objective way but because there has been a change in the air that makes the old idealism unsustainable (it is this change in the air that is the starting point for the dissection of old Austria in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities). The young Trotta, born in the 1890s, may represent the generation of Roth and Musil (“Der Leutnant Trotta, der bin ich“), but it is his father, who late in life has not only to swallow the shame of his son’s failures but to discover—as he does with endearing humility—that the beliefs he has dedicated his life to have fallen out of fashion, who is the most tragic figure in the book, and who shows how much more complex Roth is as an artist than as the apologist for the Habsburgs he later became.

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