The rediscovery of Joseph Roth by the English-speaking world is almost complete. A variety of publishers in Britain and the United States have brought out his novels, in new translations, culminating last year with Michael Hofmann’s superb rendering of Roth’s masterpiece The Radetzky March. Now comes a selection of Roth’s nonfiction, columns and sketches which appeared in half a dozen German newspapers in the years of the Weimar Republic.
Joseph Roth was born in 1894, into a Jewish family in the Galician town of Brody on the eastern fringe of the Habsburg dominions. As a fiction writer, he remained an Austro-Hungarian at heart, both in his choice of subjects (The Radetzky March ranks with Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities as one of the two supreme literary memorials of that time and those places) and in his darting, ironic prose manner. But in 1920 he moved from Vienna to Berlin, where he spent the next five years. From Berlin, he shifted to Paris, returning constantly to the German capital until the coming of the Nazis drove him into permanent exile. He died in Paris in 1939.
Although he is now remembered as a novelist, Roth was better known as a journalist in his lifetime, and it was through journalism that he made a living. He was a master of the feuilleton, the short sketch which has an element of reporting but which transforms small scenes into revelations about the inner nature and destiny of an entire society or regime. It’s a form invented and perfected in Habsburg Vienna (Karl Kraus was its acknowledged Weltmeister), which spread throughout Central Europe and into northern Germany. Roth himself once wrote that “the feuilleton is as important as politics are to a newspaper, and to the reader it’s vastly more important.”
His own readers certainly agreed. Roth became well-paid and famous, especially after he signed up with the old Frankfurter Zeitung. The myth of the feuilleton insists that it must be written at a café table, and Roth soon had an honored place with the other Berlin literati in the Café des Westens or the Romanisches Café, talking, drinking, and inhaling their delicious reek of leather door-curtains, rain-moist fur collars, cigar smoke, coffee, and fresh newspapers. In that sense, he was part of the Berlin scene. But at another level, he remained a fascinated and repelled stranger. Like Kraus, who sat down every day to read the newspapers he loathed, Joseph Roth went out every day to explore and celebrate the city he hated.
Berlin was and remains a raw place. Most of its people have been born somewhere else. Every fifty years or so, it goes through an earthquake of change and becomes unrecognizable (it is going through one now). Roth got it exactly right in …