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Joseph Roth: Going Over the Edge

The following essay will appear, in somewhat different form, as the introduction to Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, translated and edited by Michael Hofmann, to be published by Norton in January. The accompanying letters between Roth and Stefan Zweig are from the book, which is the the first translation of the correspondence of Roth (1894–1939), author of The Radetzky March, among many other works.

This material may not be reproduced, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Imagno/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Joseph Roth, Paris, circa 1925

Nothing to parents (but Joseph Roth never saw his father, Nahum, who went mad before he knew he had a son, and reacted to his overproud and overprotective mother, Miriam, or Maria, to the extent that he sometimes claimed to have her pickled womb somewhere). Nothing to his wife (poor, bewitching Friedl Reichler, who after six years of a restless, oppressive, and pampered marriage disappeared into schizophrenia and left him to make arrangements for her, and pay for them, and wallow in the guilt and panic that remained). Nothing to the lovers and companions of his last years (the Jewish actress Sibyl Rares, the exotic half-Cuban beauty Andrea Manga Bell, the novelist Irmgard Keun, his rival in cleverness and dipsomania). Nothing to perhaps his very best friends (Stefan Fingal, Soma Morgenstern, Joseph Gottfarstein), though with such a protean or polygonal character as Roth’s, who contrived to present a different aspect of himself to everyone he knew, it’s hard to tell for sure.

Except to family, very few—initially, I had the sense, none at all—in the intimate du form, and most of those are, ironically, to near strangers, because they had served, as he had, briefly, in the Austrian army, where it was form to address a brother officer, even if one didn’t know him from Adam, as du. Very few early—barely a dozen before 1925, when Roth, thirty, a married professional, a published novelist, and an experienced nomad already on to his third country and maybe his fourth newspaper, gets his big break as a journalist, in Paris, for the liberal Frankfurter Zeitung. Very little explicitly about aesthetics, ambition, writing (references to the novels, when he does talk about them, are so grudgingly or airily unspecific that it’s often impossible to be sure which one of them he’s talking about). Little in the way of chat, description, narrative, confession, or scandal—this was a man with books to write and columns to fill.

So why read them? If they have little bearing on his literary output, and are not even addressed to the people who mattered most in his life? Well, to get a sense, first of all, and in the absence of a biography in English, of the stations of the man’s life, his classic westward trajectory (like that of Flight Without End or The Wandering Jews) from the Habsburg Crownland of Galicia just back of the Russian border, on the edge of Europe if not of the civilized world, in quick, brief stages to Vienna, to Berlin and Frankfurt, and then to Paris—a sort of schizoid Paris, first (in 1925) the paradisal place of the fulfillment of hopes and dreams, and then, after 1933, the locus of exile, disappointment, trepidation, punishment. It was like day and night. (In this way, it reminds one of Brecht’s Hollywood: “God/Requiring a heaven and a hell, didn’t need to/Plan two establishments but/Just the one: heaven. It/Serves the unprosperous, unsuccessful/As hell.”)

And within the setting of that broad, simple, westward movement, the endless, frenetic stitching back and forth among Frankfurt, Berlin, Paris, Vienna, Amsterdam to wherever he had temporarily pitched his tents; the long, journalistic visits to the South of France in 1925, the Soviet Union in 1926, Albania and the Balkans in 1927, and Italy and Poland in 1928; the many tours the length and breadth of the German regions throughout the 1920s, for what became a sort of dreaded and dispiriting enemy terrain to which his newspaper bosses were quite deliberately dispatching their acutest, most high-strung war correspondent (the atmosphere in one particular town, Roth noted, was like that “five minutes before a pogrom”); the number of places (eleven, by my count) where he stopped to compose his masterpiece, The Radetzky March, between 1930 and 1932, on the face of it, his most comfortable circumstances ever, with a monthly retainer, less journalism, and Friedl cared for; and then the places of exile, where one has to picture him practically as a mendicant, borrowing or scrounging train fare, leaving Paris for Amsterdam to haggle over a new—and newly ruinous—publishing contract, or for Marseilles because there was the prospect of free accommodation, albeit of a sort detested by this self-described “hotel patriot,” or for Oostende, so that he might have daily access to his, alas, always pedagogically minded patron, Stefan Zweig. This swarming movement is one of the points of these letters.

Then to get something where the writer’s own character and predicaments are front and center, neither adapted nor softened nor broken up among his stories and novels. To understand something of the circumstances in which these stories and novels were written: first, up to around 1930, competing for breath with hundreds upon hundreds of rainbow-colored soap bubbles (his metaphor) of articles for daily newspapers (most of his life, Roth was much better known as a columnist and feuilletonist than as a novelist); then against the clock, both his personal clock and the unignorably ticking collective clock of the 1930s, bringing (as Roth in particular very well foresaw) war and genocidal murder to millions. Writing novels no one realistically wanted, for publishers as hard up as he was, who wrote him (the Dutch ones) flinty, respectful letters in broken German; a diminishing number of readers; in return for desperately small advances already received, spent, and borrowed against. At one stage, Roth had the haunting sense of being able to read the begging letters through the surface of his narrative prose.

To see him correctly, as a sort of lemming among lemmings, an unusually farsighted and fearless and bloody-minded lemming, quick to sink his teeth into the flanks of René Schickele or Stefan Zweig or Klaus Mann when they stepped out of line. To understand that this grievously disappointed and multiply broken man somehow continued to align himself toward the true and the beautiful in his articles, and the beautiful and the true in his books; that, long past having anything himself, he went on helping others—a tailor, a charwoman, a doctor, a fellow veteran stuck in Switzerland; that even as he seemed to lapse into unreality—he had a scheme on the very eve of the Anschluss, in February 1938, to meet the then Austrian chancellor Kurt Schusch- nigg, to talk him into backing the restoration of the Habsburg monarchy—in other parts of his mind he was as mordant and accurate and graceful as ever.

Roth is both contradictory and changeable, and always, always vehement. Something in him can’t abide and doesn’t understand hierarchies; that’s why he was never able to find a niche and defend it at the Frankfurter Zeitung—the newspaper that was all niche and pecking order. He doesn’t pace himself or moderate himself or disguise himself. “I am wriggling in a hundred nets,” he brilliantly puts it in a letter written in 1935. There is turbulence, emergency, thrashing around, panic wherever he is. He doesn’t deal in anything less than an ultimatum. The letters are anxiously registered, or they demand instant acknowledgement, or they go by expensive wire or pneumatique. They are what the diplomats call démarches. (He is no sort of diplomat, though he does love his Old World courtesies.)

All he seeks, on the face of it, is fair recompense, and calm in which to work. The work itself is contradictory and changeable. He is Neue Sachlichkeit, and he is a poet and a fabulist; you can find him on both sides of both arguments—though “romantic” is always a dirty word for him. I described him once as mysteriously managing “to combine a novelist’s oeuvre with a journalist’s calling and habits.” He drinks to dull his nerves, and writes to understand the world. He is industrious from despair, assiduous and ineffectual, a tireless, incorruptible, terrifying, and quixotic moralist:

I am not in a tizzy about the letter from…. In view of the approaching end of the world, it’s no big deal. But even then, in the trenches, staring death in the face 10 minutes before going over the top, I was capable of beating up a sonofabitch for claiming he was out of cigarettes when he wasn’t, for instance. The end of the world is one thing, the sonofabitch is another. You can’t put the sonofabitch down to the general condition of things. He’s separate.

He works to bring about practical remedies, on refugees’ committees, and so forth, and he is the most impractical man who ever lived. He has no money, no books, no bank account, no clothes. What doesn’t falter is tone and imagination in his importunings: “Kesten got the 10 pounds. He gave me none of it. I am torn, so to speak, between shirts and a suit.” And then: “I’m thinking a shroud would be a useful acquisition.” He lives out of two suitcases (by some accounts, three, but I prefer to think of him with two), a large one and a small one. He collects penknives, watches, and canes. Every relationship with every correspondent is tested to its destruction; it’s hard to think of one that comes through (all right, the Bertaux, father and son, do; all the others are put through usually terminal crises). Not the personally disappointing Bernard Brentano or the overoptimistic and compromising Benno Reifenberg; not the loyal and persistent Mme Gidon, whom he begins by trying to fire as his translator, or the ever-devoted, ever-inadequate Stefan Zweig.

He mocks his publishers—it doesn’t matter which ones—appealing with mounting irony “not only to your publisher’s conscience, but to your human feelings.” Roth’s existence feels syncopated throughout; he is a Jew in Austria, an Austrian in Germany, and a German in France. He is “red Roth” and a Habsburg loyalist; he is an Eastern Jew and an Austrian; he is gallant and passionate—both a kisser of hands and a kisser of feet; he is generous and unforgiving; he demands hope, and sees despair as a badge of reason. He drills through the newspaper world in the 1920s and in the 1930s tunnels through the world of books; by the end, he stands there without anything and beyond everything, illusionless as Rimbaud. In 1938 again, it is unclear whether he will enter a monastery, pack his ancestral bundle and take to the road like his Jewish forefathers, or rejoin the Austrian army—all three are mooted. Or failing that, Mexico, or Rio, or Shanghai, or Baudelaire’s favorite destination, “anywhere out of the world.”

We read for knowledge and atmospheres, but also for the chance to develop and exercise empathy, to extend the weft and warp of our emotions and nerves over the situations of others. In Roth’s letters—these IOUs and SOS‘s—we have something like the protocol of a man going over the edge of the world in a barrel. How can we not be amazed, harrowed, quickened, awed?

A letter—perhaps especially in our time, when they are no longer written much, and when “Hey Mike!” is presumed to be a proper form of address from a complete stranger—is situated somewhere between speech and script. (Perhaps especially Roth’s letters, remote from book-lined studies and desks, written or dictated in public places, in cafés or bars, at all hours, and in the midst of friends and hangers-on and conversation.) This was a novel and a lovely challenge to the translator, who values voice in all writing: “Nothing but men is like a desert full of sand.” “It’s shocking, I have no copies of any of my books.” “Haven’t you got that yet? The word has died, men bark like dogs.” “Even a letter is a colossal effort. Don’t be cross if I don’t write. Frankly, even a stamp is a significant item for me.”

Copyright © 2012 by Michael Hofmann.

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