Published During His Lifetime

Hotel Savoy (1924)

Die Rebellion (1924)

Die Flucht Ohne Ende (1927)

Zipper und sein Vater (1928)

Rechts und Links (1929)

Der stumme Prophet (1929)

(fragment in Die Neue Rundschau)

Hiob (1930)

Radetzkymarsch (1932)

Stationschef Fallmerayer (1933)

Tarabas, ein Gast aud dieser Erde (1934)

Le Triomphe de la beauté (1937)

Le Buste de l’Empereur (1934)

(German publication 1964)

Das falsche Gewicht (1937)

Die Kapuzinergruft (1938)

Die Geschichte von der 1002 Nacht (1939)

Published Posthumously

Die Legende vom heiligen Trinker (1939)

Der Leviathan (1940)

Der stumme Prophet (1966)

Das Spinnennetz (1967)

Die Büste des Kaisers (1969)


Strangely, while I have been writing about Joseph Roth, the wheel of Karma—or historical consequence?—has brought Roth’s territory back to a reenactment of the situation central to his work. In Roth’s novels—and supremely through the lives of the Von Trotta family in his masterpieces, “The Radetzky March” (1932) and its sequel “The Emperor’s Tomb” (1934)—we see the deterioration of a society, an empire, in which disparate nationalities have been forced into political unity by an overriding authority and its symbol: the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the personality of Emperor Franz Josef. There the rise of socialism and fascism against royalism led to Sarajevo and the First World War. After World War II the groups that had won autonomy were forced together again, if in a slightly different conglomerate, by another all-powerful authority and its symbol: the Communist bloc and the personality of Joseph Stalin. Now restlessness and rebellion, this time against the socialism that has not proved to be liberation, brings once again the breakup of a hegemony. Passages in Roth’s work, about the Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs, could with scarcely a change describe what has happened in Yugoslavia in 1991.

Roth: he looks out from a book-jacket photograph. Just the face in a small frame; it is as if someone held up a death mask. The ovals of the eyes are black holes. The chin pressed up against the black shadow of a mustache hides stoically the secrets of the lips. A whole life, in bronze, seems there. And there’s another image in that face: the huge sightless eyes with their thick upper and lower lids dominating the width of the face have the mysteriously ancient gaze of a fetus, condemned to suffer the world.

Je travaille, mon roman sera bon, je crois, plus parfait que ma vie,” Roth wrote.1 Prefaces to some translations of his books give the same few penny-life facts: born in 1894 in Galicia, served in the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War, worked as a journalist in Vienna, Berlin, and Prague, left for France in 1933, wrote fifteen novels and novellas mainly while taking part in the émigré opposition to the Nazis, died an alcoholic in Paris in 1939. I failed to find a full biography in English.2 After having reread all Roth’s fiction available to me, I am glad that, instead, I know him in the only way writers themselves know to be valid for an understanding of their work: through the work itself. Let the schools of literary criticism, rapacious fingerlings, resort to the facts of the author’s life before they can interpret the text.

Robert Musil, Roth’s contemporary in Austria-Hungary, although the two great writers evidently never met, put into the mouth of his Ulrich, 3 “One can’t be angry with one’s own time without damage to oneself”; to know that Roth’s anger destroyed him one has only to read the great works it produced. The text gives us the man, not the other way around. The totality of Joseph Roth’s work is no less than a tragédie humaine achieved in the techniques of modern fiction. No other contemporary writer, not excepting Thomas Mann, has come so close to achieving the wholeness—lying atop a slippery pole we never stop trying to climb—that Lukács cites as our impossible aim.

From the crude beginnings in his first novels, The Spider’s Web (1923) and Hotel Savoy (1924), the only work in which Roth was satisfied to use the verbal equivalent of the expressionist caricaturing of Georg Grosz or Otto Dix, through Flight Without End (1927), The Silent Prophet (1929),4 and all his other works with, perhaps, the exception of the novellas Zipper and his Father (1928) and Fallmerayer the Stationmaster (1933), his anti-heroes are almost all soldiers, ex–prisoners of war, deserters: former aristocrats, bourgeois, peasants, and criminals all declassed in the immorality of survival of the 1914–1918 war. This applies not only to the brutal or underhand necessity that survival demands, but also to the sense that, in the terrible formulation of a last member of the Trotta dynasty, they had been “Found unfit for death.”

All the young are candidates for the solutions of communism or fascism when there are no alternatives to despair or dissipation. Their fathers are unable to make even these choices, only to decay over the abyss of memory. All, young and old, are superfluous men to an extent Lermontev could not have conceived. Women are attendant upon them in this circumstance. Roth, although he often shows Joyce’s uncanny ability to write about women from under their skin, sees them according to their influence on men. “We love the world they represent and the destiny they mark out for us.” While his women are rarely shown as overtly rejecting this male-determined solution to their existence, they are always unspokenly convinced of their entitlement to life, whether necessity determines it should be lived behind a bar, in a brothel bed, or as an old grande dame in poverty. No better than the men, they connive and plot; but even when he shows them at their slyest and most haughtily destructive, he grants them this spiritedness. If one reads the life (his) from the work, it is evident that Roth suffered in love and resented it; in most of his work desired women represent sexual frustration, out of reach.


The splendid wholeness of Roth’s oeuvre is achieved in three ways. There’s the standard one of cross-casting characters from one novel to the next. There’s the far bolder risk-taking, in which he triumphs, of testing his creativity by placing different temperaments from different or (even more skilled) similar background in the same circumstances in different novels. There’s the overall paradoxical unity of traditional opposition itself, monarchic/revolutionary, pitched together in the dissolution of all values, for which he finds the perfect physical metaphor: the frontier between Franz Josef’s empire and the tsar’s empire, exemplified in Jadlowsky’s tavern, which appears in both The Radetzky March and Weights and Measures. There, the rogue Kapturak, a Jew whose exploitation of others’ plight stems from his own as a victim of tsarist anti-Semitism, hides the Russian army deserters he’s going to sell to labor agents in America and Australia. The only contacts between men are contraband; commerce of this kind is all that will be left of the two monarchic empires fighting each other to a mutual death, and the only structure that will still exist in the chaos to follow; the early twentieth-century class struggle will arise from that.

Roth’s petite phrase in the single great work into which all this transforms is not a Strauss waltz but the elder Strauss’s “Radetzky March,” in honor of the Austrian field marshal who was victorious against Sardinia. Its tempo beats from the tavern through Vienna and all the villages and cities of Franz Josef’s empire, to Berlin in those novels where the other imperial eagle has only one head. For Roth’s is the frontier of history. It is not recreated from accounts of the past, as War And Peace was, but recounted contemporaneously by one who lived there, in every sense, himself. This is not an impudent literary value judgment; it is, again, the work that provides a reading of the author’s life. Here was a writer obsessed with and possessed by his own time. From within it he could hear the drum rolls of the past resounding to the future.

Musil’s evocation of that time is a marvelous discourse; Roth’s involves a marvelous evanescence of the author in his creation of a vivid population of conflicting characters expressing that time. His method is to show a kind of picaresque struggle on the inescapable chain of the state. He rarely materializes as the author. There is his odd epilogue to Zipper and his Father, apparently some sort of acknowledgment that this, his most tender book (for while their situation makes both Musil and Roth ironic writers, Roth is tender where Musil is detachedly playful), is a form of the obeisance to the past that is autobiography. And there is his prologue to The Silent Prophet, his most politically realistic and least imaginatively realized book. In this prologue he comes as near as he ever will to an authorial credo with respect to his pervasive theme, the relation of the individual to the state. He says his characters are not

intended to exemplify a political point of view—at most, it [a life story] demonstrates the old and eternal truth that the individual is always defeated in the end.

The state or empire is the leg iron by which his characters are grappled. The political movement against the state, with the aim of freeing the people, in Roth forges a leg iron of its own by which the revolutionary is going to find himself hobbled.

Roth manages to convey complicated political concepts without their vocabulary of didacticism, rhetoric, and jargon. In the bitter experiences of Franz in Flight Without End, disillusion with the revolutionary left conveys what must have been the one-time-revolutionary Roth’s own experience more tellingly than any research into his life could, and points to the paradox that runs through his novels with such stirring dialectical effect on the reader. The old royalist, capitalist, hierarchic world of Church and State, with kings assuming divine authority on earth, their armies a warrior sect elected to serve as the panoply of these gods, is what he shows ruthlessly as both obsolete and bloodthirsty. But the counter-brutality of the revolution, and the subsequent degeneration of its ideals into stultifying bureaucracy—surely the characterizing tragedy of the twentieth century—leads him to turn about and show in his old targets, fathers, mothers, the loyalist, royalist landowners and city fathers, enduring values in the very mores he has attacked. This hardly provides a synthesis for his dazzling fictional dialectic. One who came after him, Czeslaw Milosz, expresses the dilemma:


Ill at ease in the tyranny, ill at ease in the republic,
in the one I longed for freedom, in the other for the end of corruption.5

The ten years between 1928 and 1938 seem to mark the peak of Roth’s mastery, although the dating of his novels in terms of when they were written6 rather than when they were published is often uncertain, since in the upheavals of exile some were not published chronologically. The Radetzky March (1932), Weights And Measures (1937), and The Emperor’s Tomb (1938) are both the culmination of the other novels and the core round which they are gathered to form a manifold and magnificent work. Zipper and his Father (1928) and Fallmerayer the Stationmaster (1933) are a kind of intriguing coda, a foray into yet another emotional range suggesting the kind of writer Roth might have become in another age, living another kind of life. Not that one would wish him any different.

Roth was a Jew in a time of growing persecution that drove him into exile, but as a writer he retained, as in relation to politics, his right to present whatever he perceived. Jewish tavern keepers on the frontier fleece deserters. There is a wry look at Jewish anti-Semitism. In Flight Without End a university club has a numerous clausus for Jews carried out by Jews who have gained entry and in Right and Left—a novel Roth seems to have written with bared teeth, sparing no one—there is a wickedly funny portrait of the subtleties of Jewish snobbism and anti-Semitism in Frau Bernheim; she concealed that she was a Jew but, as soon as someone at dinner seemed about to tell a joke, she would “fall into a gloomy and confused silence—afraid lest Jews should be mentioned.” On the other hand, Old Man Zipper, like Manes Reisiger, the cabby in The Emperor’s Tomb, is a man with qualities—kindness, dignity in adversity, humor, love of knowledge for its own sake—and, yes, endearing Jewish eccentricities and fantasies, portrayed with the fond ironic humor that was inherited, whether he was aware of it or not, by Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Fallmerayer, the country stationmaster, conceives a passion for a Polish countess who enters his humble life literally by accident (a collision on the railway line). It is an exquisite love story whose erotic tenderness would have had no place—simply would have withered—plunged in the atmosphere of Roth’s prison camps or rapacious postwar Vienna and Berlin. It takes place in that era, but seems to belong to some intimate seclusion of the creative imagination from the cynicism and cold-hearted betrayals that characterize love between men and women in most of Roth’s work. Helping to get the injured out of a train wreck, Fallmerayer comes upon a woman on a stretcher, in a silver-gray fur coat, in the rain. “It seemed to the stationmaster that this woman…was lying in a great white island of peace in the midst of a deafening sea of sound and fury, that she even emanated silence.”

The central works, The Radetzky March and The Emperor’s Tomb, are really one, each novel beautifully complete and yet outdoing this beauty as a superb whole. The jacket copy calls them a saga, since they encompass four generations of one branch of the Trotta family in Radetzky and two collateral branches in The Emperor. But this is no miniseries plodding through the generations. It is as if, in the years after writing Radetzky, Roth were discovering what he had opened up in that novel, and turned away from, with many dark entries leading to still other entries not ventured into. There were relationships whose transformations he had not come to the end of: he had still to turn them around to have them reveal themselves to him on other planes of their complexity. So it is that the situation between fathers and sons, realized for the reader with the ultimate understanding of genius in Radetzky, is revealed to have an unexplored aspect, the situation between son and mother in Emperor. And this is no simple mirror image; it is the writer going further and further into what is perhaps the most mysterious and fateful of all human relationships, whose influence runs beneath and often outlasts those between sexual partners. We are children and we are parents: there is no dissolution of these states except death.

No theme in Roth, however strong, runs as a single current. There are always others, running counter, washing over, swelling its power and their own. The father-son, mother-son relationship combines with the relationship of the collection of peoples in the empire to a political system laid as a grid across their lives; and this combination itself is connected to the phenomenon by which the need for worship (an external, divine order of things) makes an old man with a perpetual drip at the end of his nose, Franz Josef, the emperor-god; and finally all these currents come together in an analysis—shown through the life of capital city and village—of an era carrying the reasons for its own end, and taking half the world down with it.


Though fate elected him [Trotta] to perform an outstanding deed, he himself saw to it that his memory became obscured to posterity.

How unfailingly Roth knew how to begin! That is the fourth sentence in The Radetzky March. His sense of the ridiculous lies always in the dark mesh of serious matters. Puny opposition (a lone person) to the grandiose (an empire): What could have led to the perversity of the statement? And while following the novel the reader will unravel from this thread not simply how this memory was obscured, but how it yet grew through successive generations and was transformed into a myth within the mythical powers of empire.

The outstanding deed is not recounted in retrospect. We are in the battle of Solferino and with Trotta, a Slovenian infantry lieutenant, when he steps out of his lowly rank to lay hands upon the Emperor Franz Josef and push him to the ground, taking in his own body the bullet that would have struck the Emperor. Trotta is promoted and honored. A conventional story of heroism, suitable for an uplifting chapter in a schoolbook, which it becomes. But Captain Joseph Trotta, ennobled by the appended “von Sipolje,” the name of his native village, has some unwavering needle of truth pointing from within him. And it agitates wildly when in his son’s first reader he comes upon a grossly exaggerated account of his deed as the Hero of Solferino. In an action that prefigures what will be fully realized by another Trotta, in time to come, he takes his outrage to the Emperor himself, the one who surely must share with him the validity of the truth.

“Look here, my dear Trotta,” said the Emperor, “…you know, neither of us shows up too badly in the story. Forget it.”

“Your Majesty,” replied the Captain, “it’s a lie.”

These are some of the most brilliant passages in the novel. Is honesty reduced to the ridiculous where “the stability of the world, the power of the law, and the splendour of royalty are maintained by guile”? Trotta turns his back on his beloved army, and estranged by rank and title from his peasant father, vegetates and sourly makes of his son Franz a district commissioner instead of allowing him a military career.

The fourth generation of Trottas is the District Commissioner’s son, Carl Joseph, who, with Roth’s faultless instinct for timing, enters the narrative aged fifteen to the sound of the “Radetzky March” being played by the local military band under his father’s balcony. The DC has suffered a father withdrawn by disillusion; he himself knows only to treat his own son, in turn, in the same formula of stunted exchanges, but for the reader, though not the boy, Roth conveys the sense of something withheld, longing for release within the DC.

Brooded over by the portrait of his grandfather, the Hero of Solferino, lonely Carl Joseph is home from the cadet cavalry school where he has been sent to compensate the DC for his own deprivation of military prestige. The boy is seduced by the voluptuous wife of the sergeant-major at the DC’s gendarmerie post. When she dies in childbirth, Carl Joseph, concealing his immense distress from his father, has to pay a visit of condolence to the sergeant-major, and is given by him the packet of love letters he wrote to the man’s wife. “This is for you, Herr Baron…. I hope you’ll forgive me, it’s the District Commissioner’s orders. I took it to him at once after she died.” There follows a wonderful scene written with the dramatic narrative restraint that Roth mastered for these later books. Devastated, Carl Joseph goes into the village café for a brandy; his father is there and looks up from a newspaper. “That brandy she gave you is poor stuff…. Tell that waitress that we always drink Hennessy.”

One has hardly breathed again after this scene when there is another tightening of poignantly ironic resolution. Father and son walk home together.

Outside the door of the District Commissioner’s office is Sergeant-Major Slama, helmeted, with rifle and fixed bayonet, his service ledger under his arm. “Good day, my dear Slama” says Herr von Trotta. “Nothing to report, I suppose.”

“No, sir,” Slama repeats, “nothing to report.”

Carl Joseph is haunted by the portrait of the Hero of Solferino, and though inept and undistinguished in his military career, dreams of saving the Emperor’s life as his grandfather did. A failure, haunted as well by the death of Slama’s wife (Roth leaves us to draw our own conclusion that the child she died giving birth to may have been Carl Joseph’s) and his inadvertent responsibility for the death of his only friend in a duel, Carl Joseph fulfills this dream only when, incensed by the desecration, he tears from a brothel wall a cheap reproduction of the official portrait of the Emperor—that other image which haunts his life.

Roth reconceives this small scene at full scale when, at a bacchanalian ball that might have been staged by Fellini on a plan by Musil’s Diotima for her “Collateral Campaign” to celebrate Emperor Franz Josef’s seventy-year reign, the news comes of the assassination of the Emperor’s son at Sarajevo. Some Hungarians raucously celebrate: “We all agree, my countrymen and I, that we ought to be glad the swine’s done for.” Trotta, drunk, takes “heroic” exception—“My grandfather saved the Emperor’s life…. I, his grandson, will not stand by and allow the dynasty of the Supreme War Lord to be insulted!” He is forced to leave ignominiously.

As the District Commissioner’s son deteriorates through gambling and drink, Roth unfolds with marvelous subtlety what was withheld, and longing for release, in the father. The old District Commissioner’s unrealized bond with his old valet, Jacques, is perfectly conveyed in one of the two superlative set pieces of the novel, when Jacques’s dying is, first, merely a class annoyance because the servant fails to deliver the mail to the breakfast table, and then becomes a dissolution of class differences in the humanity of two old men who are all that is left, to one another, of a vanished social order: their life.

The second set piece both echoes this one and brings back a scene that has been present always, beneath the consequences that have richly overlaid it. The leveling of age and social dissolution respects no rank. The DC not only now is at one with his former servant; he also, at the other end of the ancient order, has come to have the same bond with his exalted Emperor. In an audience recalling that of the Hero of Solferino, he too has gone to ask for the Emperor’s intercession. This time it is to ask that Carl Joseph not be discharged in disgrace from the army. The doddering Emperor says of Carl Joseph, “‘That’s the young fellow I saw at the last manoeuvres….’ And since this confused him a little, he added, ‘You know, he nearly saved my life. Or was that you?”‘

A stranger catching sight of them at this moment might have taken them for brothers…. The one felt he had changed into a District Commissioner, the other, that he had changed into the Emperor.

The unity of Roth’s masterwork is achieved in that highest faculty of the imagination Walter Benjamin7 speaks of as “an extensiveness…of the folded fan, which only in spreading draws breath and flourishes.”

Carl Joseph, firing on striking workers, hears them sing a song he has never heard before, the “Internationale.” At the same time, he has a yearning to escape to the peasant origins of the Trotta family. Unable to retreat to the “innocent” past, superfluous between the power of the doomed empire and the power of the revolution to come, he is given by Roth a solution that is both intensely ironic and at the same time a strangely moving assertion of the persistence of a kind of naked humanity, flagellated by all sides. Leading his men in 1914, he walks into enemy fire to find something for them to drink. “Lieutenant Trotta died, not with sword in hand but with two buckets of water.”

Carl Joseph’s cousin, of The Emperor’s Tomb, has never met him although Roth knows how to give the reader a frisson by casually dropping the fact that they were both in the battle at which Carl Joseph was killed. But this Trotta links with the peasant branch of the family, through his taking up, first as a form of radical chic, another cousin, Joseph Branco, an itinerant chestnut roaster from Roth’s familiar frontier town. Emotionally frozen between a mother who, like the DC, cannot express her love, and a young wife who turns lesbian after he leaves her alone on their wedding night while he sits with a dying servant (the vigil of the DC with Jacques composed in a new key), Trotta forms his warmest relationship with Branco and Branco’s friend, the Jewish cab driver. They go to war together, live together as escaped prisoners of war in Siberia, and in this phase of Roth’s deepest reflection on the elements of his meganovel, exemplify brilliantly his perception that consistency in human relations is not a virtue but an invention of lesser novelists. The ideal camaraderie of the three men cracks along unpredictable lines, just as the complexity of Trotta’s love for and indifference to his wife, and her constant breaking out of what has seemed to be emotional resolutions to their life, are consonant with the jarring shifts of war and postwar that contain them.

As with all Roth’s work, this phase is as wonderfully populous as any nineteenth-century novel, psychologically masterly, particularly in the person of Trotta’s mother and the tangents of distress and illogical fulfillment in the relationship between him and her. But The Emperor’s Tomb was one of Roth’s last works, published only the year before he died, the year of the next war for which all that was unresolved in the previous one was preparing in his world, his time. Although he wrote at least two more novels after this one, he concludes this phase, and—for me—the summation of his work, with a scene in which Trotta is in a café. On that night “my friends’ excitement…seemed to me superfluous”—as it does to the reader, since it is not explained until, with Roth’s power to shatter a scene with a blow of history:

the moment when the door of the café flew open and an oddly dressed young man appeared on the threshold. He was in fact wearing black leather gaiters…and a kind of military cap which reminded me at one and the same time of a bedpan and a caricature of our old Austrian caps.

The Anschluss has arrived. The café empties of everyone, including the Jewish proprietor. In an inspired fusion of form with content, there follows a dazedly disoriented piece of writing that expresses the splintering of all values, including emotional values, so that the trivial and accidental, the twitching involuntary, takes over. Trotta sits on in the deserted café, approached only by the watchdog. “Franz, the bill!” he calls to the vanished waiter. “Franz, the bill!” he says to the dog. The dog follows him in the dawn breaking over “uncanny crosses” that have been scrawled on walls. He finds himself at the Kapuzinergruft, the Emperor’s tomb, “where my emperors lay buried in iron sarcophagi.”

“I want to visit the sarcophagus of my Emperor, Franz Joseph…Long live the Emperor!” The Capuchin brother in charge hushes him and turns him away. “So where could I go now, I, a Trotta?”

I know enough of the facts of Joseph Roth’s life to be aware that, for his own death, he collapsed in a café, a station of exile’s calvary.

Copyright © Felix Licensing. BV 1991

This Issue

December 5, 1991