The Genius in Exile

The Hundred Days

by Joseph Roth, translated from the German by Richard Panchyk
New Directions, 215 pp., $22.95
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Nederlands Letterkundig Museum en Documentatiecentrum, Amsterdam
Joseph Roth; portrait by Mies Blomsma, November 1938. Roth wrote at the bottom, ‘That’s really me: nasty, soused, but clever.’

Hitler was named Reich chancellor on January 30, 1933. The very same day, Joseph Roth boarded a train from Berlin to Paris, never again to set foot in Germany. This writer—a renowned columnist for the Frankfurter Zeitung, an acerbic observer of German cultural and political life, the newspaper’s star reporter from Paris, a roving correspondent sent variously to the south of France in 1925, the Soviet Union in 1926, Albania and the Balkans in 1927, and Italy and Poland in 1928, and finally the respected author of novellas and novels—thus began his life as an exile.

Roth was born to Jewish parents in 1894, in Brody, a small town in East Galicia, near the border between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia. An only child (his father went mad and was committed before Roth was born), he was raised by his mother in her father’s home, in a family sufficiently assimilated that it spoke German instead of Yiddish in its daily life. Joseph was a star student in the gymnasium, where the makeup of his class was reflective of the town’s population (twelve Polish Catholics, fourteen Orthodox Ukrainians, and seventeen Jews), then spent a semester at the university of Lemberg (Lviv), and finally studied German literature in Vienna. In 1916, he enlisted. His military career was neither heroic nor even particularly active. He was assigned first to work as a censor, then as an editor of a military newspaper.

When peace returned, Austria-Hungary was no more. The emperor, Karl I, renounced the throne on November 11, 1918. The empire had been broken up and Vienna, just four years earlier the capital of an empire with 50 million inhabitants, was now nothing more than the seat of government of the Austrian republic, a much-shrunken country with only 6.5 million people. Freud, for whom emigration was “out of the question,” declared, “I shall live on with the torso and imagine that it is the whole,” but the torso was a ghost town, sunk in an atmosphere of fear and instability. Roth, still an Austrian citizen, managed to find a job writing for a progressive newspaper but it folded just a few months later. He then left Austria to try his luck in Berlin.

This move marked the beginning of a period that was productive and rewarding both in personal terms—in 1922 he married a young Jewish woman, pretty and sophisticated, named Friederike Reichler—and professionally. In 1923, the Frankfurter Zeitung, a liberal paper, hired him and Roth soon became a master of the feuilleton, a very particular literary form, a short article that provides political commentary in light of an incident or something the author has seen. And Roth took great pride in his mastery of the genre:


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