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:

The feuilleton is as important as politics are to the newspaper, and to the reader it’s vastly more important…. I paint the portrait of the age. That’s what great newspapers are there for. I’m not a reporter, I’m a journalist; I’m not an editorial writer, I’m a poet.

His work as a journalist led him to explore Berlin, and soon he was as much at his ease in a louche cabaret as in a museum, sliding from the European world of Alexanderplatz to the Jewish quarter: “A strange and mournful ghetto world, where carts trundle past and an automobile is a rarity.” In 1925, his employer sent him to Paris.

In spite of Roth’s success in Germany, he always felt a certain menace hovering (in some towns, the atmosphere was like that “five minutes before a pogrom,” he writes). An Ostjude like him could hardly help but be upset at the sight of thousands of Jewish refugees, “welded…together like a landslip of unhappiness and grime…all huddled together…on the floor like luggage on a railway platform,” pouring into Berlin, where the rise of the fascist militias, as described in his first novel, The Spider’s Web, never ceased to alarm him. Thus settling in Paris brought him a moment of unalloyed happiness.

In a letter to his editor, Benno Reifenberg, he trumpets his joy:

I hope this letter does not give you the impression that I’ve quite lost my mind with delirium over Paris and France…. I feel compelled to inform you “in person” that Paris is the capital of the world…. It is free, open, intellectual in the best sense, and ironic in its magnificent pathos.

For the first time in his life, he felt free. He was making a good living and, in a burst of slightly misplaced optimism, he praised the difference he saw between French and German attitudes toward the Jews. “In Paris there is a great tradition of practical humanity. Paris is where the Eastern Jew begins to become a Western European. He becomes French. He may even come to be a French patriot.” He was fascinated to see the freedom with which French children play: “[In the parks] walking on the grass is permitted to a degree that strikes the German visitor as practically sinful…. The French pedagogical system is not Spartan strictness but Roman freedom.”


This period marked the high point of his life as a writer. Between 1925 and 1933 his articles were so glittering that Michael Hofmann, an admirable translator and an indispensable commentator in the absence of an English-language biography, noted: “It is…a perfectly respectable opinion (held to by some readers and critics at the time) that Roth’s masterpieces were not his novels but his feuilletons.” In parallel, the publication of a remarkable series of novels leading up to his masterpiece, The Radetzky March, published in 1932, bolstered his reputation as a fiction writer. But this respite was short-lived. His wife, suffering from schizophrenia, had to be hospitalized and the political storm crashed down on him. When he returned to Paris in 1933, a one-time paradise had been transformed into a place of exile.

From one day to the next, Roth lost his job, his German publisher, and his German royalties at a time when his expenses increased. The clinic where his wife was being cared for was expensive. He had to support his mistress, Andrea Manga Bell, and her two children from her brief marriage to a Duala king in southern Cameroon. Dealings with the Dutch companies who published exiled authors in German were troublesome. Advances had shrunk. As we can see from Roth’s correspondence with Stefan Zweig—who offered him an abundance of advice and crucial financial assistance, all the while urging him to be a little more patient—he struggled and wound up making a hash of all his business interests. Although he managed to hold onto his foreign rights, the valuable film rights to his novel Job went to his German publisher and were therefore lost to him. He traveled constantly, both for meetings with his publishers in Holland, Switzerland, and Austria and in search of places to live that might be less costly than Paris.

All the while, in spite of the terrible chaos of his life, he went on writing. Finding a haven in a café, he worked for hours on end, stimulated by glass after glass of cognac, which unfortunately began to pile up.

I have written since Hitler’s accession, 8 hours a day on average, day after day: a novel (botched, but still a finished book); 3 novellas highly successful [The Leviathan, The Bust of the Emperor, The Triumph of Beauty], the Antichrist; ½ a novel (new); 34 articles.

The two last novellas were published in magazines in France. He needed to establish himself as an author in France and that may explain why he moved away from his customary topics—Jewish life in Mitteleuropa and the Austro-Hungarian Empire—and chose instead to write The Hundred Days, an account of Napoleon’s return after his escape from Elba. This is how he explained it to Carl Seelig, a Swiss critic:

It’s my first attempt at a historical novel—certainly not because I want a “success”—do I still need to say that? But because I’ve found in the material a way of expressing myself directly. And I’m in the worst pickle: I despise the low modes of the historical novelist, and become lyrical, in the way of the novelist.

But he was more specific in a letter to Blanche Gidon, his French translator:

He interests me, your poor Napoleon—I want to transform him: he’s a god who went back to being a man—the only time in his life when he was a “man” and unhappy. The only time in history that you see an “unbeliever” visibly SHRINK. That’s what draws me to him. I wanted to make a “humble” man out of a “great” one. It’s all too clearly DIVINE PUNISHMENT, for the first time in modern history. Napoleon humbled: a thoroughly terrestrial soul lowering and raising itself at the same time.

After the book came out in German, Roth appealed to Zweig for help in finding a Swiss or Austrian publisher. He also asked him to see what he could do in France and the United States. Zweig did as requested. But the critics weren’t particularly kind in the US and the book soon disappeared from circulation. It would not be reprinted for another seventy years. Only now are all of Roth’s novels available in English.

The Hundred Days stands out as an exception in Roth’s oeuvre not only because of its setting and time in history, but because it is weak. Paradoxically the Hundred Days, the three months that passed between Napoleon’s escape from the isle of Elba and his final defeat at Waterloo, constitute one of the most intense moments in modern French history. The political tension arose from the fact that the marshals and ministers who had rallied to Louis XVIII’s support after Napoleon’s first abdication on April 6, 1814, now faced with his triumphant march across France, were forced to take sides very quickly and bet on either the emperor or the king.


In the novel, Roth turns away from the inherent interest of those dramas of ambition and loyalty, instead choosing a more personal and inward approach. He narrates the story in part from Napoleon’s point of view and in part from the vantage point of a young Corsican laundress working at the court: Angelina Pietri, madly in love with Napoleon but willing to give herself with utter indifference to other men. But while in other novels Roth is capable of fully depicting a woman in a brief phrase—be it a furious female Jewish villager who “stood there hissing as though she were filled with boiling water, and suddenly spat,” or a Prussian governess who, “in her grey Sunday silk, head erect, her hair in a heavy bun at her nape, a mighty, crooked brooch like a Tartar scimitar on her bosom…looked armed and armoured”—he fails to create a vivid character with Angelina.

As for Napoleon, Roth turns him into a Job figure, submitting uncomplainingly to the divine will. He imagines Napoleon after his defeat at Waterloo overhearing one peasant saying to another:

“That’s not the Emperor Napoleon! He’s Job. He isn’t the Emperor!…”

[Napoleon] entered his carriage. “He’s Job! He’s Job!” rang in his ears.

“He’s the Emperor Job!” the wheels repeated.

The Emperor Job continued toward Paris.

In Paris he takes a measure of his downfall: “‘I have no soldiers,’ said the Emperor, ‘I have no guns. I offered myself to Death. It rejected me.’” But the disaster itself restores to him a certain pride.

I am more than an Emperor. I am an Emperor who abdicates. I hold a sword in my hand and I let it drop. I sit on a throne and I hear the woodworms gnawing away. I sit on a throne but already see myself lying in a coffin. I hold a scepter but I wish for a cross. Yes, I wish for a cross!

And there, in spite of his skills as a storyteller, his brilliant descriptions of the Old Guard’s sacrifice at Waterloo or mob scenes in Paris, Roth loses his reader. We don’t expect the characters in a historical novel to be entirely truthful but we do expect them to be believable, and so a novelist cannot wander too far away from the legend of the character. It is simply impossible for anyone who knows anything about him to imagine a mystical Napoleon who turns to God. The novel also suffers from the inevitable comparison between Roth’s portrait of the French emperor and the one he so brilliantly drew of his own emperor, Franz Joseph, head of the Austro- Hungarian Empire, symbol of the union of so many different peoples, in The Radetzsky March.

Michael Hofmann writes of this novel that it “seems to have been done in oils,” and it is certainly true that not only does Franz Joseph seem to have been portrayed in oil paint but one almost feels he is about to step out of the frame. Here he is on the eve of battle, giving audience to the Jews who have come to pay him homage:

[The Emperor] rode to meet the Jews. At the edge of the village,…they surged towards him, a swarthy cloud…. The elder stopped three paces before the Emperor…. And his overgrown, toothless mouth began to mumble in an incomprehensible language the blessing that Jews have to speak when they see an Emperor. Franz Joseph inclined his head…. From the rout of Jews an indistinct muttering arose. Their backs still bent further…. “Blessed art thou!” said the Jew to the Emperor. “Thou shalt not witness the end of the world!” I know, thought Franz Joseph. He shook hands with the old man. He turned. He mounted his white horse.

He turned left and trotted across the hard crusts of the autumn fields, followed by his retinue. The words that Captain of Horse Kaunitz addressed to his companion next to him were carried to the Emperor on the wind: “I didn’t understand a syllable of what that Jew was saying!” The Emperor turned in his saddle and said. “Never you mind, Kaunitz, he was talking to me!” and he rode on.

Roth might not have been especially surprised at the tepid reception given to his book on Napoleon. After all, he had written to Blanche Gidon: “My book seems atrocious to me. It can’t be helped! I have no time.” He had no time even to complain, so overwhelming had his woes become. Anguished at his wife’s fate in Austria, crushed by worries about money, exasperated at the constant quarreling that accompanied the breakup with his mistress, he went into an alcoholic nosedive and yet, all the while, continued to write. An article that appeared in a publication for émigrés, though written with a light and humorous touch and a great modesty, still gives us a sense of his despair.

During his time in Paris, Roth had always stayed at the Hotel Foyot, at the corner of the Rue de Tournon, overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens. He frequented a neighboring café and entire days went by without his leaving what he called his Tournon Republic. But one day the hotel closed down. It was scheduled for demolition, and a few days later Roth watched from his customary perch as his Parisian home crumbled into dust:

Now I’m sitting facing the vacant lot, and hearing the hours go by. You lose one home after another, I say to myself. Here I am, sitting with my wanderer’s staff. My feet are sore, my heart is tired, my eyes are dry. Misery crouches beside me, ever larger and ever gentler; pain takes an interest, becomes huge and kind; terror flutters up, and it doesn’t even frighten me anymore. And that’s the most desolate thing of all.

And so he went on writing and the books from the last years of his life were up to the level of his finest work. It is a challenge to date their composition because Roth was writing a number of books at the same time, often in such panic, struggling as he was to meet his deadlines, that his Dutch publisher pointed out that the last chapter of The Emperor’s Tomb resembled word for word the last chapter of Flight Without End. Surely there must have been some mix-up. Roth agreed and without any very clear explanation sent back a different text.

After The Hundred Days, he had gone back to the subjects that had obsessed him all his life: the Habsburg Empire and Jewish life, the underlying themes of The Emperor’s Tomb, published in 1938, and The Leviathan (whose original title had been The Coral Seller), which only appeared after Roth’s death, both recently republished in Michael Hofmann’s translations by New Directions. The world he had known and loved was about to perish in a conflagration. Filled with despair, in these last books, he brought to a tragic and bitter end the saga of the Trotta family, started in The Radetzky March, and destroyed the hope for the decent Jewish future he had envisioned in Job.

If Job, the most Jewish of all his novels, ends with a miracle—after a terrible stay in New York where he emigrated to protect his family, Mendel Singer, the humble Jew, finds happiness once again living with his only surviving son—The Leviathan finishes with a shipwreck. The Leviathan is written with the simplicity of a fairy tale. One of the most striking aspects of Roth’s talent is the stunning diversity of his style. During those very last years of exile, he ranged in tone from a book that’s half detective thriller, half spy novel, reminiscent of Dostoevsky in Confession of a Murderer, to the bright and lyrical style of The Leviathan.

Reading the first thirty pages of this novella, you would hardly imagine that the author was struggling in grinding poverty. They conjure up the pleasant life of a pious Jew, a coral merchant known for miles around named Nissen Piczenik, in the small Russian town of Pogrodny. Nissen loves his corals passionately and he has only one wish: to finally glimpse the sea where these wonders live beneath the gaze of the Leviathan, a legendary fish. His wish will be granted but it will lead him straight to disaster. He sets off for the Black Sea. A treacherous rival plots his ruin while he is away; Nissen decides to take ship for Canada. But the boat sinks and Nissen chooses death before his time, plunging from the lifeboat into the water in order to join his beloved corals at the bottom of the sea. Roth had decided to delay the publication of this novella, because he felt that the topic lacked relevance. Ironically, by 1940, the specter of suicide had become grim reality for many of Roth’s closest friends.

The Radetzky March concludes with the death of the grandson of the founder of the Trotta dynasty during World War I, while The Emperor’s Tomb begins in 1913 and ends with the Anschluss in 1938. In it, Roth tells the story of the fall of Baron Trotta, whose gilded youth is interrupted by the war. Sent to a prisoner of war camp in Siberia, he escapes and returns to his mother’s house in Vienna. But the Trottas have all lost “name and rank and station, house and money and net worth, past, present and to come.” In the final scene, a man bursts into the café where Trotta and his friends are finishing up their evening, a man dressed in

leather gaiters, a white shirt, and a sort of forage cap that looked to me like a cross between a bedpan and our good old army caps…. This person…looked as if he might have come up from the toilets…. [He] said: “Fellow countrymen! The government has fallen! A new German people’s government has been established.”

The Anschluss has put an end to Austrian independence. The café empties out; the waiter shutters the windows and exits, leaving Trotta alone, as if in his grave. With a final start, he gets to his feet and heads off toward the Capuchin Crypt where the Habsburg emperors are interred, and the novel ends with this question: “Where can I go now, I, a Trotta?”

Roth must have asked himself the same question as he was finishing what was to be his last book. The answer was crueler than even he could ever have imagined. News of the suicide of his friend the playwright Ernst Toller in New York caused a collapse from which he never recovered. He was taken to the hospital where he died four days later, on May 27, 1939, of pneumonia and delirium tremens. His wife was euthanized by the Nazis in July 1940.

—Translated from the French by Antony Shugaar