Keiron Pim’s absorbing biography of one of the twentieth century’s most powerful and disquieting writers begins with a description of Joseph Roth’s birthplace, a small town called Brody, now in western Ukraine. A footnote observes that “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine occurred as this book was being prepared to go to print…. Descriptions of buildings and population figures may therefore be out of date by the time of publication.” Those tragic circumstances give the book’s title, Endless Flight—echoing one of Roth’s saddest novels of deracination and estrangement, Flight Without End—an added edge of bitter resonance.
One of the book’s epigraphs is Roth’s statement of 1930: “I have no home, aside from being at home in myself.” He was a self-driven émigré who constantly liquidated and recreated his past and his identity, and who drank himself to death at the age of forty-four, crying out on his deathbed, “I have to get out of here!” He cast off people as he cast off places, with anguish and harsh satisfaction. A compulsive hand-biter, he turned on anyone who employed him, or loved him, or tried to help him, or gave him money (and he always needed money). He had violently mixed feelings about everything: his homeland, his Jewishness, his religion, his marriage and love affairs, his friendships, his reputation, his place in the world. Only in certain things did he end up unwavering: his complex, passionate feeling for the vanished Austro-Hungarian Empire, which inspired his greatest novel, The Radetzky March; his hatred of nationalism; his prophetic and courageous loathing for the Nazis; and his addiction to alcohol.
This tormented and tormenting personality created writings of genius that obsessively returned to the very places he had most wanted to escape from. Many great writers do this. They can’t wait to get out of Dublin, New Zealand, Nebraska, Newark, or Eastwood, only to spend much of their lives writing about it, in the zone where “memory and imagination” meet. Roth wandered through Europe, reporting on everything he saw with unflinching acuteness, but he also yearned after his childhood world. His deeply felt 1927 account of Eastern European Jewish communities and their fates was called The Wandering Jews, and he presents himself, if not always as a Jew, then certainly always as a wanderer. As he often says, Heimatlosigkeit (homelessness) defined his existence and that of the people he wrote about: “I am a stranger in this town…. That is why I was so at home there.” “Eastern Jews have no home anywhere, but their graves may be found in every cemetery.” “All those of us who set out from home [for the Great War] and were killed and buried, or who came back but never again came home…. We are strangers in this world, we come from the realm of the dead.”
Exile was his choice as well as his fate. His biographer describes him as being in endless flight “not only from a place but from himself, from his foundational persona.” But he notes that Roth preferred this state: “Better to dream of home, better to wander: to travel in hope, rather than to arrive, settle and be disappointed. Better always to live from the three suitcases, packed and ready for departure.”
Roth’s work is full of migrants, border-crossers, lost souls, tricksters forging new identities, war veterans returning to find no place left for them, sons who have lost their fathers, and fathers who have lost their sons. In The Radetzky March (1932), the humiliations, hurt pride, self-harming, and bewilderment, at once ludicrous and desperate, of three generations of the Trotta family, as the old empire deliquesces under them, poignantly embody all that this great writer knows of change and loss.
Pim talks a great deal about multiple selves, and shows us a writer full of contradictions and paradoxes. In insisting so much on “unresolved” dualities he is taking his cue from his subject: “I am a Frenchman from the East, a Humanist, a rationalist with religion, a Catholic with a Jewish intelligence, an actual revolutionary. What an oddity!” Pim’s shorthand for this “split identity” is “hyphenation”:
He was at times, often simultaneously, an Austro-Hungarian, an Austrian-German, a Jewish-Austrian and a Catholic-Jew, who claimed to be the son of a Polish count and a Ukrainian Jew, or an Austrian railway official and a Russian Jew…. He presented himself as a man of mixed heritage.
Hence Roth’s rejection of narrow, monocultural nationalisms, religions, or regimes. And there are other conflicting traits, too: nostalgia and fatalism, irony and melancholy, harsh skepticism and a longing for miracles, charm and aggression, metropolitan dandyism and an attachment to a simple, peasant, rural world. Hyphens are having to do a lot of biographical work here, but they point up the risks in this painful, gripping life story: “Hyphenated identities can prove fragile, an unstable foundation on which to construct a self.”
When Roth was born in 1894, the shtetl of Brody was part of Galicia, on the eastern edges of the dual monarchy’s territory, up against the Russian border, ruled from afar by the ancient Habsburg emperor Franz Joseph. It was a once-thriving trading town and center of Hebraic learning (known as “the Polish Jerusalem”) with a mixed population, including Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Christians, and Hasidic Jews. The black-robed Hasidim who prayed in the streets and the synagogue to consult their miracle-working “wonder-rabbis” were known to some as the “fools of Brody.” Any reader of Roth’s novels or of The Wandering Jews will recognize that little town (often under the name of Zlotogrod) with the railway station on the outskirts where the lines point westward to Vienna and eastward to Kiev, the market stalls, the synagogue and prayerhouses, the barracks, the hotel and the taverns, the outlying swamps surrounded by dark forests, where the frogs croak and the wild geese fly over and only the local peasants can find their way safely. By Roth’s time it had become “somewhere people moved from, not to.”
Roth was the child of an absentee father whom he never saw, a failed Austrian grain-trader who abandoned his wife, went mad, was incarcerated, and died, possibly by suicide, when Roth was sixteen. Roth’s German-speaking mother, from a family of merchants, was tough, hardworking, and possessive. She wanted her son to be educated and grow up as an Austro-German Jew rather than a “Galitzianer”—and certainly not as a “fool of Brody.” Roth, a precocious boy who knew he wanted to be a writer from early on, excelled at his local school and at the University of Lemberg but took the train west as soon as he could. He dropped his first name, the “Moische” or Moses he’d inherited from his grandfather, and shed the nicknames “Muniu” and “Mu,” short for Solomon, which he’d been given as a child for his cleverness.
At nineteen, on his first visit to Vienna, he pretended to be a journalist before he was one, and at the university there, from 1914, he read German literature and turned himself into a cosmopolitan dandy while living with all the other eastern Jewish immigrants in Leopoldstadt. He temporarily abandoned his youthful monarchism and briefly became a socialist and pacifist before joining the army in 1916. He converted his missing father into a series of mythologized fantasy figures. He rejected his grimly devoted mother—though after she died of uterine cancer, in 1922, he asked, morbidly, to see her womb in the hospital lab, which suggests some lasting obsession. He distanced himself from the faith he’d been brought up in and eventually converted to Catholicism. (Pim doesn’t make clear exactly when he converted, and a chronology would have been helpful.) But everything he tried to put behind him came back to haunt him.
Galicia, like all of Eastern Europe, was shape-shifting too. Its violent and unstable history is encapsulated in the frequent renaming of Lemberg, part of Austria-Hungary when Roth was born, taken over by the Russians at the start of the war. At the war’s end, with the defeat and dissolution of the empire, western Galicia was made part of the Republic of Poland, though with the short-lived declaration of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1918, Lemberg briefly became Lviv. Then came the war between Poland and Ukraine. In 1919, with Galicia’s incorporation into the newly reunited Poland, Lviv was renamed Lwów. In the next war, in 1941, Lwów became Lvov, a city in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine. From 1991 it once more became Ukrainian Lviv. These bewildering changes stand in for a whole nation’s experience, as Pim puts it, “of transience and migration.”
Just as Roth was starting to pass as an Austrian in Vienna, Galicians were fleeing the Russian slaughter en masse and crowding into the city. But he wanted to be an Austrian citizen, not a Galician refugee or (in 1919) a Polish national. Always an ambitious opportunist, he tried every ruse he could to get renationalized. His joining a Vienna regiment of the Imperial Army in 1916 was certainly heartfelt, though he quickly became disillusioned with the bureaucracy of military life (a subject of later pungent satires). He shamelessly embellished his record, claiming to have been on duty at the funeral of the emperor in November 1916, to have fought on the Eastern Front as an officer and been decorated (a cynical friend said his medal had been bought “at a junk dealer!”), and to have been a Russian prisoner of war and conscripted into the Red Army. In fact he spent the war as a letter censor and military journalist.
Yet his much-vaunted Austrian patriotism was put to use for his citizenship claim. In 1919 he persuaded a friendly priest to forge a baptism certificate, giving his birthplace as Schwaben, or Szwaby, in German West Hungary. He got his Austrian citizenship in 1921 just before a clampdown against Galician Jews. Nearly ten years later he was still trying for an Austrian passport, commenting to a friend on the “unorthodox means” he had used to equip himself with “names, dates, school, and army career.” In an irony of fate worthy of his own novels, by the time he got the passport in 1928, he had begun to abhor the Austro-German atmosphere, outspokenly appalled by the rise in anti-Semitism and toxic nationalism. He had come to prefer Berlin, but Berlin too began to be detestable to him. By contrast he called Prague, where he first went in 1923, his “spiritual home.” And in 1925 he fell forever in love with Paris, “the capital of the world.”
In January 1933 Hitler took power, and Roth was among the writers immediately banned. After fleeing to Paris and into permanent exile, he wrote to his friend Stefan Zweig, “For the beasts over there, a filthy yid is what one remains.” On the night of the Nazi book-burnings in Berlin that May, The Radetzky March was thrown on the fire. Roth called it “an Auto-da-Fé of the Mind.”
As an enemy of nationalisms, Roth could be equally vociferous in his attacks on Zionism. In one notorious letter of 1935, nearly four years before his death, he equates the Jewish movement for a homeland with National Socialism, arguing, in Pim’s words, that both the Zionists and the Nazis “wanted the Jews out of Europe.” He often made anti-Semitic comments when writing to friends, as when complaining about being underpaid by the “scheming Jews” on his newspaper or calling some of his worst critics “piggish-Jewish”—an adjective that Pim notes was censored posthumously, in the first German edition of his letters.
All writers on Roth struggle with this, the most disturbing of his contradictions. Pim has much to say on “Jewish self-loathing.” But he also gives space to Roth’s brave writings against Nazism and to his moving accounts of the lives and sufferings of the Ostjuden. This ironic, worldly, urban writer tenderly evokes the lives of the Jewish community—the musicians, the storytellers, the Yom Kippur celebrants, the crowds waiting to see the wonder-rabbis, the peasant women’s babies suspended in swinging baskets from the rafters—and often writes with a shrugging, wry kind of Yiddish fatalism, or in the form of a Bible story or a Yiddish fable.
The translator, editor, and poet Michael Hofmann, who has spent many years bringing Roth to English-language readers, notes in his preface to The Wandering Jews how disconcerting it is that Roth never identifies himself in the book as a Jew who is writing about his own homeland. But this evasion, Hofmann suggests, is countered by the “tragically beautiful emblematic images” Roth’s writing provides of the old empire where the eastern Jewish communities could survive, which Roth saw as “supranational, something that contained multitudes, something not exclusive and not ideal, and therefore free from bigotry…something whose time was—or was almost—gone.” As one example of this beauty, Hofmann quotes the scene from Roth’s miraculous novel Job (1930) in which the suffering Mendel Singer is sitting by the roadside and weeping. His peasant friend Sameshkin, who feels like weeping too, “laid his arm around the thin shoulder of the Jew and said softly: ‘Sleep, dear Jew! Have a good sleep!’”
Roth did not live to see the destruction of his hometown, Brody; in 1942 and 1943 the Nazis massacred or exported to death camps thousands of Jews and exterminated an entire way of life. The Wandering Jews, complete with all its harsh anti-Zionism and scathing attacks on westernized Jews, remained, like many of Roth’s novels, as a priceless record of a vanished culture and community.
So many contradictions and fabrications provide a challenge for the biographer, and Pim spends many pages carefully unpicking fact from myth. One of Roth’s friends called him a Maskenspieler, a “player of divers roles.” There are many conmen in the novels. Naphtali Kroy, the dishonest narrator of the unfinished autobiographical novel Strawberries, describes himself as a Hochstapler, an impostor. The double agent Benjamin Lenz, in the chilling novel of rising nationalism The Spider’s Web (1923), is “a duplicitous Jew,” “slippery and unknowable.” Kapturak, the fixer, money-lender, and people-smuggler, flits in and out of the novels—Job, Weights and Measures (1937), The Emperor’s Tomb (1938), The Radetzky March—as he flits across borders, manipulating the more guileless, naive, and passive characters who often act as foils to these tricksters.
Pim doesn’t quite identify Roth with Kroy or Kapturak, but it’s that wily sharp eye that made him such a brilliant journalist. He made his mark quickly in the postwar Viennese daily Der Neue Tag, writing in the mode of the feuilleton. This popular short form of reportage had its origins with Baudelaire’s alienated urban flaneur observing city life in Paris. Roth put it to memorable use in his evocative pieces—written, as he would always write, in cafés surrounded by journalist friends. Moving on to Berlin, he described “What I See” in all that city’s stark, strange ordinariness: refugees, returning soldiers, war-wounded, shoeshine men, cabarets, morgues, courtrooms, waxworks, panopticons, accidents, burglars, panhandlers, prostitutes, children at street games—no detail of the underbelly of Berlin life in the 1920s escaped him. His pieces give as vivid an impression of Weimar Berlin as the writings of Brecht or Isherwood, the art of Grosz or Dix, the music of Weill or the films of Murnau. He was known as Rote Joseph for his radical sympathy with the poor and the exploited. These became the people of his novels: the one-legged veteran in Rebellion (1924) who trusts in the government, gets his permit to be an organ-grinder, and loses everything by a terrible stroke of fate; the ex–prisoner of war washed up with all the other flotsam in Hotel Savoy (1924); the Galician Lieutenant Tunda in Flight Without End (1927), adrift in postwar Paris, a “superfluous man.”
Roth’s main outlet became the Berlin-based, Jewish-owned, liberal Frankfurter Zeitung, for which he wrote from 1923 until his exile. The story of his quarrelsome relationship with that paper and its editors could be a book in itself, with endless crises over money and status whenever he felt he was being censored or sold his services temporarily to a right-wing German paper; or when he was enraged, having happily settled in as Paris correspondent in 1925, to be pushed out of that post and told to write on industrial Germany; or went off in a huff to report on the USSR. He always felt underrated. He was not a witty writer of trivia, he had to tell them. No: “I paint the portrait of the age.”
His writing overlapped with the movement known as New Objectivity: hard realism, sober facts, minute observation. But however harsh his truth-telling, he always wrote “beautifully” and with a lyrical voice about “phenomena others perceived as ugly.” There is a melancholy feeling for humanity and its sorrows alongside the savage realities. The same humane emotion that pulses through his brief journalistic reports expands to give novels like Job and The Radetzky March, grimly pitiful though they are, their luminous, heartbreaking depth.
Roth was belligerent with colleagues and employers, and his awesomely uncontrolled drinking and restlessness made him a difficult friend and a worse husband. Pim describes him, by the late 1920s, as being permanently in a “peripatetic, chaotic, beleaguered condition.” In 1927 he went on assignments to Russia, Poland, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Frankfurt, Albania, northern Germany, Marseille, Switzerland, Paris, and the industrial Saarland, and then asked his editor “where he should go next.” Meanwhile his wife was in Paris, alone, wretched, and very unwell.
The story of the marriage is a dreadful one. Roth fell in love with Friedl Reichler when he was twenty-five and she was nineteen, a charming, lively, sweet, shy Polish Jew from Galicia. He married her, after some vacillations, in the same week as his mother’s death. There followed a prolonged, awful pattern of possessiveness, jealousy, absence, and neglect. One passing friend in Paris, the philosopher Ludwig Marcuse, observed that “he moulded his wife until he…robbed her of all naturalness…. He destroyed her.” Friedl withdrew into anxiety, reclusiveness, health problems, hallucinations, threats of suicide, and, gradually, schizophrenia. She was put in a sanatorium in Vienna in 1930 and later moved to an institution in Lower Austria. In 1940 (a year after Roth’s death) she was taken by the Nazis, with all the other patients, and sent to the gas chambers.
Roth felt guilt and shame about his marriage, blamed himself and feared that he too would go mad, drank more and more heavily, and had affairs in which he replicated his behavior with Friedl. His mistress Andrea Bell, who was part Afro-Cuban, found him relentlessly overbearing. He kept watch on her all the time, and turned against and insulted her mixed-race children. A later lover, the novelist Irmgard Keun, described him as paranoid and jealous. He was obsessed with clocks and clockwork and wanted to “dissect human beings into their component parts.” He carried a great many penknives about with him in case he was attacked. At night, in case Keun tried to leave him, “he would fall asleep gripping a fistful of her hair” and keep hold of it till morning. He wanted to have total control over her and to make her into something she wasn’t.
By the time of that affair, in the late 1930s, Roth was in a dismal plight. He lived in hotels, drinking all the time, moving restlessly between Paris, Ostend, and Amsterdam. He was desperate for work and money. All his German earnings and royalties were stopped, he’d lost his regular outlet for journalism, his spending was recklessly extravagant, and his book publishers had had enough of subsidizing him with loans and advances and getting only abuse in return. His letters were often howls of despair, as here in 1934 to Zweig: “I have worries, such worries, and I’m so UNHAPPY…. I can’t live like this any more, it’s killing me.” His views had become increasingly antidemocratic, royalist, and reactionary; he even got involved with plans to reinstate the Habsburg monarchy and declare war, as the only way of saving Europe from the Nazis.
Numerous witnesses (Pim has collected some excellent examples) described him in these last years, when he was still only in his forties—though, as he often said, “I have been old ever since I can remember.” His eyesight was failing and his eyes were bloodshot and protuberant. His reddish mustache covered up terrible teeth, his face was bloated, his feet so swollen he could barely walk, and his liver so distended that he carried it like a huge paunch above his spindly legs; the once dapper, elegant dandy now seemed deformed. “He looked,” said one old friend, “like a sixty-year-old drunkard.” Sitting in the bars and cafés all day smoking and drinking, his harsh laughter and barking, abrasive voice silencing all around him, he was, also, always writing, “filling notebooks with his tiny script,” with extraordinary, unremitting energy. His last novel (of eighteen), The Legend of the Holy Drinker, written in extremis and published in 1939, the year of his death from alcoholism, is a moving, witty fable of an alcoholic vagrant in Paris offered a miraculous last chance of redemption.
The charm and magnetism persisted. Old friends (and he had many) sought out his company and tried to help, still seeing in him “the young, bright, charming, noble Joseph Roth.” He made it hard for them, begging for support and then taking offense, quarreling over politics and literature and money, turning against loyal supporters. The most painful example is the long-drawn-out breach with Stefan Zweig. The older, famous, wealthy Viennese novelist was an unwavering enthusiast for Roth’s work and was loyal, kind, and helpful to him over many years. But as Roth spoke out against the Nazis and fled into exile, he became harshly critical of Zweig’s silence and passivity; increasingly distrustful of Zweig’s attitude to him, accusing him of evasiveness, indifference, and condescension; and resentful of his own indebtedness to him. Their correspondence, quoted from Hofmann’s Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters (2012), provides some of the most lacerating moments of the biography:
Roth, friend, I know how hard things are for you, and that’s reason enough for me to love you all the more, and when you’re angry and irritable and full of buried resentments against me, then all I feel is that life is torturing you, and that you’re lashing out…against the only person…who in spite of everything and everyone will remain true to you. It won’t help you, Roth. You won’t turn me against Joseph Roth. It won’t help you!
Though he quotes these moving letters, Pim is generally critical of Zweig, rather like Roth himself. I found that partisanship a weakness, and there are other things to question, like some heavy-handed explications, for instance on self-hating Jews or on the lost emperor replacing the lost father. At times Pim seems overindebted to Hofmann (though for any writer on Roth this would be hard to avoid): a reading of a photograph of Zweig and Roth together in 1936, for instance, closely echoes Hofmann’s account of it in A Life in Letters.
But in the main this is a thoughtful, thorough, and sympathetic book, and a necessary one. It has often been lamented that Roth’s work, apart from The Radetzky March, has for years been underread and neglected, and that it has taken time for his novels to be translated. Roth fans, including Hofmann, Dennis Marks, and Joan Acocella, have long called for an English biography. Endless Flight is a welcome aid for people like me who can’t read Roth, or his critics and biographers, in German, and for any English-language readers who might want an introduction to his work. And now, more than ever, is the time to read him. As Pim says, eloquently:
He is a poet of the marginalised, the alienated and the dispossessed: of those who sought refuge after their homelands were destroyed, of those whose fractured lives reflected his own. In a time when our social fabric is fraying once more, when displacement, migration and transience are again the norm and ugly reductive nationalisms threaten to overpower liberal aspirations, Roth speaks to us with as much urgency and power as he did to those who read him during his brief lifetime.