Joseph Roth had a keen sense of when to cut and run. Born in Brody, a poor town in Galicia on the northern edge of the Austro-Hungarian empire, he fled the area as quickly as he could as a young man.
Vienna had been Europe’s most exciting intellectual center when he first visited in 1913, but he left when the city shrank after World War I. After making his name as a journalist, he fled Germany twice—once temporarily after Hitler became chancellor and once permanently the morning after Paul von Hindenburg was elected president in 1925.
And he passed away in May of 1939, between the annexation of Austria and the invasion of Poland, his mind and body brutalized by alcoholism as if he were constitutionally incapable of witnessing the culmination of everything he had been warning about.
After 44 years of life, he passed away in a pauper’s hospital in Paris, delirious and strapped to his bed so he couldn’t escape. It appears that his final words were a yell of “I have to get out of here!”
Roth’s first biography written in English is titled Flight, suggesting that this is one way he has attempted to make sense of his complicated life. The paradox that “if you think you’ve placed him, he’ll prove you wrong,” as Keiron Pim puts it, is another.
He may have converted to Catholicism in 1936 and was both a victim and critic of antisemitism, calling his editors “scheming Jews.” Once a socialist, he changed his appearance to that of an aristocrat and wrote novels like the 1932 masterpiece The Radetzky March in which he became an arch-nostalgist for the empire.
His mind and his writing were in German, but he eventually came to view German as “a dead language.” Critic James Wood claims that “there is no greater modern writer than Joseph Roth,” but many of Roth’s novels come across as rushed and unfinished, despite Wood’s praise for Roth at his best.
Roth’s work was frenetic and often completed in noisy cafes in between social interactions with friends. The total page count of a German translation of his works is well over six thousand.
Between 1923 and 1924 he somehow wrote three novels in nine months. However, even he had his limitations: in 1930, he recalled a lucrative contract he had signed the previous year and realized he needed to produce a novel in three weeks.
Had he not sent the manuscript along with his panicked notes to himself (“Must finish novel in three weeks!”), his publisher would not have been so horrified. No one wanted to read the novel.
Fans of Roth’s work tend to be fervent readers in part because his novels are so strange and unique from one another. “They seem to defy literary physics,” says Michael Hofmann, whose elegant translations over the past three decades have been largely responsible for Roth’s resurgence in the anglophone world.
“Readers today connect with the moral clarity of his robust opposition to nationalism,” Pim writes. “They admire his empathy with the exiled and the dispossessed; they recognize his crisis of identity; and, not least of all, they are primed for a nostalgic pull towards the aesthetics and perceived values of his Mitteleuropa as its last inhabitants fade from view.”
Although Pim’s book is a bit too lengthy—it takes too long to get going and is bloated with multi-page plot summaries of each novel—his desire to fully comprehend the man is admirable, and the result feels conclusive.
Based on his investigation, he is now able to maintain a healthy skepticism toward the author, who turns out to have been a dishonest historian of the empire as well as his own life, spreading wild rumors about his service record, education, birthplace, and, most importantly, family.
Although Roth wrote extensively about fathers and sons, his own father, Nachum, was institutionalized during his pregnant wife’s pregnancy and never saw his son again, so he existed only in the author’s vivid imagination.
A cause for embarrassment as well. The disappearance of Nachum was embarrassing in Brody, and being from backward, unassimilated Brody was embarrassing anywhere else, even among fellow Jews. It was “the sad allure of the place scorned,” as Roth put it, in Galicia.
Roth earned a Deutschmark per line as a prominent contributor to the Frankfurter Zeitung in the 1920s. He excelled at writing feuilletons, those short, polished pieces in which even the most mundane observation can be turned into a resonant metaphor. His focus was always on the outcasts and the marginalized.
He told his editor in an arrogant letter, “I don’t write witty glosses.” “I try to capture the spirit of an era in my paintings.” He also insisted that his own popularity outweighed that of the news itself and that he didn’t need to conduct interviews because he already knew the answers. Reporters often rely on interviews as an excuse for their lack of creativity. To get away with something like that, you need to be very skilled.
Roth’s journalism was more well-known than his fiction until the publication of Job in the 1930s, in which he addressed his upbringing in Galicia and the breakdown of his marriage. Friedl, his young wife of only two years, was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Roth, who was deeply affected by his father’s breakdown, maintained that the hysteria his parents were experiencing was just a temporary byproduct of their strained marriage.
He spent a lot of money on medical care in the hopes of recovering, but eventually gave up and blamed himself. He was once one of the best-paid journalists in Europe, but he ended up spending the rest of his life struggling to make ends meet because of his spending.
Roth’s deteriorating situation prompted a strong yearning for his youth, prior to the war and the fall of the empire. That, he concluded, was the source of the problem, so he kept coming back to it in his writing.
“Not for the usual reason, that the whole world was involved in it, but rather because as a result of it we lost a whole world, our world…,” he said, explaining why he appreciated the new term “world war.” He wrote more vividly and vividly about the past because of his nostalgic feelings. He described the fall of the Habsburg dynasty in words as sombre and beautiful as a sunset.
Roth’s iridescent writing style contrasts with the ugliness of his personal life. His decline into obscurity in the 1930s is the most compellingly bleak part of Endless Flight. Pim describes how the author’s once sharp features have softened, how his jowls have pustulated, and how his mustache now “rests like a ragged moth above his fleshly lips.”
A friend pointed out that, at 43, he looked more like 60, what with his stooped posture, excess fat, hoarse voice, and violent cough from smoking up to 80 cigarettes a day. Roth believed that writing was the only thing that could save him from inheriting his father’s insanity, but he also believed that drinking was the only thing that could help him write, and this belief led to the decline of his mental health.
After spending the evening with him in 1934, a Dutch editor wrote, “Roth is, I believe, really about to lose the remnants of a once royal mind.”
Friendship with Roth became more and more of a burden as he spiraled into bitterness and paranoia. Stefan Zweig makes a remarkable declaration of loyalty to Pim: “You can do what you like against me, privately, publicly diminish me or antagonize me, you won’t manage to free yourself of my unhappy love for you… It will do you no good to try to avoid me by pushing me away. In spite of resistance, Roth persisted.
When comparing these two great exiled chroniclers of the fall of an empire and the rise of fascism, it’s tempting to take a side. Pim doesn’t hide the fact that he has a strong bias. As an analogy, “Zweig is a half-decent mocha, served lukewarm, compared to Roth’s double espresso.”
If I may put it less harshly, Zweig’s prose is smooth and graceful, while Roth’s is shocking and restless. He believed that Zweig, who was better off financially, would never understand his fury.
When the Nazis put Roth on their list of forbidden authors, he was instantly fired from his newspaper and abandoned by his German readers. According to Pim, the man “had disabused any lingering doubt as to his status” after spending “much energy on transcending his eastern Jewish origin and assimilating into German-Austrian culture.”
Still, he couldn’t have been completely taken aback by it. He predicted that Germany was “heading for a tragi-comic ending” in his novel The Spider’s Web, published in 1923, making him the first author to do so.
The author has consistently referred to Nazi Germany as “Hell on Earth,” “the German apocalypse,” and “the residence of the Antichrist” since the regime’s inception. He felt it was the responsibility of every writer to engage in “pitiless combat” with it.
Pim gradually demonstrates how Roth’s itinerant lifestyle (he kept only three suitcases at a time and found his home in hotels) was the source of his animating paradox: “One man’s rootlessness was another man’s freedom.”
Roth wanted to be a bridge between nations and races, an idealistic goal he often felt unfulfilled in. Pim describes the situation perfectly: he was “standing in a doorway between two crowded rooms, a double outsider…” You internalize your marginality until it consumes you.
When Roth first visited France, he came the closest he had come to finding happiness. In one of the many lovely feuilletons he released that year (1925), he mused that the stars above Nîmes were the same ones that had shone during his childhood. That’s how tiny our world really is.
The foreignness of some of it is overstated if you ask me. Home is where the heart is, and the heart can be anywhere. However, there were plenty of times when he felt like he had no place to call home.
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