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Strange Troubador

By (May 1, 2014) No Comment

Joseph Roth: A Life in Lettersjosephrothlifeinletters

Edited and translated in English by Michael Hofmann
WW Norton, 2012

Austro-Hungarian journalist and novelist Joseph Roth spent much of his life wandering, a refugee from the shattered Hapsburg Empire, and fin-de-siècle Vienna in particular. Prior to the First World War, Vienna was like few other places in history. The flurry of creative activity in all areas of life, from painting to architecture, opera to psychology produced some of the most prominent figures in Western culture, such as Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Arnold Schoenberg. Following the war, however, the issues of nationalism, anti-Semitism, and anti-intellectualism, which had previously been live but contained largely to debate (or silent mistrust), became insurmountable divides, leading to a pervasive pessimism and despair, opening up new, strange, and in the end disastrous possibilities. At its most extreme, this mood allowed for the rise of National Socialism, which would do away once and for all with what novelist Stefan Zweig called “the world of yesterday.”

Roth, whose most powerful and remembered works include novels such as The Radetzky March and Job, was one of many intellectuals who, out of fear of the Nazis in Germany and Austria, Bolsheviks in Russia, or simply despair at the loss of a golden age in European cultural history, spent their lives wherever they could find a moment’s rest. Due to the sheer number of escapees from cultural bastions like Vienna and St. Petersburg, havens such as Paris and Zurich began to take on the character of the cities that were fled. But the sense of displacement, of loss, never faded. Unsure of whether these new cities might be next to fall, or even if the old world in all its splendor was simply a trick of memory, it was impossible for many to see themselves as anything other than exiles.

Roth certainly saw himself this way, and this chronicle-in-letters of his wanderings through the continent during and between the two World Wars in the form is a testament to that. Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, translated by Michael Hofmann, does read almost as an autobiography, since, despite his ferocious drinking and near constant financial instability, Roth was extraordinarily perceptive, insightful, and, above all, prolific.

Born in 1894 in Brody, a town in the eastern-most region of the empire, to a Jewish mother and a father who took little time in abandoning the family, Roth began his travels when he moved to Lviv, Ukraine, and then to Vienna, to study philosophy at the university. Then, like so many young men of his generation, he abandoned his studies to fight in the First World War. Though his military record is unclear, it is evident that the experience left an indelible mark on his psyche, albeit a mark that would take years to appear.

In the letters from that time, which are found in the first of four chapters dividing the book chronologically, Roth is precocious and slightly pompous. As Hofmann points out in one of the brief, illuminating introductions that open each chapter, the young journalist “sounds young, in fact like a young shuttlecock,” bouncing between Venice and Vienna, meeting young ladies, and philosophizing in particularly young ways:

At best, [his courtyard’s] denizens have rest days. They can only rest, not be holy. Outside, meanwhile, girls dressed in white sell badges. I was approached by a score of them, and I didn’t buy. Then one came—and I bought. For I am an individualist, and despise the mass. And the girl from whom I bought was an aristocrat. She walked along, and offered her wares to no one. She was like a priestess among temple prostitutes.

radetzkymarchA product, no doubt, of steady assurance of his own talent, this tone rapidly deteriorates as he matures. He moves to Berlin and works as a journalist with a good portion of professional success, aided by a certain callousness with respect to both his new wife and his several publishers (each of whom are under the impression they are his sole commitment). To make the situation more complex (do I mean to say schizophrenic?) he begins to acquire the nickname Rot Roth, German for Red Roth, a nod to his communist sympathies. He writes voluminously, producing articles, short stories, and novellas, at a rapid pace. He had particular success as a writer of feuilletons, a kind of short essay (rarely more than 2000 words) that functioned almost as an Op./Ed. page for the era’s many political journals, as well as newspapers and magazines. While usually apolitical, a feuilleton could have a wide range of variety in tone and in subject matter, from gossip to literary criticism. Roth described these essays as “saying true things on half a page.” Roth’s understated, descriptive, yet remarkably poetic style was perfectly suited to the genre.

As he travels more widely in the mid Twenties, not out of despair but for work and for pleasure, there is an almost constant back and forth with publishers in tones that range from scornful condescension to desperate pleas for assistance. He writes to Benno Reifenberg, one of Roth’s warmer correspondents:

I am making one last effort to find out whether I haven’t sent 6-7 feuilletons to the [Frankfurter Zeitung] for absolutely nothing, and haven’t written a further 3, which I’m not sending until I get a reply from you or the board. You know as a rule I couldn’t care less about what they do with my stuff. But one thing I cannot be indifferent to is if all reports of a journey whose fruits are a moral victory for me, disappear without a trace.

There are many such revealing moments in this collection. In such exclamations, Roth shows himself to be on the one hand a ruthlessly business-minded professional, insistent on his contract being fulfilled, and on the other a kind of troubadour, wandering southern France and sending back reports as witness to extraordinary and important events. This strange mixture will become tempered, but, unlike the exuberance of his youth, it will never fade. It will eventually form, as Hofmann puts it, “the balance between tragedy and dignity in Roth, sadness and success.”

The strongest example of this divided personality is in Roth’s friendship with the novelist, poet, and biographer, Stefan Zweig. Much of Zweig’s work, and almost the entirety of his present reputation, has to do with his memoir, The World of Yesterday, a lament for old Vienna and the golden age of the Hapsburg Empire. He was also, like Roth, an expatriate for most of his life, spending time in Paris, Britain, and America, before settling in Brazil for his final years. He was far more famous and well established than Roth, and it is clear from the letters that he saw himself as something of an older brother figure, while recognizing that it was in fact Roth who held the lion’s share of talent in the friendship.

Roth seems to have felt real affection for the older writer, and also gratitude for the endless financial and moral support he provided, but was nevertheless committed to maintaining dominance over Zweig in terms of personality and intelligence. This is apparent from some of their earliest correspondence through to the end of Roth’s life:

Because you are lucky enough—I’ve wanted to say this for a long time—not to be able to see certain depths of darkness, yes, you avert your eye. You have the grace to be able to avert your eye from darknesses that would do you harm […]Yes, I must ask you for forgiveness: your critical judgment let you down when you read my Radetzky March. It’s flattering for me: it let you down because of your feeling for me. I promise you: I don’t deserve it and it’s harmful. And that’s why I didn’t write to you. You’re a good person. But I didn’t want to disturb the harmony that’s a part of your goodness. You must remain happy, serene, so childishly serene in perfectly naïve way, to be good, to be truly good.

JosephRoth(1926)A soul less forgiving than Zweig might find this unconcealed patronizing to be galling, but it appears as though it’s Roth’s mounting resentment for being constantly in need of Zweig’s assistance that brought about the end of the friendship. The vast majority of the final chapter of the collection, entitled simply “After Hitler,” is composed of letters between Zweig and Roth and gives a fascinating insight into life in Europe the horrors of the Second World War remained merely a threat, albeit a very frightening one. We see Zweig attempting to retain his faith in the possibility of victory for Old Europe, with its civilization and good-natured irony. Roth, meanwhile, becomes increasingly bipolar, at once a determined political activist, loyal to the old monarchy he once railed against as Rot Roth, and yet, just as often he is a dark, fatalistic pessimist, advising Zweig to stop being childish and get out of Europe while he still can. He writes

I see myself compelled to follow my instincts and conviction, and become an absolute monarchist. […] I am an old Austrian officer. I love Austria. I view it as cowardice not to use this moment to say the Hapsburgs must return. I want to monarchy back, and will say so.

And elsewhere, in the letter that has received the most attention from contemporary readers:

You will have realized by now that we are drifting towards great catastrophes. Apart from the private – our literary and financial existence is destroyed – it all leads to a new war. I won’t bet a penny on our lives. They have succeeded in establishing a reign of barbarity. Do not fool yourself. Hell reigns.

The sense of genuine despair is apparent throughout the final chapter of Roth’s letters, and mentions of any kind of political action, never mind optimism, eventually vanish. They are replaced by pleas to his remaining friends for money, to publishers for work, to creditors for time and forgiveness. The crystalline lucidity, energy, and intelligence of his published work and earlier letters are gone and instead the paranoia of chronic alcoholic is on full display. But is it entirely paranoia? One wishes to blame the drink, or maybe Roth’s pride, for his final decline, but in the chaos that was Europe in the late 1930’s, sickness and health were not easily distinguished.

Is it worth saying that we live in a time of change? Probably not—it seems to be a sentiment found in every period of history. But it is more in acute in certain ages, or at least expressed more often. This could be why those writers and thinkers of the past who, in their own time, signaled the end of the old world and the beginning of the new, become so attractive to us today. Recently, indie-film superstar Wes Anderson dedicated his quirky, funny, and wistful The Grand Budapest Hotel to Zweig, a man whose legacy is nostalgia for the old empire and whose life ended by suicide because he could not recover from that sentiment.

Zweig’s tone when he writes about the old Vienna and its empire that surrounded is markedly emotional, bordering on syrupy, and it’s almost as though someone saw Zweig coming and created Joseph Roth as a counterweight. This is not, as we can see from these letters, always a compliment to Roth, since his cynicism and darkness of vision can often border on the comical, just as Zweig’s softness can at its worst moments be repellent.

But what these letters do provide, despite (or perhaps because of) their author’s stubbornness and severity of vision, is a glimpse into a world that was composed of the death of the old and the birth of the new, and the series of catastrophes that occasioned this transformation, seen through the eyes of an eminently perceptive and intelligent writer.

Jack Hanson‘s previous reviews & poetry for Open Letters can be found here.

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