When Joseph Roth died in penury in Paris in 1939, he left little behind. No trace of his collection of penknives, watches, walking canes and clothes bought for him by Stefan Zweig. The knives had been gathered to protect himself from both imagined and very real enemies. Soon after war’s end, his cousin visited one of his translators, Blanche Gidon, and was presented with “an old worn out coupe case”. Within it was a treasure trove ‑ some manuscripts, never published in his lifetime, books and letters. Throughout the long dark night of Nazi occupation Gidon had kept it hidden under the bed of the concierge. There have been other custodians of Roth’s reputation along the way, Hermann Kesten, a friend, and Roth’s translator, Michael Hofmann. Yet his literary significance was often ignored. Roth had been an early and vocal critic of Hitlerism. His masterpiece, The Radetsky March, had been among the first books committed for incendiary destruction when the Nazis came to power. Yet, as this magisterial biography by Kieron Pim shows, the phrase “man of many contradictions” is scarcely fit for purpose when trying to grapple with the complex contrarian Moses Joseph Roth. If Joseph Roth hadn’t been born, he’d have been invented, as a picaresque character in a novel probably by an impoverished disillusioned Mitteleuropa writer fleeing from Nazi Germany for his life. Often labelled as a “Galician-born Austro-Hungarian Jewish” writer, Roth shuffled all those labels and identifiers as often as a cardsharp rearranges his deck of cards. Pim – Roth’s first biographer in the English language ‑ puts it thus:
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.
And how. Pim, in a 500-page blockbuster biography, furnishes us with more detail about Roth’s writings and his tragic ramshackle life than a five- hour biopic. The confused identity was partially an accident of geography ‑ he came from a place, Brody, at the far east end of the Habsburg empire, which the writer Stefan Zweig described as a “lowly dull poor world”. His father he never knew, his mother he resented for over-protectiveness. He was brought up in the pious, Orthodox household of his grandfather. They kept kosher, fasted on Yom Kippur, and his grandfather was a scholar, dedicated to the holy texts. But by the time he was thirteen, Roth rejected the bar mitzvah rite of passage, in favour of a Reform Judaism “confirmation”. As Pim alerts us, he developed at a young age the strategy of “using contradiction as a way of throwing people off the scent”. Vienna, where he attended university, was supposed to be an escape from small town oppressiveness. When Roth arrived there before 1914, it was a buzzing hub of intellectual energy. But it was also, as Pim writes, a city where “a barrage of anti-semitic ideas” circulated, which constituted an assault on the psyche which Roth was not always able to withstand.
With his novels and scintillating journalism, he documented for posterity aspects of the destroyed world of Mitteleuropa, waltzing over the precipice all the while. As this fine biography reminds us, his journalism could be its own hybrid artform. Roth himself asserted this superiority to editors, his was not mere journalism: “I paint the portrait of the age,” he boasted. The dispatches from his years in Berlin, Paris and Prague sounded warning bells but might also digress into languid meditations on many other topics. He reported on Germany in the Weimar era, with its assassinations and brutal street violence, the era when revolutionaries Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht and the Jewish foreign minister Walther Rathenau were murdered. Of the 350-odd killings by nationalist militias like Organisation Consul in those years, only twenty-seven resulted in convictions. Simon Schama has argued that “Roth is the nearest thing expiring Weimar had to a German Orwell”.
With The Radetsky March, and The Wandering Jews, he has left a literary legacy, evoking a turbulent twentieth century, mostly through the eyes of the losers. Roth experienced pariah status and the defining condition of the twentieth century, displacement and exile, foreshadowing its ubiquity in the twenty-first. Writing in a 1934 piece, “In Lieu of an Article”, he sets out why he has not delivered anything to his editors: “I am no longer in a position to write articles I fear may betray such a degree of pessimism that they would be unsuitable for distribution to the wider public.” In one extraordinarily prescient statement in the essay “Europe is Only Possible Without the Third Reich”, he asserts: “The Germans have always had the gift of killing to musical accompaniment.” This was several years before the phenomenon of the concentration camp commandant at Auschwitz who after a hard day at the gas chambers unwound by listening to Mozart or Bach.
For years Roth’s potted biography included “served in the Austro-Hungarian Army”. As Nadine Gordimer noted: “… his anti-heroes are almost all soldiers, ex–prisoners of war, deserters: former aristocrats, bourgeois, peasants, and criminals all de-classed in the immorality of survival of the 1914-1918 war … they had been ‘Found unfit for death’.” Yet he had a desk job in the army, and unlike Hemingway, Robert Graves and many other writers coming of age during the First World War, he was not really scarred by harrowing participation in fighting. But in the matter of the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire he idolised, that was a different matter. Roth’s miserable fate, death from alcoholism at forty-four, and his body of work, with at least one masterpiece, are a product of and cannot be separated from the tumultuous times he lived through. The chaotic redistribution of territory after the First World War, which marooned so many without papers, identity or nationality; the Jewish background avowed and denied. With his all-seeing eye alert always to the foibles of mankind, eventually Roth was forced to home in on pure evil and confront man’s inhumanity to man.
The photographs strewn through this book clearly and cruelly depict his descent from dandy to debauchee, the slightly gnomish features spreading out over time to the figure of a dissolute gingerbread man, his face like rising raw dough, with raisins for eyes, penning a long suicide note through drinking and self-neglect, even as he feverishly produced novel after novel. Elizabeth Hardwick wrote of the Jewish artist Mark Gertler, that he was “one of those persons who will, no matter what successes briefly touch them, know lingering failure”. Roth would be at the head of the queue for entrée into that particular club. In 1925, as Paris correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung, he was feted, one of the best-paid journalists in Germany. Less than ten years later, in 1933, his masterpiece The Radetsky March was burned along with books by his friend and benefactor Stefan Zweig. His wife, Friedl, was confined to a sanatorium diagnosed with schizophrenia. By 1939 he was dead, ironically at a point when his star might have been on the ascendant outside Europe, and he might have made it to America.
After the Nazis came to power his contracts for books were cancelled, his readership in German-speaking territories was lost and only a few publishers were brave enough to keep him on and throw him financial lifelines. His beggar-like existence involved an endless round of cadging, not just for the price of drinks to quaff his bottomless thirst but also for the bare amounts necessary to keep body and soul together. There was the money for sanatoria for Friedl to be found. To one correspondent he wrote: “ Frankly, even a stamp is a significant item for me.” Roth’s moment of glory – and personal happiness through his marriage to Friedl – was achingly brief. According to translator and devoted champion Michael Hofmann, “such a protean or polygonal character as Roth’s … contrived to present a different aspect of himself to everyone he knew”. That, and his propensity to distort and invent way beyond the parameters of fiction, present a biographer with a dizzying challenge. Pim has risen gamely to it.
Roth was not the first or last of the literary heavy drinkers nor the only one to assign alcohol magical powers as an aid to writing. It is particularly striking that for a man with a destructive thirst he was astonishingly productive. Thirteen published novels plus a slew of unpublished manuscripts, thousands of newspaper articles, novellas. Of course much of this productivity was forced by the necessity to write to procure a regular income. Despite being at one time one of Germany’s highest paid journalists, that period of affluence was relatively brief and his own profligacy hastened its end. But even to the end of his life, the times when he was precariously and temporarily flush, he very often splurged on donations to those even less fortunate than himself. Roth was his own myth-maker. Or perhaps that is too facile. He was a character in his own life-melodrama, buffeted by fate and bad luck. Indeed the metaphor of masquerade or even masked ball fits Roth’s life like a dandy’s supple, soft kid glove.
Despite Pim’s extraordinarily meticulous research, so many puzzles remain, and psychological insights into Roth’s behaviours remain elusive. What is one to make of his tenure at a right-wing German paper, publishing antisemitic rhetoric, at a time when he was embroiled in one of his endless contretemps with his editors at the Frankfurter Zeitung? A bearer of grudges and arch-detector of slights, Roth made it hard for even his fiercest champions to forbear his insults and accusations. Yet many did, which in its own way speaks for the man’s character. Many in his circle were writers and journalists. His friendship with Stefan Zweig is puzzling yet sustains him. Zweig, from a wealthy assimilated background, could never know the despair of poverty. By the time an exiled Zweig put an end to his life, in the Brazilian city of Petropolis, Roth, who knew full well he was the better writer, was already dead. Their end of days in Ostend, a last “summer before the dark”, has been hauntingly re-imagined by Volker Weidemann.
Despite his evident admiration and affection for Roth, Pim does not steer us away from the many unpleasant aspects of his character and temperament. To say that he was ambivalent about his Jewishness is an understatement. He leapfrogs from loathing to love – from disdain for assimilated Western Jews to sentimental affection for the put-upon Ostjuden. Many of his most stalwart supporters and benefactors were in fact the very kind of Jewish bourgeois he professed to despise, who gave him loans and work despite his vitriolic treatment of them. He despised the expectation of gratitude that he regarded as part and parcel of any act of benevolence. He had no problem in excoriating Zweig, his most generous benefactor. One can regard this as courageous or reprehensible according to one’s politics. At one time known as Rote (Red) Roth, he abandoned his previous revolutionary left-wing stance and embraced Catholic monarchism. The confusion as to his actual religious affiliation is best seen in the unseemly, almost comical, battle over his burial and funeral. Jewish friends were dismayed that the Catholics won out in the battle of the burial, returning days later after his funeral by Catholic rites. Yet his last words, Pim tells us, are alleged to have been “I am not baptised.”
Prejudice does not make you act prettily – and this is true of Roth’s at times contradictory attitudes to his co-religionists. These identity and faith conundrums can never be judged without taking into account the distorting mirror of Austrian, particularly Viennese, antisemitism. Roth was enrolled in the University of Vienna where, as he later wrote “they impose quotas and bigotry”. Jewish students could also be attacked with clubs by fellow students. Conversion to Catholicism for Roth cannot be taken simplistically as a preference for one religion over another, but as a possible means of escaping the straitjacket of a broader society’s imposed limitations. Still it is hard for a contemporary reader to excuse some of his more intemperate outbursts against Jewish individuals, or his occasional usage of anti-Jewish stereotypes.
Pim is perplexed by Roth’s treatment of his wife, Friedl, also from a Jewish family. Roth and herself enjoy a brief idyll in their relationship in its early halcyon days. At once loving and protective in the early years of the marriage, was Roth’s passion more of the stifling love of the controller? Friedl may have fallen victim to mental illness and been diagnosed with schizophrenia but the volatile, mercurial Roth and his peripatetic lifestyle were never not going to exacerbate a fragile mental condition. Roth had a family history of insanity through his father, rumoured to have committed suicide. He continued to have serious affairs although still married, and despite guilt over his wife. The novelist Irmgard Keun, who of all the women entangled with him perhaps most had his measure, in the end found his attentiveness suffocating. Friedl Roth, the tender, “sweet-natured” girl Roth fell in love with in 1919, was murdered in July 1940 as part of Aktion T4 experiments, where inmates of sanatoria were murdered by Nazi doctors.
Through Pim’s prodigious research and engaging prose style, we now know so much more about Joseph Roth, and the world and times he inhabited. But definitive answers to key questions about him remain elusive. To a great extent, this is Roth’s own doing rather than a fault of his patient, dedicated biographer. Roth shape-shifted through life, a chameleon in a thousand guises. He can still baffle us from beyond the grave, darting behind the headstones, playing hide and seek in the graveyard of posterity. And one can be pretty sure that that is exactly what he would have wanted.
Katrina Goldstone’s book Irish Writers and the Thirties (Routledge) is out now in paperback.
We are making some changes at the drb. From 2023 we will publish three times a year. The reduced frequency means we will be concentrating on our core activity, the long-form review essay. The first of the three issues to be published next year will appear in February. Blogs will continue to appear between issues. We wish our readers and contributors a very happy Christmas.