Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, edited by Michael Hofmann, Granta, 512pp, £25 (hardback)
Joseph Roth’s life possessed all the predestined sadness of a classic blues song. An anxious, peripatetic spirit, Roth spent most of his short and constantly harassed existence living out of two or three suitcases, in Hopperesque hotels, pursuing money, drink, brief love affairs – and the journalistic commissions to keep his precarious life afloat. Some of the other constants revealed in poet and translator Michael Hofmann’s stark and frequently dispiriting volume of Roth’s letters were an almost mystical yearning after his lost Austro-Hungarian ‘fatherland’ and his prescient warnings about the rise of Nazi Germany. Often demonstrating a flinty indifference to the feelings of others, particularly in the area of sexual relations, these letters also show there was much to dislike about the scrounging, dyspeptic and self-contradictory author of The Radetzky March. But there was also something almost existentially heroic about the self-destructive Roth as he hurtled towards an early death, in Paris, at the age of forty-four. Often equipped with little more than despair, his chaotic life unravelled.
Roth was born into a Jewish family on 2 September 1894 in Brody, East Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire (now Ukraine). His home life was relatively comfortable. However, he fabricated a much more wayward father-figure and a starker early existence, revealing an early taste for myth-making and a lifelong distaste for domesticity and bourgeois ideas of cleanliness and etiquette. (‘I shit on furniture. I hate houses,’ he declares in one of his final letters.) Following spells at the Universities of Lemberg (Lviv) and Vienna, Roth was initially a pacifist but volunteered for the army in 1917 and later exaggerated much of his military career. Roth was a walking contradiction. While he was a cultural nostalgist with a hunger for ‘my fatherland, the only one I ever had, the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary’, he later offered his services as a kind of political conduit between the Left and the Catholics, to help smash Nazism. He married Friedl Reichler in Vienna in 1922, but the ill- starred union was dogged by his wife’s descent into schizophrenia. The sadness that was Roth’s marriage seemed to set the tone for the downward spiral of a life that nonetheless saw him zigzag across mainland Europe, taking in Austria, Germany, France and Russia in a single year. Despite his alcoholism, battles with newspaper editors and supporting a range of dependants, Roth somehow managed to produce a novel or two a year, plus a wealth of short fiction and outstanding journalism.
Hofmann introduces his landmark epistolary volume – arguably the nearest we are going to get to a definitive Roth biography – with a string of negatives, telling the reader what the book does not contain. So: no Roth letters to his parents, wife, his lovers, most of his best friends or the companions of his final years; nothing, even, especially confessional or aesthetic, nor anything laying out the bare bones of Roth’s writing life. Instead, Hofmann argues the letters allow us to trace Roth’s route from Frankfurt to Berlin, Paris, Vienna and Amsterdam. This, he suggests, gives the reader a sense of a ‘westward trajectory’ or ‘swarming movement’ from the writer’s birthplace in the old Habsburg Empire to ‘the locus of exile, disappointment, trepidation, punishment’ that was, finally, Paris in the late 1930s. Hofmann notes that even the masterpiece, The Radetzky March, was written on the move, in no fewer than eleven locations.
Hofmann has proved an indefatigable champion of Roth’s work through a series of translations. At the same time he is known for his dislike of Roth’s well-heeled literary friend, Stefan Zweig, whom he slams as a ‘pedagogically minded patron’. Hofmann’s frequently voiced antipathy towards Zweig seems harsh given that Roth spent much of his time scrounging from the ever-obliging novelist, whom was often repaid with scorn for his financial and personal kindness. While funding his drink habit, however, any cash Roth managed to hang on to also supported several friends and his poor wife Friedl, whose worsening mental state may have precipitated Roth’s alcoholism. It is hard not to feel sympathy for a man who described his fate in almost Kafkaesque terms: ‘I am wriggling in a hundred nets.’
While Roth remained a restless, unhappy spirit, he seemed to find temporary spiritual respite in Paris. Within the generally gloomy context of these letters, it is unusual to encounter Roth’s lyrical rhapsody to the French capital in a letter to fellow journalist, Benno Reifenberg, on 16 May 1925:
I feel driven to inform you personally that Paris is the capital of the world, and that you must come here. Whoever has not been here is only half a human, and no sort of European. Paris is free, intellectual in the best sense, and ironic in the most majestic pathos. Any chauffeur is wittier than our wittiest authors.
It was as if Roth had found in France a place and a culture to fill the spiritual and imaginative void left by the loss of his beloved Austro- Hungarian ‘fatherland’. In an interview about Roth at the Bristol Festival of Ideas on 17 February 2012, Hofmann said: ‘In his mind, I think he married his provenance, his origin; he married Jewish Galicia with the Catholic south of France, with Catholic Marseille.’ And it was also in the French capital, while working as the Paris correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung (FZ), that Roth seemed to turn definitively against Germany. Hofmann describes Roth’s distasteful comment that Germany had ‘the ugliest prostitutes’ as matching ‘the sarcastic horror paintings of Otto Dix’. Roth’s squabbles with FZ from 1925 onwards seem to signal his growing disenchantment with both Germany and his own life: ‘The whole FZ looks to me like a microcosm of Germany. My loathing for it is growing all the time … the world looks like a German bakery, sugar-sweet and sickening.’ As Hofmann notes at one point in his illuminating running commentary, ‘Roth was … a great and passionate hater’.
Fortunately, however, Roth’s professional squabbles with Germany and its newspaper editors eventually segued into a much more prescient analysis of the country’s drift towards Nazism. By 1934 he tells Zweig that he is prepared to act as a ‘bridge’ between the ‘Leftists’ and the Catholics in any potential plans to unite forces against Hitler. Frequently given to rhetorical flourishes, Roth loftily declares that ‘what I want to do is protect Europe and humanity, both from the Nazis and from the Hitler Zionists’. He accuses Zweig of political obtuseness, warning his long-suffering literary friend-cum-creditor in August 1935 that ‘the urge to humiliate Jews didn’t begin yesterday or today; it’s been part of the platform of the Third Reich from the very start … The founding principle, so to speak, of National Socialism, is none other than contempt for the Jewish race!’
A bundle of human contradictions, Roth was a constant cadger, on the run from despair, debt, unhappy love affairs and the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. But he was also a gregarious man and a sensualist. Writing from Russia in October 1926 he feels the absence of female company like a wound: ‘No women. Hence the isolation. Nothing but men is like a desert full of sand.’ As his wife grows distant through mental illness, Roth pursues several love affairs, partly to reawaken his numbed senses. Falling for a twenty year-old girl in Antibes in early 1931, he calls his actions ‘cretinous stupidity’, but is in thrall to Eros, confessing that ‘for the first time since my wife’s illness, I feel alive again’. Roth’s erotically charged letter to Zweig about the affair also reveals an almost clinical distance from the sexual act: ‘Three Catholic hymens before the real one, a shouter, and I practice the art of deflowering whilst feeling little pleasure.’ It is almost as if Roth has developed a second or third skin to protect him from the frazzled chaos of his life. He signs off that his wife ‘is doing badly’ before offering this callous coda: ‘I may be a sonofabitch, but defloration in a literary setting, that’s worth something to me.’
Although Michael Hofmann harbours a seemingly personal dislike of Zweig, it is Roth’s old friend who provides one of the most revealing and heartfelt passages in the book. In fact, the friendship between the two writers – however fraught and fractious – is arguably the great love affair revealed in these letters. Zweig writes to his combative, imperious and often ungrateful old friend in the autumn of 1937. Their relationship is apparently disintegrating into sourness and protracted silences, yet he is both eloquently forgiving of Roth’s attempts to ‘diminish’ him in the eyes of others and perceptive about the source of Roth’s despair:
Push me away all you like, it won’t help you! 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, out of some correct instinct, perhaps against the only person who wouldn’t be offended thereby, who in spite of everything and everyone will remain true to you …
Ironically, in Roth’s last extant letter to Zweig, dated 10 October 1938, he exhorts his friend not to submit to pessimism, telling him: ‘You are a defeatist.’
One of Roth’s novels is called Flight Without End. In terms of his restless life, it is an instructive title. A tragic hero, Roth was perhaps only really at home within his own imaginative life. Writing was a respite from the pell-mell of his existence, as the shadows gathered around him and Europe in Auden’s ‘low dishonest decade’. In Hofmann, Roth has found a literary champion of the first order who has raised his profile and reputation by translating ten of his books over the last twenty-four years. The poet’s footnotes (which, Hofmann told his Bristol audience, became ‘addictive’) represent a telling critique of both a wandering spirit of the 1930s and the art of writing itself.