The Magazine

Exiled in Europe

Joseph Roth’s real home was the German language.

Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By MARK FALCOFF
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Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, 1936

Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, 1936

Some literary historian of the future will have to explain why just now several of the major German-language writers of the interwar period long regarded as passé—Stefan Zweig, Lion Feuchtwanger, Klaus Mann, and Joseph Roth—have come suddenly back into fashion in the English-speaking world. Perhaps the most prolific of all—though not necessarily the most financially successful—was Roth, whose best-known work, The Radetzky March, is a nostalgic reconstruction of the last days of Vienna under the Habsburgs. Published in 1932, it is still in print and has lost none of its charm. But this was hardly Roth’s only success; he was also the author of more than 20 other books, including novels, short stories, travel essays, and journalism. Now, a huge selection of his private letters have been made available through his translator, the poet Michael Hofmann.

Roth was born in 1894 in the town of Brody, in Galicia, on the easternmost reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Though of Jewish background, he was a baptized Roman Catholic, which was common in those days among those who wished to pursue prestigious professions (e.g., Gustav Mahler) or, as in Roth’s case, to hold a commission in the army during World War I. After 1919, the young, thrice-decorated veteran emerged as a talented practi-tioner of the feuilleton—the literary essay that appeared (and in Germany, still appears) in a special section of newspapers. He was also an incessant traveler and reporter, visiting the Soviet Union in 1926, Albania and the Balkans in 1927, Italy and Poland in 1928. By the age of 30, he had risen to be the Paris correspondent of the liberal Frankfurter Zeitung. Throughout this time, he remained a Habsburg loyalist—in one letter he refers to himself as “a patriotic Austrian [who] love[s] what is left of my homeland as a sort of relic”—and, in fact, he occasionally moved in Legitimist circles until Hitler’s Anschluss in 1938. He died in a shabby hotel in Paris the following year.

The major event in Roth’s life, of course, was the Nazi seizure of power in Germany. Goebbels’s takeover of the German press and book publishing firms deprived Roth of much of his reading public and of a reliable source of income; thereafter he lived the life of an impoverished literary nomad. (As Hofmann puts it, with “no money, no books, no bank account, no clothes .  .  . a Jew in Austria, an Austrian in Germany, and a German in France.”) Living from hand to mouth, never staying long in the same place, he somehow managed—with no secretary and long before the invention of word processing—to produce vast amounts of newspaper copy and to write novels, three in 1933 and 1934 alone. But the vise was closing in: Austrian publishers began to become nervous about printing him even while their country was still independent of Germany, and it was not always easy to find a market for his books in France.

These letters reveal, not surprisingly, a very confused and unhappy man. Nonetheless, they also show him to be an acute observer of the European scene. Here, for example, is his description of a Socialist congress in Marseilles in 1925: 

Fat wives, heelless sandals, perms, hatless, Jews who aren’t Jews, because they have taken up cudgels for some foreign proletariat; bourgeois who aren’t bourgeois, because they are fighting for a foreign class.

Social Democrats, he confides to a friend, are “a party of toothless dragons.” On the subject of the then-venerated André Gide, he quotes an exchange with Jean Paulhan, who had remarked, “C’est un acteur, n’est-ce pas?” Roth replied, “Il est plus qu’un acteur, il est une actrice.” 

He admonished Klaus Mann, who had attended a writer’s congress in Moscow in 1934. (Unfortunately Mann’s side of the correspondence is not given, but its tone can be inferred by this comment of Roth’s: “A Western European going east of Warsaw for the first time, becomes an utter child .  .  . no new world is being readied there.”)

In another context, remarking on the same country:

I don’t believe in the perfection of bourgeois democracy, but I don’t for a second doubt the narrowness of a proletarian dictatorship. .  .  . I am well aware—as Western Europeans are apt to forget—that the Russians were not invented by Dostoyevsky. I am quite unsentimental about the country and about the Soviet project.

Visiting Odessa as early as 1926, he writes that “never has it been brought home to me so strongly that I’m a European, a man of the Mediterranean if you will, a Roman and a Catholic, a Humanist and a Renaissance man.” Brave words when much of the Western intelligentsia was ready to go over to the Soviet vision, bag and baggage—and often, of course, without taking the trouble to visit the country itself.