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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Sometime in 1928, Roth was finally put into contact with his idol, Stefan Zweig. Present-day readers may have some difficulty grasping just how important an event this must have been. Zweig was then at the peak of his fame and fortune: Born independently wealthy, he was also probably the most widely read (and translated) writer of German. The correspondence with Zweig increasingly occupies ever-larger sections of this book, with Zweig’s own letters often included. Much of it has to do with money, since Zweig was generous with financial help, which Roth certainly needed after 1933. 

Nonetheless, one must confess a certain ennui with this section, which is also filled with malicious gossip about personalities in the publishing world who have long since disappeared down the black hole of memory. There are also some rather unpleasant comments about Jews: The Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann is referred to as a “Jewish National Socialist,” something which has a strangely contemporary ring to it. The correspondence reveals a complicated relationship between two vain, talented, and creative individuals, but it is probably only of interest to literary historians.

What gives this book its special interest is the fact that Roth represents the final moments of an archetype: the cosmopolitan European, at home in several countries, and, before 1919, not even fully sensitive to national boundaries. (The Austro-Hungarian Empire was home to 17 different language and cultural groups.) Roth’s real home was the German language, and this explains why, after 1933, and particularly after 1938, he became homeless in both a physical and spiritual sense. 

Nonetheless, he never lost his own particularly self-shaped identity. Hofmann quotes a friend who observed Roth sometime in the 1930s: “When summoned to the telephone, he slowly hobbled away with the aid of a stick, his thin legs in narrow old-fashioned pants, his sagging little paunch at odds with his birdlike bones, the east Galician Jew made the impression of a distinguished, if somewhat decayed, Austrian aristocrat—in other words, exactly the impression he had striven all his life to give, with every fiber of his body and soul, by means both legitimate and illegitimate.”

Mark Falcoff is completing a new translation of Klaus Mann’s Mephisto.