NR Digital

A Vanished Continent

by David Pryce-Jones
Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, translated and edited by Michael Hofmann (Norton, 512 pp., $39.95)

In the volatile Germany of the 1920s, Joseph Roth was a successful writer of journalism and fiction. “I paint the portrait of the age,” he told his editor at the one economist, a leading liberal newspaper. He also said that the paper was his “fatherland and exchequer,” for it paid him the unheard-of rate of a mark a line. His travel books were especially part of the age. Unlike the usual run of visitors to the Soviet Union, he recognized that Communism rested on oppression and falsehood. Jewish himself, he described the hopes and fears of Jews in Central and Eastern Europe at that uncertain moment. Albert Einstein praised him as a mensch with artistic genius. One among others to give him a flattering review was Hermann Hesse. Dorothy Thompson translated his work into English, and another prestigious lady by the name of Mme. Blanche Gidon translated it into French.

Germany might have been his land of opportunity, but it also made him ill: “Even the language is loathsome to me.” One of his generalizations was “You can only hope to judge the Germans when you’re past forty.” Components of the German character included “the fake elegance, the loud voices, the yahoos, the silence, the respect, the impertinence. There is a sort of unfreedom in these people that is worse than the subordination in front of a sergeant major.”

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