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.”
Inflexible, upright, a born moralizer, Roth was not someone to take things as they came. Refusal to face reality was not an effective response to rising Nazism. Becoming his own victim, he took to drinking. A wreck with delirium tremens, and beyond the help of anyone, he was 44 when he died a few months before the start of World War II. The times were against him, and he was forgotten.
That might have been that, except that some years ago Michael Hofmann began translating Roth’s books and campaigning on their behalf. A Life in Letters is a major contribution to establishing the international reputation that Roth deserves, and for the time being it is the only book in English anything like a biography of him.
Roth, these letters make plain, was a genuine conservative. “I hate good books by godless fellows,” he could write tongue-in-cheek, “I love bad books by reactionaries.” It was a question of standing fast, and then the clock might turn back, harm would be undone. His loyalty had been given once and for all to the alternative German nation, the Austro-Hungarian Empire into which he had been born in 1894. By that date, the Emperor Franz Joseph had been on the throne for almost half a century, and it was commonly assumed that neither the Habsburg dynasty nor the empire would survive his death. Those with gallows humor liked to say that the situation was desperate but not serious.
A lieutenant on the Eastern Front during World War I, Roth experienced the anticipated collapse. Stripping Austria down into an insignificant republic, the Allies at the Versailles conference created separate nation-states for the diverse peoples of the former empire. The cause of restoring the Habsburg monarchy might at that point have been lost forever, but Roth devoted himself to it. An outward sign of this idiosyncrasy was to have his trousers cut narrow in the leg, in the style of an Austrian cavalryman. His novel The Radetzky March, published in 1932, is an elegy to the fateful downfall of the Habsburgs. It is a work of art at the level of Proust’s commemoration of the belle époque and the Third Republic in France. Not surprisingly, this masterpiece was among the books that were burnt in bonfires under the supervision of Josef Goebbels in 1933.
The moment Hitler came to power, Roth fled to France, a country he idealized. “I am a Frenchman from the East, a humanist, a rationalist with religion,” was one of his self-definitions. But everything went wrong. His wife, Friederike Reichler, turned out to be a schizophrenic who had to be hospitalized permanently. Depending greatly on her parents to look after her, he was left in the lurch when they emigrated to Palestine in 1935. At one point he confesses to falling in love with a woman unsuitably much younger than himself. His companion for some years towards the end of his life was Andrea Manga Bell, a lady with a German mother, a Cuban father, and two children from her husband, the African king of Duala, otherwise the German Cameroons. For all her exoticism, she was another permanent charge on him. Domesticity was out of the question; he could only shift from one cheap hotel to another, bitterly joking that he was “a hotel patriot.” He identifies himself as someone whose possessions could be packed into three suitcases.
The Frankfurter Zeitung laid him off. Former editors and publishers were mostly obliged to flee abroad like him, and Nazis were then appointed to replace them. A number of these refugees started publishing books and magazines wherever they were but they could not afford advances large enough for their authors to live on. A few who had stayed in Germany tried to reach accommodation with the Nazis. Roth would have nothing to do with anyone who did not share his moral absolutes. Generous and impulsive, he would hand out his tiny royalties to as many as eight recipients, for example a hall porter to whom he owed no obligation. “I’ve nothing to eat unless someone asks me out, basically I don’t care,” Roth wrote to a friend. Suddenly he was angry and poor.
One friend also running from the Nazis was Stefan Zweig. Correspondence between them composes at least half of this book, and is an exceptional revelation of personality under the pressure of dreadful events. They were two of a kind, both Habsburg loyalists and both Jews. Zweig’s autobiographical The World of Yesterday has the same sense of regret for the lost beauty of the past as The Radetzky March. Both authors also now urgently needed a survival strategy. Better known abroad and also independently rich, Zweig had greater freedom of action. Within days of Hitler’s assumption of power, Roth was already making sure that Zweig understood what lay ahead: “Our literary and material existence has been wrecked — we are heading for a new war.” He rammed it in: “The barbarians have taken over. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns.”
Professing mutual esteem, friendship, and even love, the two are nonetheless formal enough to stick to the surname when addressing each other at the head of their letters. Roth habitually signs off “Your old Joseph Roth,” perhaps staking a claim to intimacy or to arouse pity. All too soon, Roth in France was in the humiliating position of sending begging letters to Zweig, who was either in an Austria shortly to be conquered by Hitler or else seeking refuge in London. From a hotel in Marseilles, for instance, Roth writes, “My dear friend, I must be free, just once, the relaxing of the noose isn’t enough, it has to be taken off. Oh, please, I need 12,000 francs by the end of August.” The exact sums sent by Zweig are not specified, but he evidently saved the day a few times and apparently without mentioning repayment.
In editorial commentary, Michael Hofmann judges that Roth manages to keep the balance between tragedy and dignity, ascribing to him a quality of “superb . . . puremindedness.” Small differences between the two men were magnified into issues. Zweig was one of the few who continued to treat with his publishers within Germany. This provoked Roth: “There will be an abyss between the two of us, unless and until you have finally and innerly broken with Germany. I would prefer it if you were fighting against it with all the power of your name. If you are unable to do that, then at least keep quiet.” He wouldn’t drop it. “You are removing yourself from me before my very eyes, you are becoming too worldly,” and this led to showing “comprehension of the swine.”
Right conduct in the face of Nazism was the question, and it is moving that the two argue about it without the one holding back for fear of getting no more money, and with the other never using that potential hold. Zweig asks Roth not to feel hate, not to exaggerate, at one point going so far as to write, “For God’s sake, man, get a grip on yourself.” Hell was indeed reigning, just as Roth had warned. Zweig comes to the point: “You must get it out of your head, the idea that we’re somehow being rough with you, or hard on you. Don’t forget we’re living in a period of general doom.” Still calm, he exhorts Roth to stop drinking, only to receive the evasive reply that alcohol was staving off immediate death. Hofmann is a scrupulous editor who has understood almost every aspect of this friendship, so it is a rare lapse on his part to write off Zweig’s concern for Roth as “pedagogy,” a term he uses more than once.
In London at the outbreak of war, Zweig developed paranoia about the Gestapo, and so he sought safety far away in Brazil. In 1942, he committed suicide there, as though to show that right to the very end he and Roth were still two of a kind.