l i t e r a r y l i v e s dan i e l j ohn s on
Wandering Jew Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters Translated and edited by Michael Hofmann
(Granta Books 576pp £25)
Who is the greatest novelist called Roth? Philip and Henry both have their claims, but the one who will still be read in centuries to come is not an American but a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Joseph Roth. The name – pronounced ‘rote’ in German – means ‘red’, and that is appropriate, for Roth was a lifelong socialist. But he was also an ardent monarchist, long after the demise of the House of Habsburg. Roth’s life was a losing struggle with authority, money and drink. But he wrote like a recording angel, setting down his recollections of ‘the world of yesterday’, as his friend Stefan Zweig called the Vienna of the haute bourgeoisie: a world that embraced the remotest regions of the realm. For Roth, a native of Galicia, the old emperor was a sacral fathersubstitute and his empire ‘a kind of relic’. His greatest novel, The Radetzky March, is an elegy to this paradise lost.
The facts of Roth’s life are by no means straightforward, for he reinvented himself in later life in order to lend plausibility to his monarchist leanings. In one 1932 letter to the author of a flattering review, for instance, he claims that in the First World War he was commissioned as a lieutenant in a prestigious regiment and was decorated for valour three times. To those on the Left whom he wished to impress, he boasted that he had been taken prisoner by the Russians and escaped, changing sides after the Revolution and fighting for the Red Army.
The truth was more mundane: he was never an officer, won no medals, was never captured and never even saw action. In fact, it was in the war that he learned his trade as a journalist, helping to edit an army newspaper in Lemberg (now Lviv), working as an army censor and, after the collapse of the monarchy, returning to Vienna, where he found work in the newly fashionable socialist press. In 1920 he decamped to Berlin, where he continued to move in left-wing circles while writ-
ing for business-friendly papers. To one of his colleagues at the Berliner BörsenCourier, he professed to have resigned on principle: ‘I am no longer able to share the outlook of a bourgeois readership and remain their Sunday chatterbox if I am not to deny my socialism on a daily basis.’ Bizarrely, Michael Hofmann praises this letter as an instance of Roth’s ‘rhetorical power’, even ‘ferocity’, and ‘fearlessness when confronting others in authority’. But Roth continued in a decidedly more pragmatic vein: ‘It ’s possible that, out of weakness, I might have repressed my convictions in return for a higher salary or more frequent recognition of my work.’ Such cynical views are echoed elsewhere: ‘Hunger trumps sentiment.’
In reality, Roth’s political ‘convictions’ were neither firm nor coherent, and certainly not what moved him most or inspired his best work. Though he began as a social democrat, simultaneously flirting with communism and monarchism, he never felt at home in the Weimar Republic, which he abandoned after Hindenburg was elected president in 1925. Yet from a safe distance in France we find him in 1927 insisting that he prefers the old field marshal to a leading member of the dwindling republican band who remained true to the democratic system: ‘I’d a thousand times rather Hindenburg than Koch – more honest, stronger, freer.’ Roth was quick to spot Hitler as a menace and loathed everything that the Nazi leader stood for but, like so many literary men of the day, he found the compromises of democratic politics distasteful and tended to base his judgements on aesthetic rather than political considerations. When in 1931 he returned to a Germany in the grip of the depression, what struck him was not the rising tide of political violence but its vulgarity compared to Paris: ‘Every street corner expresses the awfulness of the whole country. It has the ugliest prostitutes … The men are all scoutmasters on
Roth: in vino veritas display.’ Hofmann compares this passage to ‘the sarcastic horror paintings of Otto Dix’, but Roth lacks Dix’s affection for even his most hideous portrait subjects.
Another obstacle that prevented Roth from seeing the impending Nazi threat more clearly was the fact that he suffered from a bad case of Jewish self-hatred. This volume of letters is peppered with remarks that, if one did not know that the author was himself Jewish, would lead one to suppose that he was just another anti-Semite. He did not only write such bêtises to fellow Jews in an ironical vein, but to gentiles he wished to convince that he was ‘a European … a Roman and a Catholic, a Humanist and a Renaissance man’, rather than the Jew from Galicia.
Only after Hitler came to power did Roth face the fact that, as he put it to his friend and patron Stefan Zweig in February 1933, ‘quite apart from our personal situations – our literary and material existence has been wrecked – we are headed for a new war. I wouldn’t give a heller for our prospects. The barbarians have taken over. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns.’ Zweig dithered, both about permanent emigration and about quitting his publisher, in the hope that the Nazi madness would soon blow over. Quite rightly, Roth was harsh in his criticism of such wishful thinking. He believed that Hitler’s rule would last four years and end either in catastrophe or the restoration of the monarchy. His own monarchism revived as he contemplated the spread of f e b r u a r y 2 0 1 2 | Literary Review 5