The Spirited Letters of Joseph Roth

Reviewed in this essay: Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, translated and edited by Michael Hoffman. W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.

Some writers do their most interesting work in correspondence; only with the right private audience does their voice reach its full potential. The letters of Kingsley Amis, for instance, are more hilarious, caustic, and inventively crude than any of his novels. Flaubert’s letters, in my opinion, reveal his genius at a much higher pitch than does Madame Bovary. The writing in Joseph Roth: a Life in Letters, recently translated and edited by Michael Hoffman, does not transcend the style found in Roth’s greatest novels and journalism. The appeal of these letters is that they are written from close to the bone, in fits of desperation, rage, madness. What emerges is a riveting portrait of one of the most prolific and peripatetic German-speaking writers of the twentieth century.

Moses Joseph Roth was the only child born into a Jewish family in Brody, Galicia, in 1894; two decades later he served with the Austro-Hungarian army on the eastern front as the monarchy he was raised under fell. After the war, he started out as a journalist in Vienna, writing for left-wing papers, then made his way to Paris. Here Roth’s letters begin in earnest. He reveals himself as a tough-nosed journalist, ceaselessly haggling with publishers and editors for advances and payments. Over the next ten years he would become a published novelist and one of the best paid bylines in many German papers. Yet he couldn’t hold onto a dime—he either gave his money away or sunk it in schnapps. He lived only in cheap hotels or as a fleeting house-guest; owned just two suits and two suitcases. He was unable to accept even a morsel of security. It seems that his lifestyle was governed by the same heightened sensitivity to the European continent that defined all his work: he could only function on the brink of utter disaster.

Roth’s central correspondent through the latter part of his life was the older and more famous Austrian novelist, Stefan Zweig, who was everything that Roth was not: privately wealthy, distinguished, mild-tempered. When Hitler rose to power in 1933, Roth could not ignore the strong scent of blood in the air. “Do not deceive yourself,” he wrote to the less troubled Zweig. “Hell reigns.” Censorship laws initiated by the National Socialist Party made work for German papers nearly impossible. Roth drank more and more, destroying what was left of his health. “If I don’t vomit spleen and blood,” he wrote to Zweig, “then my eyes are inflamed, or my feet are swollen. Palpitations, heart pain, shocking migraines, teeth falling out…” Yet he continued to write at a manic pace, often working on two or three novels at once. Zweig pleaded with him to go easy on the schnapps; to spend a few weeks rest in the country. Roth continuously shot back, scolding his influential friend for remaining too passive in the face of the Nazi threat. From a bed in a Paris hotel room on 18 rue de Tournon, he wrote his last letter to Zweig, who was beginning to lose hope in humanity as the inevitability of WWII became increasingly apparent:

I don’t see, dear friend, why you describe our situation as “hopeless.” If it is, then only because you make it so: we have the duty, the absolute duty, to show not the least pessimism… Our situation is by no means as hopeless as you would have it. You’re a defeatist.
In spite of which, I remain sincerely
your Joseph Roth.

Roth died soon after. He was 44 years old. The year: 1939. (Three years later, Zweig would commit joint suicide with his wife in Brazil, where he had fled to from Europe).

In his lifetime, Roth authored seventeen books, countless stories, and well over four thousand columns and articles. His masterpiece, The Radetzky March, stands in contrast with that other monumental novel about the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. The Radetzy March descends, root-like, into “the whirring gears of the great hidden mills that were already grinding out the Great War”; The Man Without Qualities tells the same story, but from the sky, in a sort of billowing cloud of tangential abstraction.

A biography of Joseph Roth has yet to be written. This collection of his letters most likely contains more insight into his turbulent and impassioned life than any such book could achieve.

About the author

Jules Lewis

Jules Lewis is the author of Waiting for Ricky Tantrum. His play, Tomasso's Party, recently received a Dora for Outstanding New Independent Production.

By Jules Lewis