A Life in Letters
Translated and edited by Michael Hofmann
Norton, $39.95, 512 pp.
Although the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth died less than a hundred years ago (in 1939), he speaks to us today as if from another world. He was born in 1894 in Galicia, a child of the Dual Monarchy—that rambling remainder of Christendom. He was a journalist, writing thousands of pieces for German newspapers throughout the 1920s and ’30s. And he was Jewish. These biographical facts form the basis of his masterpiece, The Radetzky March (1932), now widely considered a classic of modern European literature.
Roth’s world was that of pre–World War I Europe and the Habsburgs, whom he served faithfully on the eastern front from 1916 to 1918. In later years, he was famously to remark that he remained an Austrian patriot who loved “what is left of my homeland as sort of a relic.” He described the war and its dissolution of this homeland as “the most powerful experience of my life.” After the war, Roth became an exile, and remained one, living and traveling across the continent, all his belongings fitting into the two suitcases he always carried. A marriage turned out disastrously, and he was often worried about money, both for himself and for his wife, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She was later killed as part of the Nazi program to eliminate the “feeble-minded.”
Despite recent interest among Anglophone readers in Roth’s fiction and reporting, there has not yet been an English-...