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-language edition of his letters. Veteran Roth translator Michael Hofmann has now filled that gap, providing the first translation of some four hundred fifty letters to and from Roth, derived from a German edition published in 1970. These letters provide non-German readers with a mesmerizing view of Roth himself, as well as a harrowing view of a dissolving Europe.
Hofmann has divided the volume into four chronological parts. The first covers Roth’s early life, until 1920. This section has the fewest letters, most of them written to relatives in Lemberg (now Lviv). These provide a marked contrast to the later letters and their more serious voice. In the early letters, Roth’s voice still has buoyant youthfulness; once he reaches Germany, as Hofmann notes, “you won’t hear it again.”
The second and third sections cover the years 1920 to 1933. At the beginning of this period, Roth was twenty-five and newly arrived in Berlin, where he dived into the publishing world with a regular column at one of the dailies. The end of this period saw the writing and publication of Radetzky. The letters from these years give the impression of restless movement, to the West and Paris then to the East and Russia, then back again with stops at numerous points in between, including a late-1920s trip to Albania. Almost always, especially during the last years, there are requests for money and support (of himself and others), trenchant observations, and aggressive claims for his work. (In 1926, he wrote to a boss and sometime friend at the Frankfurter Zeitung, “I don’t write ‘witty glosses.’ I paint the portrait of an age”—his emphasis.) Roth’s relationship with the most influential German paper of the day takes up much of the correspondence through the 1920s. Hofmann’s notes and sometimes wry commentary give us basic information about the major players, but it is Roth’s voice that makes them come alive. That voice was strident, uncompromising, but full of humanity and humor, traits that were to come to the fore again later in his life. Penniless himself, he often gave what he had to even poorer writers.
Despite his intense disagreements with the Frankfurter Zeitung, it was the paper with which Roth had his longest and most fruitful relationship. The paper published Radetzky in installments through 1932. Hofmann notes the historical irony that this supreme triumph of the German literary sensibility and achievement of European culture was published just in time to be burned in a Nazi rally in 1933. By then, however, Roth had left Berlin, never to return.
The last section of correspondence, titled “After Hitler: Work, Despair, Diminishing Circles, Work, and Death,” presents Roth’s harrowing final years, when he descended into alcohol-induced sickness while witnessing at firsthand the rise of Hitler and the coming of another World War. These last years also feature extended correspondence between Roth and his fellow Austrian novelist, Stefan Zweig, who at the time was vastly more popular and successful. Zweig and his wife escaped Europe in 1939, only to kill themselves three years later. Zweig acknowledged that Roth was the greater writer—and Roth didn’t disagree—so the relationship was always somewhat sensitive. Though Zweig often assisted Roth financially, Roth could not keep himself from critiques of his friend’s work. In a sly aside, Hofmann notes the contemporary “creeping inability to distinguish between Zweig and Roth, which is basically illiterate and unpardonable.”
Roth’s Radetzky has sometimes been compared to Giuseppe Lampedusa’s The Leopard, which was published a quarter-century after Radetzky. Both chronicled the foolishness and superficiality of Europe’s old order, as it made way for the new. Despite obvious differences of temperament and circumstance, the Galician Jew and Sicilian-German prince shared a clear-sightedness about human nature that allowed them to see the advantages of what had been left behind, and the shallow certainties and novel dangers of the Europe to come. Lampedusa chronicled the rise of the nationalists and the fascists, and saw how Garibaldi’s promise of civic and economic equality actually played out in the Sicilian countryside. Roth, for his part, was much more prescient than the pacifist Zweig about the Nazis. In letters reproduced here, Roth offers his first warning against what was coming to Germany: “It will have become clear to you now that we are headed for a great catastrophe…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.” That was in February 1933, a month after Hitler had been elected chancellor of Germany. A month later, Roth wrote again to Zweig, asking him not to remain in Germany. The letter laments the Nazis and their opposition not only to the Jews but to civilization and humanity. At the same time, Roth reflects on the difficult situation Jews like him and Zweig were in: inculturated in a pre-Nazi era, their German culture would not save them now:
Our forefathers are Goethe Lessing Herder as much as they are Abraham Isaac and Jacob. And anyway, we are not being beaten, as our ancestors were, by devout Christians, but rather by godless heathens. The Jews are not the only ones they are out to get…. The onslaught this time is against European civilization, against humanity, whose proud champion you are. (And against God.)
The difference for Roth between 1933 and 1914 is that even the bad excuses for horrific behavior have now been discarded. He distinguishes between “a sick animal like Goering and Wilhelm II, who at least kept vestiges of humanity.” The old restraints, such as they were, of civilization and a common culture have been torn off. There is no longer any real pretext for what Roth calls “bestial” behavior; it just is, and the culture could no longer even “discern stupidity, bestiality, and madness” enough to condemn it. But Roth did condemn it. His great novel about “old Austria” must therefore be seen not only as a product of high European culture but as part of Roth’s defense of European civilization against barbarism.