Richard Melson

September 2006

Joseph Roth: Writer

Joseph Roth Online



Currently Available (in USA and UK):

The Collected Shorter Fiction of Joseph Roth, trans. by Michael Hofmann

(Granta Hardback, 2001)

What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933, trans. by Michael Hofmann (Granta Hardback, 2003)

The White Cities: Reports from France 1925-1939, trans. by Michael Hoffmann (Granta Paperback, 2005)

The Spider's Web: and Zipper and his Father, trans. by John Hoare (Overlook Hardback, 1990)

, trans. by Michael Hofmann (Granta Paperback, 2000)

, trans. by Michael Hofmann (St. Martin's Press Hardback, 1999)

Hotel Savoy; Fallmerayer the Stationmaster; The Bust of the Emperor
, trans. by John Hoare (Overlook Hardback, 1986)

Hotel Savoy
, trans. by Michael Hofmann (Granta Paperback, 2000)

Flight without End
, trans. by David Le Vay (Peter Owen, 2000)

The Wandering Jews, trans. by Michael Hofmann (Norton Hardback, 2000)

The Wandering Jews, trans. by Michael Hoffmann (Granta Hardback/Paperback, 2001)

Right and Left
, trans. by Michael Hofmann (Granta Paperback, 1999)

Right and Left and The Legend of the Holy Drinker (Overlook Paperback, 1993)

The Silent Prophet
, trans. by David Le Vay (Peter Owen, 2002)

Job, the Story of a Simple Man, trans. by Dorothy Thompson (Granta Paperback, 2000)

The Radetzky March
, trans. by Eva Tucker and Geoffrey Dunlop (Overlook Paperback, 1983)

The Radetzky March
, trans. by Joachim Neugroschel (Penguin Modern Classics Paperback, 1995)

The Radetzky March
, trans. by Joachim Neugroschel (McKay & David Hardback, 1996)

The Radetzky March, trans. by Michael Hofmann (Granta Hardback, 2002)

: A Guest on Earth, trans. by Winifred Katzin (Overlook Paperback, 1989)

Confession of a Murderer: Told in One Night
, trans. by Desmond I. Vesey (Overlook Paperback, 1987)

Weights and Measures, trans. by David Le Vay (Peter Owen, 2002)

The Emperor's Tomb, trans. by John Hoare (Overlook, 1990)

The Emperor's Tomb
, trans. by John Hoare (Granta Paperback, 1999)

The String of Pearls
, trans. by Michael Hofmann (Granta Paperback, 1999)

The Tale of the 1002nd Night
, trans. by Michael Hofmann (St Martin's Press Paperback, 1999)

The Legend of the Holy Drinker
, trans. by Michael Hofmann (Granta Hardback, Oct. 2000)

Further information:

Anyone interested in a more comprehensive historical account of Roth's reception in the English-speaking world should consult the following sources:

Rainer-Joachim Siegel, Joseph Roth - Bibliographie (Morsum, Sylt: Cicero, 1995)

Helen Chambers, 'Die Rezeption Joseph Roths in Grossbritannien', in Joseph Roth: Interpretation - Kritik - Rezeption, ed. by Michael Kessler and Fritz Hackert (Tuebingen: Stauffenburg, 1990), pp. 65-76

Cathe Giffuni, 'Joseph Roth: an English Bibliography', in Co-Existent Contradictions: Joseph Roth in Retrospect, ed. by Helen Chambers (Riverside: Ariadne, 1991), pp. 215-240.

Joseph Roth (1894-1939), though not as famous internationally as Franz Kafka or Thomas Mann, was amongst the most prolific and talented German-language authors of the early twentieth century. In a creative lifespan which was cut short by the ravages of political exile and alcoholism he produced some sixteen novels, as well as many thousands of articles for numerous newspapers and journals. In Germany and Austria today his work, much of which was out of print and almost completely forgotten only thirty years ago, has managed a rare feat, bridging the gap between a popular readership and academic German Studies, a discipline which has traditionally favoured intellectually heavyweight or formally experimental literature. Yet he remains a complex, elusive figure, whose fiction is only now being discovered in all its diversity by English-speaking readers.

Roth’s Style

His turbulent life during a traumatic period of European history, and his tragic death in exile in 1939, have ensured an enduring fascination with Joseph Roth, and many of his texts were rediscovered alongside those of fellow exiled writers by a disaffected younger generation in the 1960s. However, were it not for his skill as a writer, Roth would scarcely be worthy of recommendation. Let us begin, then, by considering one or two formal points, before broadening the scope a little.

Readers of Joseph Roth’s novels and novellas, which include Hotel Savoy (1924), Flight Without End (1927), Job (1930), The Radetzky March (1932) and The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1939), are frequently struck by the quality of the prose. It is characterised by a lightness of touch and deceptive simplicity which is in marked contrast to the grammatically dense weight of

the prose perceived by many, Germans included, to be typical of German literature. It is a style which reflects his mastery of the journalistic Feuilleton, the short prose essay form which had been honed into an art by German and Austrian writers such as Karl Kraus, Peter Altenberg, and Alfred Polgar. These pieces are less ‘news’ stories than personal observations, and in most cases hinge on details or occurrences gleaned from everyday life. ‘Only the small things in life are important’, as Roth observed in an early article. The ability to focus on detail, to draw the general from the particular, and to make the familiar seem strange, is a characteristic of Roth’s writing. Consider the following, from an article (‘A Stroll’) describing a walk through the busy streets of western Berlin in 1921:

What I see, in the visage of the street and of the day, are only the most laughably inconspicuous features. A horse harnessed to a carriage is looking into its full nosebag with its head low, and does not know that horses originally entered the world without carriages. A child at the edge of a street is playing marbles and watching the functional chaos of the adults, and […] does not suspect that it already embodies the perfection of creation, but instead yearns to be grown up.

Precisely the same style is employed in his fiction. It is present in his 1927 novel of postwar life Flight Without End, whose reputation at the time as a piece of supposed ‘objective’ or ‘documentary’ literature was in part based on the unsentimental distance – one might even say alienation - from the world affected both by the narrator and the central protagonist. Somewhat disingenuously, Roth claimed in his foreword: ‘I have invented nothing, made up nothing’. What he meant was that he had striven to grant his fictional story a setting in the real world as he, a writer and reporter, saw it. Thus the following passage from Flight Without End describing a train journey in a manner reminiscent of cinematic montage might just as well have found a place in Roth’s journalism:

He had to change trains once on the way. He did not halt anywhere. Of Germany he saw only the stations, the sign-boards, the posters, the churches, the hotels by the railway, the silent grey streets of the suburbs, and the suburban trains looking like tired animals emerging from their stables.

Hotel Savoy provides evidence of another hallmark of Roth’s writing, namely the employment of narrative structures and motifs derived from myth, parables or folk tales. This short novel, his first to be published as a separate volume (as opposed to newspaper serialisation), is set in a bizarre hotel in the aftermath of the War. Roth was fond of hotels, and enjoyed the combination of transience and permanence, of distance and intimacy that they could provide. His fictional hotel, owned by a mysterious millionaire whose identity emerges only at the end of the story, functions as a topsy-turvy metaphor of society: the poor reside at the top of the hotel and the wealthy in the floors below. Only the angelic protagonist Gabriel is able to move between these segregated social spheres. The juxtaposition of a type of symbolism reminiscent of Kafka with moments of disarming realism lends this early novel a unique flavour.

A Jewish Writer?

Roth achieves something similar in his reworking of the story of Job (Job, 1930), set amongst the orthodox Jews of Eastern Europe whose shtetl are now long since vanished. This novel is now studied by countless German schoolchildren every year; it provided Roth with his commercial breakthrough and also helped cement Roth’s reputation, in the minds of some, as a ‘Jewish’ writer, and a sentimental one at that, thanks to the novel’s somewhat implausible happy ending. It is not difficult to trace the influence of Roth’s Jewishness on his work, both explicit and implicit. It is discernible, for example, in Roth’s many tales of literal or metaphysical ‘homelessness’, already evident in Hotel Savoy and even more pronounced in Flight Without End. With this in mind, it is unsurprising to discover that Roth was hostile to Zionism, believing that the very condition of ‘statelessness’ was in a profound sense innate or essential to the Jewish people, the lives of whose working class he had documented in a series of essays, published as The Wandering Jews (1926).

An Austrian Writer?

Yet Roth is an author who defies convenient ‘labelling’. Again and again, ambivalence of various types seems to sum up his life, attitudes, and work. If, on the one hand, Flight Without End reflects the stateless condition of the Jewish disapora, on the other it may be read alongside other documents of the so-called ‘lost’ generation of young men unable to integrate into postwar life. And though it is plausible to argue that Roth’s Jewish identity is a key to understanding his work, for many, perhaps even for the majority of his readers, Roth will remain, above all, an Austrian writer. Indeed, in 1994 the Austrian post office honoured him by issuing a stamp featuring a rather garish portrait of him. The fact that Roth was seen as an appropriate figure to grace Austrian postage made quite clear that he was considered, unambiguously, to be an Austrian writer, perhaps even an archetypally Austrian one.

The main reason for this is the continued fame of Roth’s most celebrated novel, The Radetzky March (1932). Few would claim it is anything other than an elegy to the lost empire of the Habsburgs. The novel tells the story of the three generations of the Trotta family, whose rise to bourgeois respectability and ultimate demise is mysteriously entwined with and mirrored by the life of the long-serving emperor Franz Joseph (1830-1916). The novel’s title refers, of course, to Strauss’s famous march, the unofficial anthem of the ancien regime, the sentimental recollection of which accompanies the young protagonist Carl Joseph, an aspiring but inept soldier, through each stage of a life marked, like the final years of the empire, by decline, decay and death. There is, we should be clear, little sentimentality in Roth’s evocation of a dying regime, whose fate is portrayed as inevitable and in a sense as deserved, but the prevailing melancholy tone, and the evident belief in the potential benefits of empire, make clear that this is no Marxist dissection of imperialism. Some later texts, including the ‘sequel’ to The Radetzky March, The Emperor’s Tomb (1938), the completion of which was unwisely fast-tracked in response to Germany’s annexation of Austria in March 1938, contributed further to a widespread assumption that Roth was, more than anything, an ‘Austrian’ writer.

Yet it is precisely this which provides an irony, for Roth would never have recognized the small country we now know as Austria as his homeland, despite spending several years in Vienna. Roth was ‘Austrian’ in precisely the same way that, for most of his life, the Prague resident Franz Kafka was. True, Roth was able to claim Austrian citizenship after the War, but for Roth, as is made plain in his novels, Austria was not so much a nationality as a supra-national idea, an ideal to be striven for. In the disintegrating Europe of the 1930s, divided into aggressively nationalistic, splintering states, and with the ever-present threat of fascism, Joseph Roth felt lost, and chose to spend his final years in cosmopolitan Paris rather than Vienna.

A Mythologised Biography

Roth’s peculiarly ambivalent identity, which managed to encompass an intense feeling of Jewishness and an identification with the Catholicism of the Habsburgs, has its origins in his upbringing. For many years the details of his family, schooling, war service and early career were the subject of much debate, and a good deal of false information has, over the years, been published. Chief instigator of this was Roth himself, who was dubbed by his biographer David Bronsen, thanks to whose painstaking research in the 1960s and 1970s we now know most of the facts, a ‘mythomaniac’. By the end of his life it may even have been the case that he himself believed in certain of the ‘myths’ he had created for himself – for example, in his claim that he was born in the village of ‘Schwabendorf’, that his father had been a gentile officer in the Austrian army, or that he had himself served as an officer during the War, and had been a prisoner of war in Siberia. None of these assertions was true, but all were, for a time, believed, and found their way into encyclopaedia entries and into paperback editions of his books. He was born in 1894 to Jewish parents in the small town of Brody in Galicia, which was then located at the easternmost edge of the Austro-Hungarian empire, close to the border with Russia. His father, apparently prone to mental illness, absconded soon after Roth’s birth and he was raised, an only child, by his mother. He received a middle-class German-speaking education, and went on to study in Lemberg (now L’vov) and Vienna before the First World War intervened. The religious, ethnic, cultural and linguistic make-up of his hometown left a lasting impression upon the young Roth. He grew up in a community dominated by Yiddish-speaking Hasidic Jews, whose rituals, dress and devotion to their faith fascinated him. This was the world he was to evoke so memorably in The Wandering Jews, Job, passages of The Radetzky March¸ and later short stories such as The Leviathan (first published in 1941). But he would have been equally accustomed to German-speaking bureaucrats and soldiers, and to the many Slavic farmers and tradespeople speaking Polish, Russian and Ukrainian. Brody, truly a liminal place of blurred borders and boundaries, became a part of Poland in 1919, and of the USSR after 1945, and is today in the Ukraine. At the time of Roth’s birth 15,000 of the town’s 25,000 inhabitants were Jewish, but today Brody, with its rich heritage and strong Jewish, Polish, Austrian and German connections, is home only to Christian Ukrainians. The diversity which Joseph Roth so loved is truly gone, and indeed had started to disappear at the end of the First World War. Roth, having served two years in the army, had left by that stage to begin his successful career, first in Vienna, and for most of the 1920s in Berlin. He returned to Galicia only infrequently. Joseph Roth’s formative experiences of life, then, had taken place in a particular context, in which multiculturalism and tolerance of difference played an important part. Roth, in later life, tended to exaggerate the extent of this tolerance, casting the area and the period almost as a sort of lost utopia. But for the town to have existed for so long with such a mix of population a degree of tolerance, surely, must have been essential.

This leads to a second observation. For many middle-class European Jews in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there existed a tension between their loyalty to and desire to feel part of, on the one hand, the Jewish community and its traditions, which could provide a concrete identity, ethical values and a sense of certainty, and, on the other, the secular host society. For Kafka, some ten years older than Roth, the tension between religious and secular identity, between his sense of himself as a Jew and his desire to assimilate, was acute. But in a community as diverse as Brody, just how would one go about ‘assimilating’? To which ‘host’ culture in a town dominated by Jews is one to assimilate, and to which of the five languages spoken? The Jewish community was of course heterogeneous, with considerable differences in the lifestyles of the working class, the orthodox, and the middle-class trades and business people, and between those who spoke Yiddish, those who favoured Polish, and those, like Roth, who spoke German. It must have seemed to the young Joseph Roth, in contrast to Kafka’s experiences growing up as a member of a minority in urban Prague, that in Galicia there was in fact no need to assimilate, that with so many different communities living cheek by jowl one could, so to speak, custom-build one’s identity, one’s allegiances, and truly have the best of both worlds. Reading Roth’s oeuvre in retrospect, with its unique mixture of cosmopolitan wit and sophistication, left-wing politics, conservative nostalgia, and religiosity, it seems as if this is what he was attempting. In a very real sense Joseph Roth devoted his life to repeated attempts to recapture something of the atmosphere of his youth.

Political Ambivalence

The sheer diversity Roth managed in these attempts is remarkable, and, at the same time, the signal of a degree of uncertainty and ambivalence. This ambivalence is perhaps most notoriously evident in Roth’s politics, which in a span of less than twenty years seemed, on the face of it, to have performed a complete U-turn. In his early years Roth had professed to be a socialist, and wrote for numerous liberal and left-wing journals, even signing many of his articles with the nom de plume ‘Der rote Joseph’ (‘Red Joseph’). Though this latter detail should probably be understood more as punning reference to his surname (Rot(h) = red) than a serious political statement, it nevertheless came as something of a shock to many of Roth’s liberal friends to find him, by the mid-1930s, adopting an anti-modernist and politically conservative stance. It should be noted that the intervening years of restless work and travel, and the increasingly hostile and fractious climate in Germany, prior to 1933, had taken their toll on Roth. In addition to this, his wife Friedl’s development of schizophrenia and permanent hospitalisation in 1929 were heavy blows, and certainly contributed to Roth’s view of the contemporary world in purely negative terms. Whereas for much of the 1920s Roth had engaged with postwar politics and society, his final years were preoccupied with the past. During these years of exile from Hitler’s Germany Roth, whose works had been blacklisted by the Nazis and consigned to the funeral pyres of ‘degenerate’ books, was of course a vocal anti-fascist, but rather than espouse a broadly left-wing, republican and democratic stance, Roth aligned himself with the Catholic Habsburg Legitimists, that is with the exiled Austrian monarchists favouring the reinstatement of the emperor. This eccentric and entirely unrealistic goal alienated a number of Roth’s friends, though it should be emphasised that his belief in the value of human life, of a positive sense of community, and of tolerance was consistent and unwavering throughout his career. Moreover, he seldom allowed either his political views or his ultimately suicidal daily consumption of vast quantities of alcohol in various Parisian cafés to affect the content or quality of his work. His final works of fiction, at their best, display a crystalline, polished prose, a simplicity of form, and a preoccupation with morality and the difficulty of leading a just life.

I shall conclude with a reference to a late text which combines, formally and in its central concerns, Roth’s most recognisable and admirable qualities. Weights and Measures, a novella published in 1937 (and recently reissued in David Le Vay’s translation by Peter Owen), tells the story of an inspector of weights and measures, stationed in a remote eastern outpost of the old empire. This simple tale hinges on the ironic contrast between the inflexible bureaucratic system, bent on applying the letter of the law, and a community which values tradition, difference, and individuality. The inspector, sworn to uphold, literally, the ‘balance’ of society, becomes infatuated with a woman and dependent on drink. As is common in Roth’s final, melancholy fables, it is only in death that insight is granted to the inspector. In a dying vision he is told: ‘All your weights are false, and yet they are all correct’ (it’s perhaps worth mentioning that the original title, with Proverbs 11:1 in mind, is Das falsche Gewicht, literally ‘The False Weight’). This, far from being a paradox, reflects a fundamental, spiritual truth in the world presented to us in Joseph Roth’s fiction. Those things of true value often seem to have no place in the rational modern age, and may not be valid when scrutinized by a sceptic, but are precious nonetheless: faith, tolerance, instinct, community, love. This old-fashioned and timeless message has seldom been conveyed as movingly and memorably as in the work of Joseph Roth, whose work will, I am certain, continue to find many new admirers in the years to come.

Joseph Roth

Joseph Roth (September 2, 1894 in Brody - May 27, 1939 in Paris) was an Austrian novelist, best known for his family saga Radetzky March (1932), and for his novel of Jewish life, Job (1930).

Roth grew up in Brody, a small town near Lviv in Galicia, part of the easternmost reaches of the Habsburg Empire. Jewish culture played an important role in the life of the town.

Roth fought in the Imperial Habsburg army during the First World War, which had a major and long-lasting influence on his life. So, too, did the collapse of the Habsburg Empire in 1918. In 1916, Roth quit his university course and volunteered to serve in the Austrian army. This period marked the beginning of a pronounced sense of 'homelessness', which was to feature regularly in his work. In 1920 he moved to Berlin, where he worked as a highly successful journalist for the Neue Berliner Zeitung, then from 1921 for the Berliner Börsen-Courier. Later he became a features correspondent for the well-known liberal Frankfurter Zeitung, travelling widely throughout Europe. In 1925 he spent an influential period working in France and never again resided permanently in Berlin. In the late 1920s, his wife Friederike had become schizophrenic, which threw Roth into a deep crisis both emotionally and financially.

In 1923 Roth's first novel, The Spider's Web, was serialized in an Austrian newspaper and he achieved moderate success as a writer throughout the 1920s with a series of novels documenting life in post-War Europe. Only upon publication of Job and Radetzky March did he achieve real acclaim as a novelist.

From 1930, Roth's fiction became less concerned with contemporary society, with which he had become increasingly disillusioned, and during this period his work frequently evoked a melancholic nostalgia for life in imperial Central Europe prior to 1914. He often portrayed the fate of homeless wanderers looking for a place to live, in particular Jews and former citizens of the old Austria-Hungary, who, with the downfall of the monarchy, had lost their only possible Heimat or true home. In his later works in particular, Roth appeared to wish that the monarchy could be restored in all its old glamour, even though at the start of his career he had written under the codename of "Red Joseph". His longing for a more tolerant past may be partly explained as a reaction against the nationalism of the time which finally culminated in National Socialism.

The novel The Radetzky March (1932) and the story Die Büste des Kaisers (The Bust of the Emperor) (1935) are typical of this late phase. In the novel The Emperor's Tomb Roth describes the fate, up until Germany's annexation of Austria in 1938, of a cousin of the hero of The Radetzky March. Of his works which deal with Judaism, the novel "Job" is the best-known.

Upon Hitler's rise to power in 1933 Roth, as a prominent liberal Jewish journalist, was forced to leave Austria, and spent most of the next decade in Paris, a city he loved. Without intending to deny his Jewish origins, Roth considered his relationship to Catholicism very important, and in the final years of his life, he may even have converted; his translator Michael Hofmann states in the collection of essays ""Report from a Parisian Paradise"" that Roth "was said to have had two funerals, one Jewish, one Catholic." Despite suffering from chronic alcoholism and becoming increasingly eccentric politically, Roth remained prolific until his premature death in Paris in 1939. His final novella, The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1939), is amongst his finest, and chronicles the attempts made by an alcoholic vagrant to regain his dignity and honour a debt.

Joseph Roth is interred in the Thiais cemetery to the south of Paris.


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