Richard Melson

June 2006

Right and Left: Joseph Roth

Right and Left (1929) A novel by Joseph Roth

Joseph Roth:

Joseph Roth (September 2, 1894 in Brody - May 27, 1939 in Paris) was an Austrian Jewish novelist who converted to Catholicism and is best known for his family saga The 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 eastern most 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 Buste 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 Germany, and spent most of the next decade in Paris, a city he loved. Without wanting 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. 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.

Roth is buried in Thiais cemetery to the south of Paris.


Editorial Reviews: Right and Left, first published in 1929

Book Description
Joseph Roth has been described as "one of the greatest writers in German of this century" (The Times). With tragic foresight, Right and Left, first published in 1929, evokes the nightlife, corruption, political unrest, and economic tyranny of Berlin in the twenties, the same territory covered trenchantly in Roth’s reportage, recently published as What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-33.

After serving in World War I, Paul Bernheim returns to Berlin to find himself heir to his recently deceased father’s banking empire. Increasingly beset by skyrocketing inflation, and dismayed by his brother’s infatuation with the brownshirts, Bernheim turns to an outsider for help—a profiteering Russian émigré whose advice proves alternately advantageous and disastrous. Too late to change his fate, he realizes he has been decieved by a master in the craft of manipulation.

About the Author
Joseph Roth worked as a journalist following World War I in Vienna and Berlin and was one of the central figures of the opposition to the Nazis. He lived in exile in Paris until his death in 1939, leaving behind thirteen acclaimed novels and numerous stories and essays.

January 27, 2004

Joseph Roth Right and Left