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Commemorating Joseph Roth

By Jon Hughes

‘It’s only the minutiae of life that are important.’

Joseph Roth (1894-1939), the seventieth anniversary of whose early death falls in May this year, was a remarkable, prolific author who lived a turbulent and colourful life. He is a writer whose reputation continues to grow, and who seems to embody the contradictions of modernity and of twentieth-century European identities – a Jewish writer who explored Catholic themes, an ‘Austrian’ writer whose career was decisively shaped by the time he spent living and working in Germany, a ‘socialist’ writer who eventually embraced conservative, monarchist tendencies, a modernist whose most successful work recalls the realism of the nineteenth century and the folk tales of his childhood. His peak years, fuelled by the chronic alcoholism that would eventually kill him, were restless. Living in temporary accommodation and hotels, Roth criss-crossed Europe with pen in hand, drinking, talking, observing and writing in the bars and cafés of the great cities. The stations of his life are documented, vividly, in his writing – the eastern European shtetl of his Galician childhood; the fading glory of imperial Vienna; the excitement of Berlin in the 1920s; exile, anger and disillusionment in Paris and Amsterdam in the 1930s.
The White Cities:
Reports from France 1925-39
Collected Short Fiction
Roth’s most celebrated novel, Radetzkymarsch (1932) (The Radetzky March, most recently translated by Michael Hofmann, Granta, 2002), remains an excellent starting point for a reader new to his work. Written and published at a time of economic and political crisis, in the final years before Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, this historical novel is an elegy to a vanished world and to unrealised dreams. Reading it is an immersive experience; a scrupulously researched narrative guides us confidently through Austria-Hungary as it once was, a realm of strange but comforting rituals, traditions, and patterns, of rural simplicity and metropolitan grandeur, of bewildering cultural and linguistic diversity and a fragile common bond – the Empire itself. The novel tells the story of 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 longserving Austrian emperor Franz Joseph (1830-1916). The novel’s title refers, of course, to Strauss’s famous march, the unofficial anthem of the ancien régime, 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 Habsburg empire, by decline, decay and death.
The Radetzky March
proved definitive for Roth’s reputation as an ‘Austrian’ writer, but recent years have seen a more rounded picture of his work emerge, as readers of both the original German texts and the growing number of translations into other languages have discovered the range of his output. Although he is celebrated primarily as a novelist – whose other significant works include Hotel Savoy (1924), Flucht ohne Ende (Flight Without End) (1927), and Hiob (Job) (1930) – he was also the author of many thousands of articles for various newspapers and journals. It was in his journalism, an ostensibly ephemeral and underappreciated form of writing, that Roth learnt his craft as a writer. Readers of Joseph Roth’s fiction are frequently struck by the quality of the prose. It is characterised by a lightness of touch and deceptive simplicity that 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 that reflects his mastery of the journalistic Feuilleton, the short prose essay form honed into an art by German and Austrian writers such as Karl Kraus, Peter Altenberg, and Alfred Polgar. The Feuilleton is not so much a ‘news’ story as a form of personal observation, and in most cases hinges on details or occurrences gleaned from everyday life. ‘It’s only the minutiae of life that are important’, as Roth observed in an early article, one of a number now available in English translation (‘Ein Spaziergang’ (‘Going for a Walk’, in What I Saw, page 24). The ability to focus on unexpected detail, to draw the general from the particular, and to make the familiar seem strange, is a characteristic of Roth’s writing. In the same piece, describing a walk through the busy streets of western Berlin in 1921, he presents a vivid montage of street life that becomes almost philosophical in the way it celebrates the fleeting moment:
What I see is the day in all its absurdity and triviality. A horse, harnessed to a cab, staring with lowered head into its nose bag, not knowing that horses originally came into the world without cabs; a small boy playing with marbles on the pavement – he watches the purposeful bustle of the grownups all around him, and, himself full of the delights of idleness, has no inkling that he already represents the acme of creation, but instead yearns to be grown up. (What I Saw, page 23).
Very much the same style is employed in his fiction. It is present, for example, in his 1927 novel of postwar life, Flight Without End, whose reputation at the time as a piece of supposedly ‘objective’ or ‘documentary’ literature derived in part from the unsentimental distance – one might even say alienation – from the world affected both by the narrator and the central protagonist. Somewhat disingenuously, Roth claims in a brief ‘foreword’: ‘I have invented nothing, made up nothing’ (page 5). What he means is that he has striven to grant his fictional story a setting in the real world as he, a writer and reporter, saw it. The relationship between his practice as a journalist and the approach to description he adopted in his fiction is evident, for example, in the following passage from Flight Without End, which describes a train journey in a manner reminiscent of cinematic montage:
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. (Page 67).
Roth is an author who defies convenient ‘labelling’. Again and again, ambivalence and ambiguity of various types seem to sum up his life, attitudes, and work. If, on the one hand, the notion of ‘flight without end’ reflects the stateless condition of the Jewish Diaspora, on the other the novel can just as well be read alongside other documents of the so-called ‘lost’ generation of young men unable to integrate into postwar life. And although it is plausible to argue that Roth’s Jewish identity is a key to understanding his work, for many readers he will remain, above all, an Austrian writer, even though he spent relatively little time resident in the postwar Austrian state.
The Wandering Jews
Roth’s peculiarly ambivalent identity and characteristic themes have their origins in his upbringing. Roth 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. 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 his 1926 reportage Juden auf Wanderschaft (The Wandering Jews), in Hiob, in passages of Radetzkymarsch, and in later short stories such as Der Leviathan (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, of the USSR after 1945, and is today in the Ukraine. The diversity that Joseph Roth so loved is truly gone today, and indeed had started to disappear by the end of the First World War. Although as an adult he returned to Galicia only infrequently, Roth’s formative experiences of life had taken place in a context in which multiculturalism and tolerance of difference played an important part. In later life he tended, perhaps, to exaggerate the extent of this tolerance, casting the area and the period almost as a sort of lost utopia, but in a very real sense Joseph Roth devoted his life to repeated attempts to recapture something of the atmosphere of his youth, finding it variously in socialist principles, in Jewish identity, in the cultural heritage of France, or in Catholicism.
The Legend of the Holy DrinkerWilhelm von Sternburg’s biography of Joseph Roth is published in March of this year by Kiepenheuer & Witsch.
Roth died and was buried in Paris in May 1939. The seventieth anniversary will see the longoverdue establishment of an international Joseph Roth Society, and a number of other commemorative events, including an exhibition and two academic conferences. It seems likely that the international reception of his writing, which in recent years has received a particular boost through Michael Hofmann’s sensitive English translations, published by Granta, will continue apace. There would certainly also be considerable appetite for an English translation of David Bronsen’s magisterial biography, first published in German in 1974 and abridged in 1993. Joseph Roth’s place amongst the relatively small group of writers of German to have achieved lasting international renown seems assured.
Quotations from:
Joseph Roth, What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-33, trans. by Michael Hofmann (Granta, 2004)
Joseph Roth, Flight Without End, trans. by David Le Vay (Peter Owen, 2000)
Dr Jon Hughes
is Senior Lecturer in German at Royal Holloway University, London.