About a dozen or so years ago, I decided to review a novel by Joseph Roth called “The Tale of the 1002nd Night.” At the time, I knew almost nothing about Roth (1894-1939), except that he was Austrian, Jewish and the author of a book I’d heard called a masterpiece, “The Radetzky March.” Only later did I learn that he was also a highly regarded journalist (mostly for the Frankfurter Zeitung), liked to live in hotels and died in Paris at the young age of 44, at least in part because of overwork and alcoholism.
Reading “The Tale of the 1002nd Night” proved a revelation. In it, the shah of Persia visits fin-de-siecle Vienna and is dazzled by the European women at a ball:
“Thus far, the women he had known had been of two kinds: either naked bodies or arrangements of drapery. But here were both together, at one and the same time! A gown that seemed to want to fall of its own weight, and yet clung to a body: it was like a door that wasn’t locked and wouldn’t open. When the women curtsied to him, the Shah caught a glimpse of cleavage and then the downy hair on an exposed neck. And the split second in which the ladies raised their skirts with both hands before bending at the knee had something indescribably modest and at the same time fabulously indecent about it: it was like a promise that they had no intention of keeping. . . . How inexhaustible the amorous arts of the Occident must be!”
Clearly, I had been wrong to imagine that Roth was one of those lugubrious and weighty Central European novelist-thinkers in the mode of Thomas Mann or Hermann Broch. I immediately went out and read “Hotel Savoy,” “The Radetzky March” and “The Legend of the Holy Drinker,” all three quite different, yet packed with historical and psychological insight and characterized by a kind of urbane comedy.
In the years since then, W.W. Norton has reissued many of Roth’s novels, along with his collected stories, two volumes of journalism (“What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920-1933” and “Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France, 1925-1939 ”), and now this hefty selection from the writer’s letters. Counting this new volume, the poet Michael Hofmann has translated 10 books by Roth, and we are all in his debt and Norton’s. Just try any of the titles I’ve mentioned.
Don’t, however, begin with “Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters.” Although it contains brilliant passages and apercus, these can only partly compensate for too many pages of business correspondence and grim 1930s-era ideological argument.
As Hofmann tells us, none of Roth’s letters to his parents, wife and lovers survive. In those to publishers and friends, he mainly complains about how short he is on cash and how hard he’s been working. Over and over, Roth’s plaintive cry is “I am miserable, industrious, poor, and abandoned.”
He’s also prickly, fiercely independent, shrewd and constantly on the go — from Austria to Germany to France to Russia. He claims to live out of two suitcases and doesn’t even own copies of his own books. As the years go by, his life, never easy, grows increasingly calamitous. After his fragile wife, Friedl, is diagnosed with schizophrenia, her hospital bills mount up. He, himself, suffers from catarrh, serious eye ailments, blackouts and cirrhosis. With Friedl in an asylum, he falls in love with just the wrong women: a 20-year-old whose parents eventually lock her away in a nunnery, then a penniless and sickly woman with two “Negro” children by a rich Cameroonian who refuses to pay child support.
In his dealings with others, Roth shows himself to be frank to the point of insolence. For years he depends on the largesse of the bestselling writer Stefan Zweig, yet he doesn’t hesitate to berate Zweig’s ideas and criticize his grammar. When a French friend translates one of Roth’s books, he bluntly tells her that the result is just awful, then adds, “I fail to understand how a perfectly objective criticism should strike you in light of a personal grievance.” In general, Roth doesn’t think much of his more famous contemporaries, who are either too popular (Zweig, Franz Werfel, Jacob Wassermann) or too hermetic (James Joyce, Proust). He even hates the movies.
Still, there’s no question that the man knows how to write! I marked a score of funny and shrewd sentences: “The aspiration of the German woman to march through a busy life on flat heels is already halfway to socialism.” “The most important difference between the American and the German is that the former uses the technology as naturally as a baby drinks milk, while the latter is incapable of making a phone call without lyrical commentaries on what a great thing the telephone is.” “A novel is not the place for abstractions. Leave that to Thomas Mann!” “I’ve never doubted that publishers of all nationalities are businessmen. What annoys me is that they’re bad businessmen.” “I am incapable of vacuous writing.”
After Hitler comes to power, Roth departs for France — a country he loves — and never returns to Germany. He recognizes, long before many others, that the Third Reich will soon usher in hell on Earth. In the meantime, his own scourge of poverty, work, drink and desperation never lets up. Finally taken to a Paris hospital suffering from delirium tremens, Roth dies there — the official cause declared to be pneumonia — and is buried on May 30, 1939. At least he was spared the horrors that lay ahead for the European civilization he so loved and adored.
One of the writer’s friends, Soma Morgenstern, composed this moving portrait of Roth in his early 40s: “He looked like a sixty-year-old alcoholic. His face, once so animated and alert, with its prominent cheekbones, and short jutting chin, was now puffy and slack, the nose purple, the corners of his blue eyes rheumy and bloody, his head looking as if someone had started plucking it and given up part way, the mouth completely covered by heavy, dark red, Slovak-style drooping mustaches. . . . When summoned to the telephone, he slowly hobbled away with the aid of a stick, his thin legs in narrow old-fashioned pants, his sagging little paunch at odds with his birdlike bones.”
Pathetic, yes, but Morgenstern then adds that nonetheless this “east Galician Jew made the impression of a distinguished, if somewhat decayed, Austrian aristocrat — in other words, exactly the impression he had striven all his life to give, with every fiber of his body and soul.”
As a journalist, Joseph Roth proudly said, “I paint the portrait of the age.” As an artist, he did that and more: He made it live in novels of rare elegance, wit and beauty. Read some of them, and then come back to these letters.
Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Washington Post at wapo.st/reading-room.
A Life in Letters
Translated from the German and edited by Michael Hofmann
Norton. 552 pp. $39.95