“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.