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The Lost Worlds of Joseph Roth

Ronald Harwood celebrates a great novelist

Ronald Harwood  |  Winter 2004  -  Number 196


On 23 May 1939, an ambulance was called to a small hotel, the Hôtel de la Poste, in the rue de Tournon off the Boulevard Saint Germain in Paris. One of the guests, an impoverished alcoholic, had collapsed in his room and was obviously dangerously ill. In due course, the ambulance arrived and the attendants struggled up the narrow stairs to remove the sick man from his attic room, a room so small that the occupant could, apparently, fall out of bed straight into the corridor. He was taken to the Hôpital Necker in the rue de Vaugirard. There, the doctors examined the patient and diagnosed pneumonia and delirium tremens. After four days of dreadful suffering due to incompetent treatment, he died. His name was Joseph Roth. He was 44 years old and he was one of the great novelists of the twentieth century.

I must confess at once that I find it impossible to explain with any certainty why a writer of such immense gifts and achievements should not be more revered. In Germany, it is true, he is recognized, but not nearly in the same way as his contemporaries, for example his friend Stefan Zweig or Thomas Mann. In France, his reputation is more modest, although if you visit the rue de Tournon you will find on the wall of what is now Le Tournon Brasserie a plaque informing you that the writer lived in an upstairs room. And it is also possible to buy a postcard of the brasserie, inset with a photograph of Joseph Roth in which he looks like the caretaker of a synagogue whose congregation has dwindled.

In the English-speaking world he is even less revered. When I have mentioned him to friends, many of them, while they had heard of Roth, had never read him. Yet he is brilliantly translated by a number of people, especially Michael Hoffman, who has valiantly championed Roth in this country and in the United States. Roth remains obstinately in the shadows but, to my mind, he is infinitely more important than many of those who have been placed in the pantheon of twentieth-century European literature, and I hope to be able to prove my point.

He is a complex figure who wrote of complex themes. He was amazingly prolific, producing novels, essays, reportage and short stories, but at the core of his most important works is a theme as old as literature itself: the loss of a golden age. Story-tellers throughout history and in a great variety of civilizations have been repeatedly drawn to the concept of paradise lost. In western culture the most powerful and obvious manifestation of the myth is the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. And it appears in dramatic form in the work of the great tragic playwrights of ancient Greece and continuing to the present. How glorious the world was yesterday (or in some past idyllic age) and how vile are the times in which we now find ourselves. And the cause of the present misery is often a curse, a plague or war, a punishment for some crime or sin, known, unknown or unknowable. So it was with Joseph Roth, but the lost paradise he lamented was both within himself and in the world outside, the one reflecting the other, the two inextricably united in his tragic life and blazing imagination.

At the heart of the tragedy was Roth’s uncomfortable, anguished and sometimes mystical relationship to his Jewishness. And I am indebted to Sidney Rosenfeld, Professor Emeritus of German at Oberlin College, Ohio, for his work on Roth and especially on Roth’s intriguing personality, which is not at all straightforward because Roth from a young age became an expert at self-camouflage and, in the course of time, at self-destruction.

He was born on 2 September 1894 in Brody, Galicia, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but now in the Ukraine. He was the only child of Orthodox Jewish parents and given the names Moses Joseph. But shortly before his birth his father, Nochum Roth, suffered a mental breakdown and was confined to an institution from which he was never released. Joseph was brought up by his mother Mirjam in her father’s home. In these surroundings Yiddish was known by the family, but they were already sufficiently assimilated to speak and read German. Yet Joseph acquired the Yiddish language well enough to converse in it fluently and it was to prove important to him.

He attended the Baron Hirsch School of the Brody Jewish community and then the Crown Prince Rudolf gymnasium. At the age of 19 he spent one term at the University of Lemberg before transferring to the University of Vienna, where he read German literature and began writing poems, stories and essays which were published in several newspapers. He wanted more than anything else to feel at home in Vienna, the vibrant, cultured, unrivalled centre of his world.

But it appears that by the time he arrived in the city he had already revealed his inner confusion by displaying a skill at camouflage and attempting to craft a new persona. The reason was unworthy but perhaps predictable: he was ashamed of being an Ostjude, an East European Jew. But worse than being just an East European Jew, he was an East European Jew from Galicia, a Galitzianer, an Orthodox Jew looked down upon by other Jews, especially Austrian and German Jews who regarded themselves as enlightened, modern and unreligious. Galicia was the most disparaged and backward of the Austrian crown provinces.

While still an undergraduate, Roth, like an actor, took on a role that he hoped would disguise his humble origins. Indeed, he was described by his friend and later editor, Hermann Kesten, as a Maskenspieler, a player of parts, a dissembler. He changed his diction by affecting a Viennese accent. He pranced about like a dandy, complete with monocle. Later, in 1916, when he joined the army, he dropped his first given name, Moses, and said he had been born not in Brody but in neighbouring Szwaby. All these symptoms of being embarrassed by his true identity and wanting to conceal it he compounded by declaring that his father was not Nochum Roth, presently insane and confined to a mental institution, but in turns a Polish count, an Austrian railway official, an army officer, a Viennese munitions manufacturer and numerous other implausible figures. Similarly, after the Great War, in which he served as an infantry private, Roth claimed to have been a lieutenant and wore narrow-cut trousers in the style of an Austrian cavalry officer. Stranger still, in the mid-1930s, exiled in Paris and near the end of his life, he bewildered his friends and benefactors by professing to be a devout Catholic while at the same time boasting of his true origins as a genuine Ostjude. These confusions, not surprisingly, were to play a part in his literary output.

But as a young man he distanced himself from his roots in Galicia and from his deep need to belong to a community. Like many other Jews in Austria and elsewhere he indulged in a frantic shuffling of his cards of identity because locked in his psyche was a deep-seated craving to be part of the great world, the cultured world of Habsburg Austria at whose head reigned the revered and benevolent grand-fatherly figure of the Emperor Franz Josef. And it was the real and irrevocable loss of this world in 1918 that caused Roth intense and incurable pain for the rest of his short life and would be yet another strand, perhaps the most important strand, in his major works of fiction.

On the surface the Habsburgs seemed to have developed a system of government that was able to embrace apparently incompatible national and ethnic aspirations. There was a perception of unity, of harmony, even if the reality was under constant threat and strain. No one called themselves Austro-Hungarians but settled for whatever their nationality was – Czech, Pole, Hungarian and so on – and yet felt themselves to be part of the whole.

It will come as no surprise that the one exception was the Jews. Unlike the other nationalities, the Jews had no homeland. And so they, more than any others, wholeheartedly clung to the ideal of Austrian identity. The vast majority of Austrian Jews enthusiastically assimilated that particular German culture of Habsburg Austria. By the beginning of the twentieth century, at the time when Joseph Roth was growing up, the assimilation of the Jews into the Austro-Hungarian Empire was remarkable. They had attained not only economic influence but also eminence in the arts and sciences. Their success, predictably, provoked conflict with the other ethnic populations among whom they lived, but that is another story.

Nevertheless, according to Jacob-Klein Haparash, a Jew would be the most loyal of Austrian patriots who had two gods: the great inscrutable Jehovah and the good Franz Josef. He might have been describing Joseph Roth, although in Roth’s case Jehovah was to be challenged and defied, but his allegiance to Franz Josef was unswerving. For it was Franz Josef, Roth maintained, who presided over the golden age of tolerance and culture and who represented the ideal of oneness that made it possible for Roth to believe that he was truly assimilated within this imperial embrace.

But on 28 June 1914 the ideal of oneness was shattered by the assassination in Sarajevo of Franz Josef’s heir, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Roth was still at university when war was declared but in 1916 he volunteered for military service, was stationed in Galicia and assigned to the Army News Service.

With the Allied victory the Habsburgs were deposed and inevitably the Austro-Hungarian Empire disintegrated. Rampant nationalism filled the power vacuum just as it did in our times after the collapse of the Soviet empire. Chaos ensued. Galicia was incorporated into Poland and Roth was designated a Polish citizen. But he didn’t want to be Polish. He wanted to go on being an Austrian and so applied for and was granted Austrian citizenship.

The reality of the new Austria in 1918 meant that an enormous empire of some fifty million subjects was reduced to a republic of six and a half million. Overnight Vienna was no longer a glittering centre but the capital of a country in financial ruin, its population bewildered and destitute, the political future unpredictable.

In this frightening climate Roth embarked on his career as a journalist. In 1919 he joined the staff of the Vienna daily, Der Neue Tag, but a year later the newspaper folded so Roth decided to move to Berlin. And although the Weimar Republic was gripped by rampant inflation and was politically volatile, to put it mildly, the opportunities for writers were greater there than in Vienna.

It was in Berlin that Roth, after a stormy courtship, married and briefly enjoyed a settled domesticity for the only time in his life. His bride, whom he had first met in Vienna, was a psychologically fragile, beautiful young woman, Friederike Reichler, the daughter of Galician Jews. And it is probable that this secure emotional background was a factor in the success as a journalist he was now to enjoy. He joined the staff of one of the most respected newspapers in Germany, the Frankfurter Zeitung, independent, liberal and influential. Roth proved to be an outstanding journalist. In 1925 he was sent to Paris and, as foreign correspondent, travelled throughout Europe. The following year, a visit to the Soviet Union resulted in seventeen articles, published in book form under the title Russian Journey. This was a turning point for him politically. His natural sympathies had always been, and would always be, with the disadvantaged and underprivileged, but he was never a committed member of any leftist party. His journey through communist Russia extinguished whatever socialist leanings he might have had. From Odessa he wrote to a friend, ‘By no means is the problem here political, but rather cultural, spiritual, religious, metaphysical.’ He became convinced that the Bolshevik Revolution had betrayed its humanitarian ideals, to be consumed by a new small-minded bourgeois materialism inspired by America.

So, by the 1920s, Roth was a reluctant Jew, an Austrian in Germany, a sometime poseur, a successful journalist, politically liberal, well-travelled and well-informed. And it was now that he began writing his novels.

Before considering some of the novels themselves, it is, I believe, important to touch on one particular aspect of his style that sets him firmly in the twentieth century. In his works of fiction he wrote extraordinarily powerful dramatic scenes which suggest that, like his two great English contemporaries, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, he had been deeply influenced by films. Indeed, Evelyn Waugh’s advice to a young aspiring novelist was: ‘Go the cinema. Try and bring home thoughts by actions and incidents. Don’t make everything said. This is the inestimable value of the cinema to novelists . . . Make things happen.’ Greene, too, thought in terms of key scenes. Indeed, he once said it was the connecting passages he found the more difficult. The key scene, Greene suggested, ‘halts the progress of the novel with dramatic emphasis, just as a film close-up makes the moving picture momentarily pause’. Joseph Roth, independently of course, seems to have come to a similar conclusion. The scenes in a Roth novel, and even in some of his non-fiction, are for the most part intense, the characters vividly drawn and almost always, as it were, in close-up. Roth had a gift for describing the small particulars of human behaviour and the small particulars are what give reality and life to characters in films.

He was a compulsive writer and, as a compulsive writer myself who has written in all forms except poetry, I believe that I have some insight into the nature of other compulsive writers, who are inevitably prolific, which is neither a virtue nor a vice but a fact of their existence. It would, therefore, be ludicrous to try to force into his entire oeuvre the particular themes that have drawn me to his art. But because his most potent and important work is shot through with his sense of loss, and because of his private despair, it is on some of the works with these themes that I want to concentrate.

The first of these is Hotel Savoy, published in serial form in 1924. It is not overtly about his sense of loss but contains the earliest intimations of it, like a composer introducing a motif that he will later develop and vary.

Hotel Savoy is set in an unnamed city at what Roth calls ‘the gates of Europe’. It is a novel about displaced persons and the narrator, Gabriel Dan, is, like Roth, a war veteran, looking forward to his return to peacetime society. He is an observer, not much given to reflection. Relatives of his Russian-Jewish parents live in the city and he hopes to obtain money from them, money that will enable him to continue his journey home to Vienna, the capital of the lost world. It is a muted introduction to the theme that will later invade Roth’s work on a larger scale.

The main thrust of the novel, however, is the Hotel Savoy itself, where the poor live in the delapidated upper floors and the rich below in more luxurious accommodation. All of them, rich and poor, are flamboyant or eccentric or forlorn Europeans, some of them absurd but almost all of them tragic.

There is, however, a curious discord in the novel, a sudden, unexpected underlining of a Jewish theme. In dealing with the Jews of this unnamed city, Roth brilliantly describes those who have been uprooted, who are victims of the social and economic upheaval that followed the First World War and who have become shady entrepreneurs, small-time speculators, currency dealers, owners of run-down factories, artisans and sometimes artists. But the point Roth makes is that they pursue material gain at the expense of their spiritual roots. Intriguingly, Roth, the reluctant Jew, castigates these men and women for becoming sterile and empty because they have left Judaism in the shadows. In later works, this will swell into a torrent of criticism of the decadence of Western European Jews.

That is the larger picture he draws, but on the personal level there is this surprising discord to which I referred. A character called Henry Bloomfield, a local boy made very good in America, has returned to the city on his annual visit, causing a great flurry of excitement among the many devious sharks who hope to get him to invest in their nefarious schemes. But Bloomfield has returned not to do business but to visit the grave of his father. He says:

"I am an Eastern Jew and, to us, home is above all where our dead lie. Had my father died in America, I could be perfectly at home in America. My son will be a full-blooded American because I shall be buried there."

And Gabriel, the narrator, is given an unexpected insight into Jewishness. ‘Life and death,’ he says, ‘hang together so visibly, and the quick with the dead. There is no end there, no break – always continuity and connection.’ It jars because it is out of character, since Gabriel, until that moment, does not seem capable of such introspection. I believe the insight must have come to Roth as he was writing, in the heat of creation, a spontaneous response to what one of his characters had said, and partly for that reason he was unable or unwilling to change it. But, more important, I suspect he refrained from deleting it because he believed in its sentiment. So it leads us to conclude that this is Roth himself speaking, making an observation of profound personal importance. And on this very point Professor Rosenfeld speculates that Roth was formulating the central principle of Jewish existence which Martin Buber described as the ‘chain of generations’. In 1933, Buber, after visiting the ancient Jewish cemetery in Worms, said, ‘I stood there, united with the ashes and through them with my forefathers. This is the memory of the encounter with God which is given to all Jews.’

The novel had only a modest success. For the next six years, until 1930, Roth avoided confronting in his fiction the themes of homelessness, loss and his own Jewishness. But he did not steer clear of them entirely in his journalism. With astonishing prescience, he anticipated in his articles the catastrophe that was to befall European Jewry under Hitler. And, later, when other Jewish writers and intellectuals were deluding themselves that, should Hitler come to power, he would abandon or moderate his antisemitic policies, Roth repeatedly warned against the monstrous threat Nazism posed.

Roth’s inner confusions, however, persisted. He argued in an essay that Jews ‘were scattered among the nations of the earth in order to spread God’s name’, but he was also powerfully drawn to Catholicism, believing it was the Jews’ mission to witness the truth of Christianity. He was torn apart by this inner turmoil and much later asserted that assimilation could never be fully attained, and indeed regretted all attempts to assimilate.

And so perhaps it was not surprising that in 1927 he published The Wandering Jews, a series of essays on the plight of the Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe. Here is another conundrum. What separates Roth from other German-Jewish writers of the period was his deep affection for these Jews who had fled westward, escaping the pogroms and the armed conflicts from the 1890s onwards. This influx of vast numbers of immigrants, who were so easily identifiable, alarmed the established German-Jewish communities, who felt that these new arrivals threatened their own assimilated existence. They responded in various ways. Some simply turned their backs on them. Others organized charitable assistance with the main aim of helping the refugees to move somewhere else. Roth’s own response was to write The Wandering Jews. He visited them, lived with them, talked Yiddish to them, worshipped with them.

Throughout the book Roth compares the materialism of assimilated Western Jewry with the spirituality and mysticism of the Orthodox Ostjuden. And here comes so resoundingly that note of loss again, for what Roth appears most to crave is the Ostjuden’s sense of community, their feeling of oneness, the tangible spiritual fulfilment experienced in their synagogues as opposed to Western Jewry’s lip service to religious devotion. His compassion for the refugees is ever-present, and he recalls obliquely his own arrival as a young man in Vienna. ‘There is no harder lot,’ he wrote, ‘than that of an Ostjude new to Vienna.’

Roth’s sojourn among the refugees evoked in him all that he must have known as a child growing up in Brody, a real sense of belonging, community and unquestioning belief. In a particularly beautiful scene, a cinematic scene, he describes the Ostjude’s observance of the Day of Atonement and is at one with them:

The streets suddenly go dark as candlelight breaks from windows . . . There is a general taking leave of all worldly things: of business, of joy, of nature, of food, of the street and the family, of friends and acquaintances. People . . . hasten through the lanes . . . making for the prayerhouse, dressed in the heavy black silk and dread white of their funeral suits . . . All the fathers now bless their children. All the women now weep in front of the silver candelabra. All friends embrace one another. All enemies beg one another for forgiveness. The choir of angels blows a fanfare for Judgement Day. Soon Jehovah will open the great volume in which this year’s sins, punishments, and destinies are recorded. Candles burn now for all the dead. Other candles are lit for the living . . .

The great praying begins.

I am not going to be tempted, as others have been when dealing with Roth, to indulge in pop-psychiatry. Roth is plainly sheer enchantment for psychoanalysts. Just consider his tortuous psychopathology: the denial of an insane father, of a homeland both physical and spiritual, the perpetual conflict between his Jewish and would-be non-Jewish self - these things are meat and drink to psychiatrists. But there is, happily, no need for an analyst because the point about a compulsive writer is that he hopes writing itself is the therapy, the long, daily slog of trying to come to terms with the conflicts and difficulties that reside in that deepest part of him where creation is possible. So it is best, I believe, to pursue Roth’s complex and illusive personality through his work and to see how it mirrors his life.

His life in the late 1920s was weighed down by financial and emotional concerns. His books had been politely received. He was regarded as a first-class journalist but no more than a promising novelist. The financial rewards, however, were slight and this distressed him because he needed money urgently and for one especially pressing reason. In 1928, his wife, Friederike, developed schizophrenia. She needed treatment and care, and for the rest of his life her illness was to burden him financially. But there is something predictable and ironic about what was to happen next.  Emotionally and financially at his lowest ebb, he was now going to ascend the heights as a writer of fiction.       

The novel that brought Roth his first real success was Job: the story of a simple man, and it represented a distinct change of direction. Until the writing of Job, Roth’s novels dealt more or less objectively with social and political subjects in which he was able to savage the materialism of Western Europe. But in Job, the most Jewish of all his novels, he wrote about flesh and blood, about men and women, their triumphs and sorrows. In short, he was, through his fiction, confronting his own suffering.

Job is the story of a humble Russian Jew called Mendel Singer who lives in a shtetl, the sort of Jewish village Roth himself would have known from his childhood in Galicia. Mendel Singer teaches the Bible to the young but can barely support his wife and children. Roth enters into the heart and mind of his central character, describing his daily life, his despair and his decision to rebel against God. Singer decides that he and his family should immigrate to America and, as a result, they experience dreadful suffering.

You will remember the character in Hotel Savoy, Henry Bloomfield, who returns to visit the grave of his father, and the insight the narrator has into what Martin Buber called the great ‘chain of generations’. This motif is developed into a thundering blast in Job. When Mendel Singer, the immigrant to America, has lost his children and his wife, he grieves over her body, saying ‘It is only sad that you have no son left to mourn you. I myself must say the prayer for the dead; but I will soon die, and no one will weep for us.’

To understand the depth of Mendel’s lament is to enter into Joseph Roth’s own deepest sense of loss, and it is no accident that he should express it through that most mysterious of Jewish prayers, the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, which touches neither on death nor on mourning. It is a prayer that cannot be said privately but must be recited with a minyan, the quorum of ten Jews, for its intent is to embrace all Israel. The ethos of the Kaddish that Mendel Singer expresses is not the fear that his own soul will not know redemption but that his and his family’s connection to the House of Israel will be forever severed. The continuity of the generations will come to an end, and this is his unbearable sorrow. It is Roth crying out to belong to a world he has lost and for whose loss he bears personal responsibility. It is as if he himself is in mourning for the Jewishness he knew but from which he had deliberately distanced himself.

The novel, however, does not end on this bleak, tragic note. On the contrary, there is a miracle, a deus ex machina, in which one of Mendel’s sons, long thought to have died in the shtetl, suddenly re-appears, healthy and successful. Of course, Roth was criticized for this finale as being too like a Hollywood film with an up-ending. But that is a cheap response to what was Roth’s painful need for his own redemption, to restore the broken chain in the generations.

But Roth himself was not redeemed. Desperately he tried but failed to find appropriate medical help for Friederike. His guilt at believing he’d neglected her was great. Depression set in and he began to drink heavily. It was as if he himself was being transformed into Job. And if that sounds fanciful, it is tame in comparison to the feelings he himself expressed in a letter to his mother-in-law. ‘A curse has struck me,’ he wrote. ‘Only God can help me. The dear Lord is punishing us, who knows for what.’ There, precisely, is the curse of paradise lost. These are the sentiments of Job, of Mendel Singer, and of Joseph Roth. If Roth had hoped that by writing the novel he would in a mysterious way effect a cure for his own troubled soul or experience some sort of rebirth, he must have been tragically disillusioned.

To escape his disappointment, he turned to his other lost world. ‘The cruel will of history destroyed my old fatherland, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy,’ he wrote in the Foreword to the newspaper serialization of his next novel. ‘I loved this fatherland,’ he continued:

It permitted me to be a patriot and a citizen of the world at the same time, among all the Austrian peoples also a German. I loved the virtues and merits of this fatherland, and today, when it is dead and gone, I even love its flaws and weaknesses.

The novel he was introducing was unquestionably his masterpiece, The Radetzky March, a requiem for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

What Roth achieved was an historical novel of the highest order because he tells you in fiction what no historian or sociologist can tell you in fact, and that is what is was like to be alive in the dying fall of Franz Josef’s long reign. And he does so not by recounting the socio-political conditions that led to the empire’s collapse, but by describing the personal tragedy of the central figure, Baron Carl Joseph von Trotta.

The young baron is the last in the line of a Slovenian peasant family, ennobled only two generations earlier after the first Trotta saved the life of the Emperor at the Battle of Solferino. Carl Joseph’s father is a conscientious, unemotional civil servant, but the son believes his own life to be empty and purposeless. He is a soldier, but a soldier with no war to fight. He becomes dissolute, drinks, gambles, visits brothels. He too, like Roth, seeks to discover in Austria a true homeland. He is the last von Trotta, burdened by the memory of his grandfather’s heroism, which is embodied in a fading portrait and in the playing each Sunday by a military band of the Radetzky March. In a masterstroke, Roth has a drunken Carl Joseph pathetically emulate his grandfather’s heroic act by rescuing nothing more than a portrait of the Emperor from the wall of a brothel.

In the novel, there is one exquisite and mysterious collision of Roth’s two lost worlds, the empire and Galician Jewry. The Austrian army is on manoeuvres in Galicia. The Emperor is greeted by village Jews, dressed in black and led by a white-bearded patriarch carrying the scroll of the Torah. The old Jew lifts the Torah scroll towards the old Emperor and recites the blessing Orthodox believers say in the presence of a sovereign:

‘Blessed art thou!’ said the Jew to the Emperor. ‘Thou shalt not witness the end of the world!’ I know, thought Franz Joseph. He shook hands with the old man. He turned. He mounted his white horse.

He turned left and trotted across the hard crusts of the autumn fields, followed by his retinue. The words that Captain of Horse Kaunitz addressed to his companion next to him were carried to the Emperor on the wind: ‘I didn’t understand a syllable of what that Jew was saying!’ The Emperor turned in his saddle and said: ‘Never you mind, Kaunitz, he was talking to me!’ and he rode on.

The Emperor has understood the coded message. His empire is finite, and he has understood because of some metaphysical kinship with an old Galician Jew.

This notion of finality is echoed in Carl Joseph’s longing to return to his Slovenian roots. In time, he resigns his commission and lives among Ukrainian peasants on the estate of a Galician-Polish landowner, Count Chojnicki, and gains momentary inner peace. But when war is declared, he re-enlists and hopes to recapture the glory of his grandfather, the hero of Solferino. Selflessly trying to get water to his troops, he dies in a hail of bullets, thus severing the bond of generations. Unlike the finale of Job, there is no miracle to restore the chain.

In this novel, Roth recreated in some sense a utopian vision of his lost world, but he puts into the mouth of Count Chojnicki his own belief about the inevitable end:

As we speak, [the Monarchy is] falling apart, it’s already fallen apart! An old man with not long to go, a head cold could finish him off, he keeps his throne by the simple miracle that he’s still able to sit on it. But how much longer, how much longer? The age doesn’t want us any more! . . . People have stopped believing in God. Nationalism is the new religion. People don’t go to church. They go to nationalist meetings. The Monarchy, our monarchy is founded on faith and devotion: on the belief that God has chosen the Habsburgs to reign over a certain number of Christian peoples. Our emperor is like a worldlier pope, his full title is His Royal and Imperial Apostolic Majesty, there is no other apostolic majesty anywhere, and no other royal family in Europe is as dependent on the grace of God and the people’s belief in that grace. The German Kaiser will still rule if God deserts him; by the grace of the nation, it would then be. But the Emperor of Austria-Hungary may not be deserted by God. And now God has deserted him!

And Roth must have thought that God had abandoned him also. His wife’s suffering continued to haunt him and, with the coming to power of the Nazis, he saw early the terrible future that lay in store. He exiled himself to Paris, learned that his books had been burned in Germany along with others declared alien by the Nazis. He drank more and more heavily, had affairs, continued to write, his love of Habsburg Austria growing into an obsession. He entertained a demented hope that the Habsburgs would be restored to the throne and all would be well again. In his despair, he boasted of his Ostjude roots but declared himself a Catholic. Yet there is no evidence that he was formally received into the Church and no baptismal certificate has ever been found.

Exile has always proved to be agony for all writers, especially those who are forced to live in countries where they do not hear their own language. Roth suffered dreadfully in Paris, a city he loved, but he was short of funds and was forced to write at speed to meet deadlines and earn advances. Yet he pursued his lost worlds in a number of works, especially Weights and Measures and The Emperor’s Tomb. But by far the best novel of his exile years is The Tale of the 1002nd Night, called in Michael Hoffman’s fine translation The String of Pearls. It is a moral tale, a master work with a wide historical sweep that again captures the dying fall of the Habsburgs.

At the beginning of 1939, from January until the end of March, Roth worked on his last book The Legend of the Holy Drinker. In May, he died. Fortunately, he did not live to know that his wife, Friederike, was murdered under the Nazi policy of euthanasia.

He was a great writer because he dealt in great themes by ruthlessly exposing his own torment, guilt and attempts at expiation. He created monuments to Habsburg Austria and to the Jews of Eastern Europe. Of all Jewish writers of his period, especially German-Jewish writers, he uniquely confronted the difficulties of assimilation, the isolation of the outsider, the insecurities of the dispossessed, and the painful longing for a tolerant homeland.

Let me end with a description of his funeral, which seems to sum up his complex life, his self-camouflage, confusions and, ultimately, his glorious humanity.

On 30 May 1939, three days after his death, among the many mourners were delegates from the conservative League of Austrian Culture, also supporters of the pretender to the Habsburg throne, Otto von Habsburg. Across from them stood Egon Erwin Kisch, a communist, representing the Association for the Protection of German Writers, who tossed a bouquet of red carnations into the open grave. A Catholic priest conducted the burial ceremony but Roth’s Jewish friends, who doubted he had ever really converted, stepped up to the grave and began praying in Hebrew, presumably saying Kaddish. The large number who attended his funeral attested to the hold Roth’s personality and gifts had over all those who knew him, and to his fierce uncompromising opposition to Nazism.

And let his epitaph be these words from his novel Flight Without End: ‘Of all the tears one may have to choke back, the most precious are those that one has shed for oneself.’

Most of Joseph Roth’s novels, short stories and non-fiction are available in English in the edition published by Granta Books. Quotations in this article are taken from the following versions:

Flight Without End, translated by David Le Vay (London: Peter Owen, 1977)

Hotel Savoy, translated by John Hoare (London: Granta, 2000, 1986)

Job: The Story of a Simple Man, translated by Dorothy Thompson (London: Granta, 2000)

The Radetsky March, translated by Eva Tucker based on earlier translation by Geoffrey Dunlop (London: Allen Lane, 1984)

The Wandering Jews, translated by Michael Hoffman (London: Granta, 2001).

I have also drawn on Sydney Rosenfeld’s Understanding Joseph Roth (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001).

Ronald Harwood is a playwright, novelist and screenwriter. His novel Home won the Jewish Quarterly Prize for Fiction in 1994. He won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Pianist in 2002. A revival of his play The Dresser is due in London in 2005.

This article was delivered as the annual Sonntag Memorial Lecture in London on 28 October 2004. 

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