Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters

Roth jacketTranslated and edited by Michael Hofmann
Granta • 2012

There are plenty of reasons why Joseph Roth might have made a fitful letter-writer. When he wasn’t being whipped on by penury to compose feuilletons — those considered responses to people and places, things and happenings that remind us just how high journalism can soar — he was trying to sneak time to write his novels, managing sixteen in as many years, all interesting and several truly great. Then there was the fact that he lived his life in hotels and out of suitcases, shuttling back and forth between Germany and France, reporting also from Poland, Russia, Italy and Albania. All his writing was done at café tables or — increasingly as the years went on — bars. Somehow, his daunting prolificacy never did much to remedy his precarious finances, and funds would still become so scarce that even a stamp seemed a significant expense.

Roth could have used any one of these excuses. In fact, he used them all and more besides, fretting continually about his ailing health, his tattered concentration, the unreliability of the postal service. Yet in spite of these very real impediments, he left behind a sizeable cache of correspondence, a generous selection of which has now been translated into English for the first time by Michael Hofmann, the poet-translator whose clear-eyed, sharp- tongued devotion has been the making of Roth’s posthumous English-language reputation.

Four hundred and fifty-seven letters in total, they range from warm jottings to family and friends (“Liver flushed with calvados. Otherwise OK”) to beguiling reflections on the writer’s craft (“I dread misprints, two jumped up at me now like fleas from the type”). There is kindness to be found (as in a letter written on the passing of a friend’s father), but an abundance of bile and misery, too. Roth tested his friendships to their limits and his letters will test his fans equally. As early as 1930, he confesses “I find the politics quite paralyzing. It’s so hard to write. I have no money, I mean really NO MONEY, I get by on 5 marks a day. And I’m drinking. And my strength is fading.” Later, nearing the end of his wretchedly abbreviated life with the world erupting around him, he can come across as a terrible caricature of the male writer — dyspeptic, drunken, insecure to the point of neediness. And so, while Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters shores up his literary celebrity, it raises questions, too — questions about our enduring infatuation with that cosmopolitan, doomed Central-European Jewish culture whose golden age coincided with the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; questions about the role of the translator as self-appointed custodian; questions about our appetite for the details of authors’ off-the-page lives.

Moses Joseph Roth was born in 1894 in Brody, Galicia. When he headed West to the University of Vienna, he shrugged off his accent and first name in favour of his second and a more worldly mien. His identity remains mutable — he is ‘Red Roth’ briefly, Muh to his wife, even pledging a return to Moses. Politically, he is a man of contradictions and about-turns, a socialist and a monarchist both, a pacifist who enlists in the army. He plays fast and loose with fact, too, decorating his wartime service as a pen-pushing private with claims that he was a lieutenant and a prisoner of war in Russia. “For the past 25 years I’ve been living as a sort of fantastic figment,” he writes to his newspaper colleague, Benno Reifenberg from Vienna’s Hotel Imperial in the summer of 1928. (By the letter’s close he has already been forced to find new lodgings — the hotel was too expensive.)

In an age such as our own, when privacy’s perimeters are so hotly contested and technology adds an impersonal note to even the most secretive correspondences, there’s a temptation to fetishise inky epistolary exchanges from the past. We look to letters to reveal their writer’s inner self. The logic of this yearning is flawed where authors are concerned — when they write to their friends and family, they may be off duty but they are still using words in the best way they know how — to manipulate their reader’s emotions, to fabulate. Not that this posturing isn’t revealing in its own way. In the earliest of Roth’s letters, written to younger cousins, his big-brotherly bravado is touching. Of missives written when he was just 25, Hofmann notes: “These are the only letters in which Roth sounds young, in fact like a young shuttlecock: frisky and agile, youthfully pompous or light-heartedly pugnacious. You won’t hear it again.” And nor do you. Even at 30, Roth is to be found signing himself “Your old Joseph Roth.”

In 1922, he married Friederike Reichler, a beautiful girl from Vienna who was stylish but shy and far too fragile to keep pace with Roth’s restless itinerancy. As she soon learnt, to be with Roth was to be without him. Early on in their marriage, she wrote a late-night letter to Roth’s cousin, Paula Grubel, ending with a postscript: “12 o’clock already, and Muh’s still not back, what do you say to that?! Shocking!!!!”

This is one of the few letters neither by nor to Roth but about him, and it’s telling that Hofmann has found it necessary to include it here, to illustrate what should have been one of the most intimate relationships in Roth’s life. Moreover, the excitability of its postscript strikes him as an ominous sign of the troubles that lay ahead. By 1928, Friedl, was showing signs of mental imbalance, and Roth had embarked upon the process of searching for a diagnosis and cure for her. It was enormously costly — emotionally as well as materially. In the spring of 1929, he confessed to a Germanist friend, Pierre Bertaux, “her present illness is only an acuter version of her chronic weakness, a complete lack of resistance, in which I am not without blame. There are various causes. These things, of which I have been unable to speak for months, if not for years, oppress me more than the form of the illness itself.”

But even as Roth’s letters waltz around his guilt, they are invariably composed someplace far from Vienna (he was writing to Bertaux from Paris), where he leaves Friedl with her family. Eventually, other women fill her place, beginning with a virgin in the South of France (“three Catholic hymens before the real one” he joshes boastfully). Only on the rare occasions when Friedl shows improvement does he really consider the state of their union. What would her recovery mean — must he then return to her? It was never to be. In 1933, she was finally diagnosed with schizophrenia and placed in a sanatorium in Vienna, where the Third Reich’s eugenics programme saw to it that she was murdered in 1940, a year after Roth drank himself to death in Paris at the age of 44.


The bulk of these letters have a professional aspect. His correspondence is dominated in the early part of his career by his relationship with colleagues at The Frankfurter Zeitung, and latterly by his friendship with his patron, the bestselling novelist and memoirist Stefan Zweig. When writers talk shop, they do not delineate narrative arcs or debate the importance of place, they talk about advances and sales figures. Roth and co are no different. In between the numbers, he solicits other publishers behind his editor’s back, dashes his own novels and critiques others. Journalists, needless to say, are infinitely worse, and Roth’s fractious relationship with The Frankfurter Zeitung is, Hofmann concedes, one of “the burdens of this correspondence,” a burden that is conveyed here with tedious faithfulness, showcasing Roth at his most antagonistic and intransigent.

But journalism also occasioned one of his happiest periods. In 1925 his newspaper sent him to France, where he found a happiness he had never before known. It irradiates his letters, going quite to his head in a way that nothing else does. As he insists to Reifenberg that May, “I am writing to you in full possession of my skeptical faculties, with all my wits about me, and running the risk of making a fool of myself, which is just about the worst thing that could happen to me. I feel driven to inform you personally that Paris is the capital of the world, and you must come here. Whoever has not been here is only half human.”

It would end badly when the paper replaced him as their Paris correspondent, but France gave him something that could not be taken away: an unclouded view of post-WWI Germany as a country to fear and to hate. We may turn to letters in search of private revelations, but it is the public sphere that Roth’s from this era illuminate. It’s one of the qualities that makes his fiction and reportage so compelling, of course — that acute political foresight. In 1923, he became the first writer to use Hitler’s name in fiction. Later, he was in Berlin when Hitler was elected Chancellor. He packed his suitcases and boarded a train for Paris that same day, never to return. “It will have become clear to you now that we are heading for a great catastrophe,” he writes to Zweig a fortnight later.

Though his books were banned and burned in Germany, leaving him a writer without a readership, Roth was dead before the grotesque horror of that great catastrophe was fully known. Joan Acocella made the point in a New Yorker essay some years ago that “His portraits of Jews therefore lack the pious edgelessness of most post-Holocaust writing.” It’s what makes Roth’s portraits of Nazi anti-Semitism so arresting, she notes. Here in the letters, he plays fast and loose with anti-Semitic tropes. “In matters of health and money, prominent Jews are always a good idea. Jewish doctors are a kind of atonement for the crucifixion,” he tells one gentile friend. In other instances, though the irony is missing — it smacks merely of self- hatred.


Our fascination with Roth gestures to something larger, though. It’s part of our fixation with the artistic flowering embodied by Austria- Hungary’s Jewish authors, with an inherited nostalgia for the Empire that produced them and that fleeting historical moment when justly feared nationalism was eclipsed by something approaching unity. The appeal of this era also has to do with the densely layered identities enfolded into the fictions it produced, and with its melting-pot cultural and linguistic vitality. It seems cosmopolitan and edgy in a way that at once resonates with our globalised world and makes it feel a flatter, greyer place. Hofmann is hyper-sensitive to the way the publishing industry capitalises on our visceral urge to reconnect with this. Roth, he insists, is a talent robust enough to stand on his own — unlike Zweig, his patron, whose resurgent popularity he attributes to Pushkin Press’s “nice paper and pretty formats”. In recent years, Hofmann has mounted vicious and virtuoso attacks on Zweig, most memorably in the London Review of Books where he referred to the author as “the uniquely dreary and clothy sprog of the electric 1880s.” He’s only warming to his theme. “Stefan Zweig just tastes fake. He’s the Pepsi of Austrian writing. He is the one whose books made films,” Hofmann goes on — and on.

Even here, as an editor-translator, he lets his disparagement creep into footnotes, inserting himself throughout Roth’s correspondence with Zweig like a jealous spouse. “I never think of money matters when I think of you — that’s a complex of yours that you must shrug off,” Zweig tells Roth in 1934. Hofmann immediately qualifies “never”, adding: “when the writer Joseph Breitbach told SZ in 1935 that he was lending money to JR, Zweig warned him that it would cost him his friendship with Roth.” It’s faintly unseemly — you feel you should look away and yet can’t.

In the absence of a serious biography of Roth in English, Hofmann’s distilled introductions — both here and to novels and volumes of reportage — remain the most cogent appraisal we have of Roth’s talent. Rewarding though these letters collectively are, it’s hard not to wish that Hofmann had cast aside his translator’s reserve and devoted his energies to a longer study instead. Then again, perhaps the letters tell us as much as we need to know: they remind us that Roth’s true living was done on the pages of his novels and newspapers columns. We flock to see authors in the flesh at literary festivals and seize upon literary biographies, but their finest – and, unwittingly, their truest, most private – selves are invariably to be found in what they publish.

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