Book Review: Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, translated by Michael Hofmann

The Austrian novelist’s letters in a revealing new translation

Joseph Roth had an obsessive fear that his letters would be lost in the mail | Illustration: Katarina Klein

Joseph Roth

Joseph Roth had an obsessive fear that his letters would be lost in the mail | Illustration: Katharina Klein

The Shadowy Soul of Joseph Roth

The real story leaks through the pen of a written letter. When editors stop editing and the audience dwindles to one, a writer’s words are left naked and raw, strung together by respect for the recipient alone. But this nakedness brings out a darker and more disturbing truth – even in the words of a master of prose such as Joseph Roth.

In a collection of his letters newly-translated and edited by Michael Hofmann, Roth is given a new stage for his linguistic genius and vigilant criticism, as well as his inability to use that critical vision to save himself from himself.

Roth’s early letters were few in numbers and even fewer in number of recipients. From the time he was born at the eastern edge of the Habsburg Empire, until age 26, the grand total of letters comes to eight. There is little in this youthful correspondence to brace the reader for the cynicism that was to surface later. Despite Hofmann’s introductory mention of Roth as “a great and passionate hater,” the young letters emit energy, optimism, and an unflinching devotion to his addressees – one of the few consistencies in the Jewish author’s short life. This is evident in his early notes to cousin Paula Grübel and later through his undying and unconditional love for author Stefan Zweig. The reader does, however, get an early dose of Roth’s blossoming eloquence as a writer. “What can I wish for you?” he asks Grübel on her 19th birthday in 1916. “Three kingly things… The golden crown of imagination, the scarlet cloak of solitude, and the sceptre of irony.”

Roth’s letters proliferated during his late 20s, as he became a journalist for the Frankfurter Zeitung, first in Berlin and later in Paris, starting in 1925, a city that infatuated him. His letters show an alluring description of place, but also a growing disgust of the places that pale in comparison; his love for everything French is rivaled only by his contempt for anything German.

“They give off ghastly rigidity,” he writes of Germans to boss-cum-friend Benno Reifenberg. “They breathe out not air but walls and fences.” His time in France helped nurture an already intense revulsion for his audience. “I can cope with the fact that the Germans are barbarians,” he wrote to fellow correspondent Bernard von Brentano, “but not with my inability to convert them. We’re like missionaries addressing heathens in Latin.” This shroud increasingly hangs over Roth’s lucidity: He is a sceptic and cynic, and his words intensify when he writes from the perch of devil’s advocate – giving the impression that the absence of hatred would leave little reason to write.

Long before scepticism and cynicism took over for good in his dark final years, Roth exhibited a knack for neuroses. His writing was wrought with anxieties, including an insufferable fear that his letters would be lost in the mail, and that publishers were out to rob him of his dignity and deserved rewards. His outsized distrust was mingled with overstated self-congratulation for his writing, which he was quick to call “beautiful”, and his thinking, “superior”.

“My so-called subjectivity is in the highest degree of objectivity,” he once wrote to Reifenberg – comparing himself to a fellow journalist. “I can smell things he won’t be able to see for another ten years.” Even at the height of his success, narcissism and pessimism were colliding inside the young writer, creating a ruinous frame of mind for the inter-war years.

Even before the 1930s, Roth’s life in Paris had grown precarious. His standing at the Frankfurter Zeitung was uncertain, his future as a novelist ambiguous and his place in a turbulent Europe undefined. His cynicism forbade him to align himself with any political strain or group, and instead he wrote with passionate fury about the collaboration between the various factions.

“So little difference between German Nationalist and Socialist policies! Between Jew and Christian!” he writes from Marseille in 1925. “The various camps are united by their mediocrity more firmly than by any principle or ideal.” Above all, Roth refused to be bound by his Jewishness. To fellow Semite Stefan Zweig: “The Jews are so stupid. It takes the even stupider anti-Semites to come up with the notion that the Jews are dangerously clever.” He declined to contribute to the protest movement of exiled Jewish writers, and lamented their efforts to Zweig.

At times, his distaste for Jews seemed to border on mania: “It’s the Jews…who have introduced Socialism and catastrophe in Europe. They are the real cradle of Hitler and the reign of the janitors.” Perhaps this was just another example of the degree to which Roth loved to hate.

Yet through most of his life, a fraught sense of idealism writhes between the cynical lines. He believes in Austria, and in the restoration of the Habsburg Empire – though this may be another symptom of his insistence on going against the grain at all costs. A more heartening sign: Roth believed in a united Europe, at a time when a united continent was perhaps most inconceivable.

Any sense of idealism or optimism died for good in the last decade of his life. After failing to secure a permanent position at the Frankfurter Zeitung in Paris and a subsequent brief stint in Germany, he returned to Paris – luckily but not deliberately – the day Hitler became Chancellor in 1933. He had just published what is still considered his masterpiece, The Radetzky March, in 1932, and was determined to write fiction exclusively. He continued the nomad’s lifestyle, travelling between France, Holland, and Belgium, taking on more book contracts than he could plausibly fulfill, even at his dazzling pace, all the while developing a deep fondness for alcohol.

Until the Nazis made having a career as a Jewish writer impossible, Roth had become one of the best-paid journalists of his time. As the German market became off-limits, his only allies were émigré publishers or translators of his novels. For a master of negativity, Roth was ultimately given plenty to complain about. At 41 years of age, Roth summarised to Zweig: “There were the advances. Journalism. Revolting work. Humiliation. Sixteen books. ‘Success’ only in the last five years, associated with personal unhappiness and therefore invalidated. Loans and being swindled. Hitler.”

Things would only get worse. Roth seemed determined to live beyond even the most outrageous of means, staying at the best hotels (one trip to Vienna was spent at the Bristol), taking on exotic lovers with children to pay for, all while supporting his wife, who had long since been institutionalised with schizophrenia, and feeding an expensive appetite for alcohol. With political catastrophes looming and self-inflicted hardship weighing him down, Roth succumbed to a version of self-pity that is hard to understand in a man of such eloquence. The letters of his last several years ooze with self-deprecating pleas for money, contracts, more money, and friendship.

A Life in Letters

“Listen to me, I’m in the depths of distress, I’m dying believe me, I’m dying,” is just one example of the drivel sent to Zweig, the almost-exclusive recipient of letters in the last five years of Roth’s life. He begs for money, apologises for begging, promises to give up drinking, but ultimately dies in the throes of delirium tremens in 1939.

A seamless writer himself, Hofmann stays mostly behind the scenes, appearing only for a few pages to introduce the three parts of the collection. He is an obvious fan, which makes one glad he chose to translate Roth’s letters rather than his autobiography. His footnotes are peppered with praise, a place he also uses to explain that the “ever inadequate Stefan Zweig” had “one-tenth” of Roth’s talent – not only a highly debatable claim, but fully unnecessary in such a work.

Hofmann goes on to ask: “In these letters… we have something like the protocol of a man going over the edge of the world in a barrel. How can we not be amazed, harrowed, quickened, awed?” These are the words of an admirer, perhaps blinded to a more glaringly obvious question: How can a man who wallows in self-pity muster the ability to write books of such beauty and clarity? Is narcissism crucial to the act of sculpting stories from gathered thoughts? Is personal anguish essential to creativity?

But perhaps this is the object of such a book: a glimpse into the shadowy soul of one of Austria’s greatest writers, inspiring the reader to ask painful questions. Moreover, it proves that despite – or perhaps because of – anxieties, insecurities and a generous portion of hate, genius can be cultivated.

Whether as a journalist or Feuilletonist, a novelist or writer of friendly correspondence, Roth was a master of words and a crafter of autonomous thought. Nowhere is this clearer than in his letters.

Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters
Translated by Michael Hofmann
Granta Books (Feb. 2012)
pp. 512  

Order this book online

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2 Responses to Book Review: Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, translated by Michael Hofmann

  1. pete September 24, 2012 at 8:53 am

    To me he was a sceptic but not a cynic. How can accurate observation of absurd tribal society be negative? There is nothing positive or negative about seeing things as they are.

    …. his overstated self-congratulation for his writing, which he was quick to call “beautiful”, and his thinking, “superior”.

    Wrong. He was the best and he knew it. How about you?

  2. pete September 24, 2012 at 9:12 am

    “ever inadequate Stefan Zweig” had “one-tenth” of Roth’s talent – not only a highly debatable claim, but fully unnecessary in such a work.”

    This is also a fact well worth stating. It’s very clear to fiction lovers that the wealthy influential socialite Zweig’s work will be quickly forgotten compared to the lambent concision of Roth. It seems that you are revolted by the true artistic temperament displayed in the drama and ultimate despair of these letters. If you have only read the Radetzky March then I could understand. Try ‘Job’, ‘Rebellion’ and ‘weights and measures’ then think again.
    The greater the damage Roth did to himself to create this stuff, the more we owe him and should thank him. The correct ways to behave, observe and conduct oneself in polite society produce nothing of value, only an illusion of permanence and security.

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