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Half Human

The German Jewish writer Joseph Roth, whose letters are newly translated, chronicled the death of 19th century Europe and the rise of its darker heir

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Joseph Roth waiting on a train platform while traveling in France, 1926. (Courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute, New York.)

The rediscovery of Joseph Roth has been one of the happiest literary developments of the last 10 years—perhaps the first time that the word “happy” could be used in the same sentence as Roth’s name. Roth, born in the town of Brody in Austrian Galicia in 1894, was one of the best-known journalists in 1920s Germany, a master of the impressionistic personal essay known as the feuilleton. With the 1932 publication of The Radetzky March, his novel about the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he joined the first rank of fiction writers as well.

Within a year, however, the Nazis took power in Germany, making it impossible for Roth, or any German Jewish writer, to live and work in the country. Roth spent the next five years living hand-to-mouth in France, cranking out short novels at a terrific pace in an increasingly hopeless attempt to support himself. He died in 1939, a victim of alcoholism and of history, at the age of just 45—though to judge by photographs of his booze-ravaged face, he already looked like an elderly man. As it turned out, this premature death came just in time, for if Roth had still been living in France after the German conquest in 1940, he would surely have been sent to a concentration camp.

Several of Roth’s books were published in the United States in the 1920s and ’30s, but after his death his reputation nearly vanished here. Over the last decade, the translator Michael Hofmann has led a major effort to reintroduce Roth to America, translating many of his novels and stories as well as collections of his journalism. There is still no English-language biography; it would take a fearless biographer to disentangle the truth of Roth’s life from the many myths and legends he liked to propagate about himself. Instead, Hofmann has now produced Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, a big collection of Roth’s correspondence, which allows us to trace the stages of his difficult life—and gives some unsettling insights into his understanding of Jewishness.

Unfortunately—but, given his harried existence, understandably—most of Roth’s letters are lost. Though A Life in Letters runs to more than 500 pages, it has, as Hofmann points out in his introduction, no letters to Roth’s parents, his wife, his lovers, or his best friends. The bulk of the correspondence before 1933 consists of letters to his editors and colleagues at the Frankfurter Zeitung, the prestigious liberal newspaper where he was a staff writer. After 1933, by far the most important recipient of Roth’s letters is Stefan Zweig, another German Jewish literary émigré, and the Roth-Zweig friendship emerges as the real drama of the book.

Still, the letters are enough to give a vivid sense of what Roth was like. As a very young man, writing from Vienna to relatives in Brody, he is precocious, haughty, and dandified: “What can I wish for you? Three kingly things. … The golden crown of imagination, the scarlet cloak of solitude, and the scepter of irony,” the 22-year-old tells his younger cousin. In 1917 Roth enlisted in the Austrian army, and over the next year he accumulated experiences that would shape his writing. Indeed, he deliberately blurred the line between his life and his fiction, often telling people that he saw combat and was taken prisoner by the Russians, when in fact he spent most of his time working on an army newspaper. Unfortunately, this crucial period is represented by just two brief letters.

When the correspondence really picks up, in 1925, Roth is already a well-established journalist, a star of the Frankfurter Zeitung. Not just a star, in fact, but a prima donna: Many of these letters involve Roth’s complaints that he is not getting the best assignments or the highest rates. “I am not an encore, not a pudding [i.e., a dessert—Hofmann writes British English], I am the main dish,” he lectures his editor. What remains constant, and significant for Roth the writer, is his deep discomfort with Germany, which leads him to idealize just about every other country as an alternative. In France for the first time in 1925, he is rhapsodic: “I feel driven to inform you personally that Paris is the capital of the world, and that you must come here,” he writes his editor Benno Reifenberg. “Whoever has not been here is only half a human.”

France especially gains by contrast with Germany: “Any chauffeur is wittier than our wittiest authors,” Roth writes, and later, “I don’t see the point in being a German writer. [Paris] is like being on top of a tall tower, you look down from the summit of European civilization, and way down at the bottom, in some sort of gulch, is Germany.” It was a bitter blow when he was denied a permanent Paris assignment and forced to come home. “I feel Germany right off the bat, and all of it at once,” he writes in 1931, after another trip abroad. “Every street corner expresses the awfulness of the whole country. It has the ugliest prostitutes. … The men are all scoutmasters on display. … The feeling as though your genitals were gone, nothing left!”

The 1920s were a boom time for German journalism, and for Roth. Yet even in these letters, we hear his constant complaints about money, and his stratagems for getting more of it. Often this involved what Hofmann calls a “scorched-earth” strategy with publishers: Roth had a habit of accepting more assignments and book contracts than he could possibly carry out, and he always had to work frantically to catch up. One story, which Hofmann tells in a footnote, is suggestive. Roth had promised to write a novel for serialization in a Munich newspaper. When he delivered the manuscript, he accidentally included a page on which he had written a dozen times: “Must finish novel in three days! Must finish novel in three days!” The newspaper, disturbed at the evidence of Roth’s working practices, rejected the novel. It is no coincidence that his masterpiece, The Radetzky March, was also the book on which he spent the most time—two years, an eternity by Rothian standards.

Roth took pride in his bohemian existence: “I haven’t lived in a house since my eighteenth year,” he wrote in 1929. “Everything I own fits into three suitcases.” But living in hotels was an expensive kind of poverty, especially once his wife Friedl became schizophrenic and he had to pay the bills for her sanitarium. Luckily, Roth happened to leave Germany on Jan. 30, 1933, the very day Hitler became chancellor; but if his life was saved, his livelihood was devastated. By Feb. 11, he was writing of his “prospects of having to sleep under the Seine bridges within 4 weeks.” His only advantage was his clear-sightedness: Unlike some of his fellow Jewish writers, he knew exactly what the Third Reich would mean for him. “It will have become clear to you now that we are heading for a great catastrophe,” he writes Zweig in February 1933. “Quite apart from our personal situations—our literary and material existence has been wrecked—we are headed for a new war. I wouldn’t give a heller for our prospects. The barbarians have taken over. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns.”

For the next six years, the letters record an increasingly desperate, and finally unsuccessful, struggle for survival. With the German market barred to him, Roth could no longer earn a living as a journalist. All he had left were his novels, which he sold to émigré German publishers in Austria and Holland and had translated into French and English. But to write a novel a year, or more, while facing imminent destitution—Roth was now supporting his new lover and her children, and spending heavily on alcohol—was a prolonged nervous torture, which the letters faithfully reflect.

Roth poured out his troubles to Stefan Zweig, who supported him financially and professionally throughout these years. But supporting a man like Roth was not a simple matter—especially for a man like Zweig. The two were a study in contrasts: If Roth was a genius and a spendthrift, Zweig was a careful, calculating literary bourgeois. He earned a fortune, and worldwide fame, with his biographies of historical figures and writers, yet recognized that Roth was the greater talent.

The possibilities for hurt feelings in such a situation are obvious, and if they were largely avoided, the credit goes wholly to Zweig. Roth, not a temperate man at the best of times, was reduced by poverty to the most abject begging and the most ruthless emotional blackmail: “I have worries, such worries, and I’m so UNHAPPY. Please, please secure a little freedom for me. I can’t live like this any more, it’s killing me,” he wrote in June 1934. Yet his supplicant position did not stop him from loftily criticizing Zweig’s books, or blasting his political caution, or generally disparaging his character. “It seems to me that you can’t have had a friend before in your life,” he raged in 1936. “Within such a serious and tragic relationship as friendship, there is only the UNCONDITIONAL. THE UNCONDITIONAL. There are no criteria.” The whole correspondence is so fraught with emotional and political drama that it cries out for theatrical treatment: A play about Roth and Zweig in Paris could really be something.

Inevitably, the subject of Jewishness is also a central topic of Roth and Zweig’s correspondence—even though Roth strains at times to distance himself from it. “My Jewishness never appeared as anything else to me but an accidental quality, like, say, my blond mustache (which could have been brown),” Roth wrote in July 1935. “I never suffered from it, I was never proud of it.” It follows that Roth was ambivalent about solidarity with his fellow German Jews. Partly this was because he insisted, correctly, on seeing Nazism as a threat to civilization as a whole, not just to the Jews: “anti-Semitism … is a little spoke in the great wheel of bestiality.” And he despised anyone, especially any Jew, whom he thought ready to compromise with Germany. In 1936, he wrote venomously about “people who, if they’d been able to borrow a foreskin from somewhere, would still be sitting in Germany, quietly or otherwise.”

But Roth also had an undisguised contempt for all manner of Jews. As a political conservative who dreamed of restoring the Austrian Empire, he hated Jewish leftists; as a cosmopolitan who dreamed of becoming a Catholic, he hated Jewish nationalists. And he was all too ready to blame the Jews for their own persecution. In February 1935, we find him writing “It’s the Jews … who have introduced Socialism and catastrophe into European culture,” thus making National Socialism possible: “They are the real cradle of Hitler. … The Jews have unleashed the plebs.” Six months later, Roth is attacking Chaim Weizmann, writing, “A Zionist is a National Socialist, a National Socialist is a Zionist … what I want to do is protect Europe and humanity, both from the Nazis and from the Hitler-Zionists.” When all mitigating factors are taken into account—Roth’s political and religious convictions, his personal desperation, his desire to shock—this remains vile.

But as is often the case in Roth’s letters, the emotion of the moment is far from the whole story. Though he might claim that Jewishness means as little to him as hair color, it is in fact the explicit subject of two of his best books—Job, a novel about an Eastern European Jewish everyman, and The Wandering Jews, a collection of reportage on the same theme. And in The Radetzky March, it’s possible to see how Roth’s Jewishness intersects in a complicated way with his Austrianness, an identity that he embraced far more fervently.

In the introduction to his 2000 translation of The Wandering Jews, Hofmann mentions a story Roth liked to tell: “An old caftaned Jewish refugee, sitting in a train compartment, shows his ticket to the inspector. The inspector, suspicious, thinking that perhaps he is hiding a child in his caftan to save the price of a ticket, asks the Jew what he has in there. The Jew produces a framed portrait of Emperor Franz Joseph.” This double-edged story suggests the bittersweetness of Jewish feeling toward the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was ruled by Franz Joseph from 1848 until 1916. In the late 18th century, Austria had joined with Russia and Prussia in dismembering the country of Poland and in the process annexed a large Jewish population. Over the next century, many of those Polish Jews made their way to the cities of the Austrian Empire, especially Vienna, which by the turn of the 20th century was a glorious center of Jewish culture and achievement. This was the Vienna of Freud, Mahler, and Wittgenstein—and of Joseph Roth, who moved there to study at the university during World War I.

Yet fin-de-siècle Vienna was also a world capital of anti-Semitism, one of the first places where explicitly anti-Semitic parties and politicians took power; Adolf Hitler learned his Jew-hatred in the streets of Vienna. What Roth’s anecdote captures is the sense that Austrian Jews were both exposed to danger—that suspicious train conductor—and, finally, shielded against it by the benevolence of the imperial government, as personified in the kaiser. This feeling became even more seductive after 1918, when the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire led to an age of aggressive nationalism in Eastern Europe. Compared to the tolerant Empire, new states like Poland and Hungary—and, after 1933, Nazi Germany—were nightmares of xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

In a sense, Roth used his memories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire just as the old Jew in the story used his portrait of the emperor: as a talisman against evil, a token of a safer, more civilized world. This nostalgia for a doomed Austrian civilization is the theme of The Radetzky March, which belongs with The Magic Mountain and Remembrance of Things Past in the group of great novels that chronicle the death of 19th-century Europe.

The title of the novel is taken from an Austrian military march, and Roth’s story is set in the cloistered world of the Austrian army in the years leading up to 1914. His hero is Carl Joseph von Trotta, a weak-willed, thoroughly unheroic young officer who is struggling, like the empire at large, with an unmanageable legacy. Trotta’s grandfather, we learn in the novel’s opening chapter, saved the life of Emperor Franz Joseph at the Battle of Solferino in 1859. As a reward, “the Hero of Solferino” was abruptly ripped away from his Slavic peasant roots and turned into a baron. His grandson, Carl Joseph, has to live out the consequences of this deracination: He has a title but no personal nobility, an officer’s commission but no military talents.

As Roth suggests, this makes him the perfect emblem of an empire that is being hollowed out from within. In the lazy years before the World War, being an Austrian soldier means living in a garrison town, drinking, gambling, and fighting the occasional duel—in short, wasting a lifetime in preparation for a struggle that no one really believes will ever come. Trotta’s Austria is a land of the lotus-eaters, much like the mountaintop sanitarium that Thomas Mann creates in The Magic Mountain. Only occasionally does Trotta meet someone who sees more clearly—like the Polish Count Chojnicki, who tells him, “We are all no longer alive!” The Habsburg monarchy ruled over a dozen nationalities—Poles, Hungarians, Croats, Slovenes—all of which wanted to break free; only the extraordinary longevity of Franz Joseph was still holding things together. “An old man, with one foot in the grave, endangered whenever his nose runs, keeps the old throne through the sheer miracle that he can still sit on it. How much longer, how much longer? This era no longer wants us! This era wants to create independent nation-states! People no longer believe in God. The new religion is nationalism.”

Writing from the vantage point of the early 1930s, Roth knew that the worst losers in the age of European nationalism would be the Jews. This knowledge informs one of the most elegiac scenes in the novel, when the kaiser receives a delegation of Jews during his visit to a small town. For Franz Joseph, this is merely another obligation—he has already shown himself to the town’s Catholics and Orthodox Christians, when someone mentions that the Jews also want an audience. But for the Jews it is a once-in-a-lifetime privilege, a chance to thank their remote protector face-to-face:

The leader of the Jews, a patriarch with a wafting beard in a white prayer shawl with black stripes, flowed toward the Kaiser. The Kaiser paced his horse. … The black throng of Jews billowed toward him. Their backs rose and sank. Their coal-black, fiery-red, and silvery-white beards wafted in the soft breeze. The patriarch stopped three paces from the Kaiser. In his arms he carried a huge Torah scroll topped by a gold crown with tiny, softly jingling bells. The Jew then lifted the Torah scroll toward the Emperor. And in an incomprehensible language his toothless, wildly overgrown mouth babbled the blessing that Jews must recite upon seeing an emperor. Franz Joseph lowered his head. … ‘Blessed art thou,’ the Jew said to the Kaiser. ‘Thou shalt not live to see the end of the world.’ I know! thought Franz Joseph.

The passage is a good example of Roth’s style. Like the expert feuilletonist he was, he captures a scene in a few bold strokes of color and detail, using short sentences to move the reader’s eye from spot to spot. Typical, too, is the benevolent irony with which he depicts the kaiser—an old man, at a loss among these exotics, but still recognizing his duty to his Jewish subjects. In the last sentences, Roth turns the words of the blessing into an inadvertent curse. If Franz Joseph will not live to see the end of the world, it is not because the Messiah is coming; it is because his death will signal the dissolution of the Austrian Empire. And for the Jews of Europe, this dissolution would culminate in a destruction more absolute than even Roth could have predicted. “Now,” he asked Zweig in 1933, “do you understand why I always was, and am, presciently sad?”

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Ruth Gutmann says:

Roth would probably not have liked being called a German Jew. Just look at his comparisons of Paris with Berlin.

I would also argue that death was not necessarily the only way to escape extermination by the Nazis. As you well know, some people, and writers not the least among them, were able to get out of France in 1940.

From what I’ve read, he had a chance to go to the U.S. before his death. His connections here secured an employment opportunity. He did not take them up on it.

George One says:

I deplore the description “British English”. It is just English. You could if you insist, use the terms “American English” or “Indian English” to separate them from English.

Earl Ganz says:

A wonderful review. You keep finding books for me to read, Adam. You are a blessing to my old age.


Frank Messmann says:

A right-wing Zionist leader like Jabotinsky held views remarkably similar to those of the Nazis. Is it possible that Roth had this in mind when he saw similarities between the two groups?

“As you well know, some people, and writers not the least among them, were able to get out of France in 1940.”

Some people could most couldn’t. Some who did had nowhere to go, Ruth.

Let’s get real.

Frank Messmann says:

“A right-wing Zionist leader like Jabotinsky held views remarkably similar to those of the Nazis.”

I am a left wing Zionist but I know that Jabotinsky didn’t hold any views similar to to Hitler.

Jabotinsky believed in Parliamentary democracy. He admired the British system.

Why don’t you read some things he wrote himself. He wrote novels as well as political tracts. If I would compare him to anyone it would be Disraeli.

What I don’t like about his views were his views on economics.

“Is it possible that Roth had this in mind when he saw similarities between the two groups?”

I don’t know what Roth knew about Jabotinsky. Roth hated all socialists and made little distinction between say Jewish Bundists, communists, and nazis.

Roth’s notions about politics were pretty ridiculous.

Ironically, Roth like Jabotinsky was an imperialist. Only difference is that Roth admired the Hapsburg empire while Jabotinsky admired the British Empire.

Benjamin Weinthal says:

Dear Adam,

My note is not for the website. My name is Benjamin Weinthal, and I am the Jerusalem Post correspondent based in Berlin, Germany. I am familar with Roth. He is not considered to be German Jewish, More accurate to describe him as Austrian Jewish. He wrote in German but that does make him German Jewish. I hope I am not coming across as pedantic. But the difference matters on this side of the,benny

Paul Dalton says:

Thanks for this review.
Joseph Roth is a wonderful writer.
Michael Hofmann has, more than anyone, been responsible for bringing Roth to an English readership over the past 15 years. Its terrible to see that some of the Granta titles are already out of print again.
There are two German-langauges biographies; one by Wilhelm von Sternburg published in 2011 and a much-praised 1973 publication by David Bronsen (an abridged version was published in 1991).
I hope that they might be translated into English some time soon.

A fine review and it’s a pity there’s no biography of Roth in English. An American, David Bronsen, wrote a biography more than 25 years ago and had to have it published in German. And a fellow correspondent at the Frankfurter Zeitung, Soma Morgenstern, wrote a book on Roth. He died in 1976 in NYC but wrote only in German-and it’s not translated, either.
God bless Michael Hofmann–no one translates from German to English as well as he does. There are at least two other quite good translations of Radetzky March, but Hofmann’s is quite a bit better.
My only quibble with Mr Kirsch’s review is calling Roth and Zweig German writers. Both would spin in their graves at that one.
And as for Jews longing for the empire that protected them–how true. My institute even made a short film, which Morley Safer narrated for us, about it:


Jacob Arnon says:

Roth like some other famous writers preferred death to life outside Europe. That was their choice and we shouldn’t celebrate it since many others who wished to leave Europe and live free of persecution couldn’t get out.


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Half Human

The German Jewish writer Joseph Roth, whose letters are newly translated, chronicled the death of 19th century Europe and the rise of its darker heir