Joseph Roth’s Letters Reveal a Great Forgotten Writer

The great Austrian-Jewish writer Joseph Roth’s letters reveal him to be an urgent, necessary prophet, says Anthony Heilbut.

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“I am living and improvising twenty novels.”

If you want a high literary experience, to be rocked between emotional extremes by a writer with perfect pitch in any realm, you won’t do better than this collection of letters by an impoverished alcoholic, who died with two bedraggled suitcases to his name. The excellence of Joseph Roth was never in doubt. During the 1920s, he had been the most highly paid journalist in Germany, and he remains the greatest of that tribe since Dickens. When his novel Job appeared in 1930, The New York Times said correctly that “there seldom has appeared a book in which each word is burdened so heavily with music and meaning” (and it was a mediocre translation!). When The Radetzky March appeared two years later, the paper said, again correctly, that it could be the model of a historical novel. Yet when he died—of pneumonia, in a Paris charity ward, his body wracked with delirium tremens—the paper of record spent more time on his decline, “once well-to-do … he has lived in increasingly distressed circumstances in the last few years.” But even his dying was epochal—everything about this amazing writer resonates.

In 1933 when Hitler, whom he had warned against for years, took office, Roth told his friend Stefan Zweig that “the word has died, men bark like dogs.” In the darkest of times, “there’s a handful who know, and they know everything.” He was among that handful, and dedicated himself all the more to the word, even in its death agony. He writes the most engaging prose imaginable, observing everything with intense precision, filtered through what he sometimes called the “Jews’ dialectical intelligence,” and other times, the French “dialectical heart.” His range of empathy surpasses any of his peers—Mann, Musil, or Kafka. Yet he could also be furious, capable of murderous thoughts and rhetoric, the jolliest of men and the saddest (“I have no home ... wherever I am unhappy is my home”). He was also hyper-alert—“anything and everything is able to provoke me”—because he needed to be. Joseph Roth’s posture—and that included his outrageous alcoholism: he personified what Berlin Jews called “Herr Besofsky” (from besoffen, to drink)—was geared to survival.

He was always an anomalous figure, a Galician Jew in love with the Hapsburg Empire, “a Catholic heart and a jüdische Koph,” or, as he later said, “a faithful skeptic.” He was led by his nose—“I can smell more than most people see”—to recognize Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as equivalent “toilets,” in this way, echoing another Berlin idiom, “It stinks from every hole.” But he opposed radicalism, not from the position of capital, which he detested, but from that of the weak and poor. He hated Russia but also America, home of Wall Street, Protestantism, and segregation (his mistress, during the 30s, was the former wife of an African chieftain, and he helped support her children); America, perhaps worst of all, for birthing Hollywood. Because he was a genius, he recognized that Hollywood was the country’s true capital. Because he was Joseph Roth, he thought the city’s real story was that of its impoverished and homeless extras. Moreover, Hollywood was ground zero of the anti-Christ, because the movies had robbed man of his shadow. The whole point of Roth’s prose is to restore that shadow, to grant the humblest of people their full depth and mystery.

Hence, everything he writes is steeped in political and psychological complexity, and yet it always reads like a dream (thanks to Michael Hofmann’s beyond-superlative translation). So you can laugh at his riotous description of the deflowering of a young woman—penetrating “three Catholic hymens before the real one”—and still recall Billy Joel and those beguiling Catholic girls, and also that he was like countless Jews lured by the forbidden. Even the horny Roth is an historical subject—which he would never dispute.

Superb as his novels are, their heroes (no heroines: his women tend to be whores or madonnas, though he wooed and loved remarkable women, and Marlene Dietrich called Job her favorite novel) are unreflective salts of the earth, passive victims of their age; the questing intellectuals of a Mann or Musil never appear. That’s why some readers prefer the journalism, and why they should welcome the Roth of these letters, the one who won’t take shit (a good German word he loves to use) from anyone, who suspects everyone—and with reason—including himself, who doesn’t miss a trick or a thing. His panic, fully justified, makes for thrilling and terrifying reading. Also heartbreaking—“I’m dying!,” he complains. But so were they all.

The collection includes a few early letters, in which the prose ranges from riotous detail to near-fugal states of calm, the Rothian cadence in vitro. These are followed by letters dating from his fat years, though he always suspects those days won’t last; he has a wandering Jew’s instinctive foreboding. The bulk date from his years in exile, and most are addressed to Stefan Zweig, a far better-known writer, 13 years his senior.

There is often a subtext to this correspondence of literary lions. A typical letter will go, “You are such a professional, with your cool, magisterial style (from Joseph Roth, that’s not praise). This is yet another masterpiece, even though the tone and diction are all wrong, and the proportions totally off. Still a masterpiece, you’ve done it again. Meanwhile we’re starving! Send money.” (Like everything else he touched, Roth made an art form out of schnorring.) Yet Roth, who never knew his father and valued male friendship above all (thereby, perhaps, explaining his loyalty to the Emperor and to Jesus, his Jewish older brother), writes heartbreaking letters of his need for Zweig’s presence. “Don’t write to me, talk to me.”

In happier days, both agreed that Roth wrote a superior German. This meant the world to Hitler’s émigrés. Mann wrote that only the Berlin Jews knew how to read; Hannah Arendt wrote that when everything else was lost, the mother tongue remained. Roth, in perhaps this classic book’s most riveting passage, simply says that what the world calls “pretty sentences” are really “a direct expression of reason, perhaps the only reason in the world.” The written word has no greater champion than Herr Besofsky from Galicia.