The final message from the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth inJOSEPH ROTH: A Life in Letters (Norton, $39.95) is short and desperate. “Dear friend,” he writes to his French translator, Blanche Gidon, “my eyes are in grave danger. May I count on you to find a moment to advise me in the course of the afternoon. I am very fearful. Please.” The brevity is out of character; the desperation is not. There is scarcely a letter of his that doesn’t include some sort of plea — for money, for work, for forgiveness.
To date, no full English-language biography of Roth has been written, and this collection of his letters, translated and edited by Michael Hofmann, makes for a strange surrogate. Best known for “The Radetzky March,” his 1932 multigenerational chronicle of European decline, Roth was one of the early 20th century’s loudest and most cantankerous witnesses. He was born into a Jewish family in Galicia in the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and left for Lvov (now Lviv, in Ukraine) and then Vienna, for his studies. His career as a journalist, most regularly for Frankfurter Zeitung, sent him wandering across Europe to report on the shifting continental mood — with Paris, more often than not, his magnetic north. Along the way, and in the company of ungodly quantities of schnapps, he established himself as one of the finest novelists of his day.
You will not, however, find much evidence of this life’s work in his letters. Hoping to get a sense of the experiences that gave birth to “The Radetzky March,” one of my favorite novels (and one of many books by Roth that Hofmann has translated), I came away instead with a catalog of grievances and tortuous publishing contracts. We valorize the letter as a medium of reflection — a pensive art compared with e-mail — but Roth’s letters are, for the most, a fickle record of the man.
What’s especially striking about his correspondence (in contrast to that of Thomas Mann, whose letters from the period are almost the inverse of Roth’s in tone and substance) is how little of the writing life makes its way into the written life. Occasionally, he leaves a stray morsel: “I was sick and miserable for a long time, and I’m working desperately on ‘The Radetzky March.’ The material is too much, I am frail, and unable to shape it.” He’ll refer in passing to this or that book, but the novels themselves — the thinking behind them, the experience of writing them, all the things that constitute the mystique of the author — remain opaque.
The most revealing correspondence, and a clue to Roth as novelist, is that between Roth and Stefan Zweig, his literary peer and patron. When they are not sparring over money, Roth is berating Zweig for failing to recognize the magnitude of the historical disaster unfolding before them. “You are in danger of losing your moral credit vis-à-vis the world,” Roth warns. He is right, of course, but it’s not hard to see why Zweig might be hesitant to heed his counsel. A typical letter goes more like this: “I beseech you now — and don’t make me mention it again — it costs you so little to get me an advance from an English publisher. They will listen to you. I beg you, I implore you to take this trouble upon yourself!” and further, “Do you think I’m blackmailing you?”
If there’s anything Roth’s letters make clear, it’s how much his writing was intertwined with material need: another piece, another paycheck. “Writing is a terrestrial thing and, from a ‘metaphysical’ vantage point, is in no way different from shoemaking,” Roth writes at one point to Zweig. Coming to the collected letters as a lover of “The Radetzky March,” I couldn’t help finding this statement disappointing, disingenuous even. How to square this sentiment with a novel that seeks no less than to embody the spirit of an age?
Perhaps it’s unfair to expect an author’s letters to reveal some sort of hidden key to his work. To take Roth’s correspondence as a straight path into his brain, as I had foolishly done, is to miss the fact that letters, like novels, are written — subject to the same projections, metaphors and linguistic instabilities that elevate a novel from the terrestrial to the metaphysical plane. They give us a life unfolding in real time, a chorus of multiple selves. From the first, Roth treats his own biography as a malleable document, something to be written and rewritten in accordance with his needs and audience. In a letter to one of his publishers, he plays fast and loose with the facts of his life. He claims his mother “had no money and no husband, because my father, who turned up one day, and whisked her off to the west with him — probably with the sole purpose of siring me — left her in Katowice, and disappeared, never to be seen again.” In fact, his father’s whereabouts was known: Roth never met him because he was committed to a German insane asylum before the novelist’s birth. This doesn’t mean Roth’s life as reflected in his letters is a fictional construct; rather, like the recipients of his letters, we’re being sold whatever version of Roth the moment (and the author) required: ascendant novelist, anxious husband, world-weary journalist.
And those shifting personae are echoed in his novels. In “The Radetzky March,” the rise of the von Trotta clan from the Slovenian peasantry to Austrian nobility coincides with the halcyon years of the Hapsburg Empire, the youngest scion’s dissipation with its slow disintegration. While the von Trottas, the district commissioner and his son Carl Joseph, define themselves by the rituals of an aging monarchy, the mercurial Count Chojnicki declares its extinction: “As we speak, it’s 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 anymore!”
In his crusade to shake his friend Zweig out of moral complacency, Roth is the Chojnicki to Zweig’s von Trotta — the mournful prophet of a new Europe. “Now, confronted by this hellish hour in which a beast gets itself crowned and anointed, not even a Goethe would have remained quiet,” he writes, summoning all his rhetorical powers. In his physical debilitation, his ill-used genius and his constant pleading for money, he is the painter Moser, who relies on his erstwhile friend von Trotta for patronage. In his drinking and profligacy, he is Carl Joseph, the underachieving lieutenant whose very dissolution seems to keep pace with history.
These similarities reveal little in themselves — what author doesn’t leave traces of himself in his characters? — but ultimately, I found myself reading Roth as if he were one of his characters. As the von Trottas represent a fading Austria, so would Roth come to represent Germany, his failing body a mirror for the broken German state.
By 1935, Zweig’s concerns about Roth’s alcoholism were growing louder and Roth’s assurances less convincing: “I mean to say, yes, alcohol has the effect of shortening one’s life, but it staves off immediate death,”
he writes. “I am as it were cashing in the last 20 years of my life with alcohol, in order to gain a week or two. Admittedly, to keep the metaphor going, there will come a time when the bailiffs turn up unexpectedly, and too early.” As with Carl Joseph, Roth’s alcoholism forecasts a kind of political doom. It’s as if he lived his life the way he wrote his characters, imagining them as the executors of an inexorable cosmic order. In hastening his own death, Roth made a symbol of himself. He would die of severe alcohol abuse in Paris three months before the outbreak of World War II
Amelia Atlas has written for n+1 and Barnes & Noble Review.
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