14th Prague Writers┤ Festival
Joseph Roth: I don't know where I'm going

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Joseph Roth

Joseph Roth was born Moses Joseph Roth to Jewish parents on September 2, 1894, in Brody in Galicia, in the extreme east of the then Habsburg Empire; he died on May 27, 1939, in Paris. He never saw his father - who disappeared before he was born and later died insane - but grew up with his mother and her relatives. After completing school in Brody, he matriculated at the University of Lemberg (variously Lvov or Lviv), before transferring to the University of Vienna in 1914. He served for a year or two only as an army journalist or censor. Later he was to write: "My strongest experience was the War and the destruction of my fatherland, the only one I ever had, the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary."

In 1918 he returned to Vienna, where he began writing for left-wing papers, occasionally as "Red Roth," "der rote Roth." In 1920 he moved to Berlin, and in 1923 he began his distinguished association with the Frankfurter Zeitung. In the following years he travelled throughout Europe, filing copy for the Frankfurter from the south of France, the USSR, Albania, Germany, Poland, and Italy. He was one of the most distinguished and best-paid journalists of the period - being paid at the dream rate of one deutsche mark per line. Some of his pieces were collected under the title of one of them, The Panopticum on Sunday (1928), while some of his reportage from the Soviet Union went into The Wandering Jews. His gifts of style and perception could, on occasion, overwhelm his subjects, but he was a journalist of singular compassion. He observed and warned of the rising Nazi scene in Germany (Hitler actually appears by name in Roth's first novel, in 1923), and his 1926 visit to the USSR disabused him of most - but not quite all - of his sympathy for Communism.

When the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933, Roth immediately severed all his ties with the country. He lived in Paris - where he had been based for some years - but also in Amsterdam, Ostend, and the south of France, and wrote for ÚmigrÚ publications. His royalist politics were mainly a mask for his pessimism; his last article was called "Goethe's Oak at Buchenwald." His final years were difficult; he moved from hotel to hotel, drinking heavily, worried about money and the future. What precipitated his final collapse was hearing the news that the playwright Ernst Toller had hanged himself in New York. An invitation from the American PEN Club (the organization that had brought Thomas Mann and many others to the States) was found among Roth's papers. It is tantalizing but ultimately impossible to imagine him taking ship to the New World, and continuing to live and to write: His world was the old one, and he'd used it all up.

Roth's fiction came into being alongside his journalism, and in the same way: at cafÚ tables, at odd hours and all hours, peripatetically, chaotically, charmedly. His first novel, The Spider's Web, was published in instalments in 1923. There followed Hotel Savoy and Rebellion (both 1924), hard-hitting books about contemporary society and politics; then Flight Without End, Zipper and His Father, and Right and Left (all Heimkebrerromane - novels about soldiers returning home after war). Job (1930) was his first book to draw considerably on his Jewish past in the East. The Radetzky March (1932) has the biggest scope of all his books and is commonly reckoned his masterpiece. There follows the books he wrote in exile, books with a stronger fabulist streak in them, full of melancholy beauty: Tarabas, The Hundred Days, Confession of a Murderer, Weights and Measures, The Emperor's Tomb, and The Tale of the 1002nd Night.

Joseph Roth:  "I don't know where I'm going"

Poet and translator Michael Hofmann
in conversation with Michael March

Who was Joseph Roth?

Who was Joseph Roth? I'd say an Austrian journalist and novelist from the 192Os and 30s, who hailed from the far eastern realms of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the 'back and beyond' of Galicia, now in Ukraine, and in the course of his life made his way west, and finally achieved the distinction of dying in Paris in 1939, just before the war. He was the premier journalist of the period, a hotel dweller, an alcoholic, a workaholic, loved women, collected knives, collected watches, lived out of suitcases and wrote thirteen novels. Dead at forty-four.

A writer who assumed many disguises in order to re-route his life, having been born, for starters, in the outreaches of Brody.

His biographer says he circulated a dozen different versions of his paternity. The fact is that Roth never saw his father, who was a commercial traveller, who was away on the road when he was born, lost his mind, and never came home. Roth dreamed about him and invented versions of his own identity in order to cover that space in his life. A space resembling a garden that you may wander in and out of. It's not that he's a liar or evasive, but he just sees more possibilities.

So the garden's organic?

Sure it is.

To disguise the unhealthy fact that he was a Jew from a poor family.

It's possible. He doesn't declare himself as a Jew anywhere in his writing. I don't know whether it's because he thought it didn't need saying, or it was something he wanted to keep quiet. I don't know.

He served in the Austrian army during the First World War and then he came to Vienna. What were the special effects?

Whether to Vienna or Berlin, Roth was drawn westwards, along with countless others. These places ran on immigrant labour and energy. That was where their creativity came from.

He stayed in Vienna, then he moved on rather impatiently to Berlin.

There is this lack of fixity in Roth. In Vienna, he established himself professionally as a journalist. In Berlin, he measured himself against the German language at the heart of the German-language world. He was a transient.

What were Roth's politics? He was known as "Red" Roth.

Contradictory. He started off as a pacifist and a man of the left. Then he joined the army. In later life, he liked to be taken for an ex-officer. He always sympathised with poor people, with common people.

Being poor and common himself.

Yes, absolutely, being from a pretty obscure background. After a while, he decided that he didn't really like the West - he became nostalgic and wanted to return to the non-material values that he associated with the East. And that made him an apologist for all sorts of impalpable, sheltering things like Judaism and Catholicism, aristocracy, the officer caste - pretty much the opposite of the young firebrand of the early twenties. Very contradictory politics.

Over time Roth became very fond of the Emperor and his habits. His novels reanimate a lost world, a world of vanished forms, visceral securities.

It was his experience after the First World War. He disliked patriotism and nationalism. The things he preferred, the organisations he preferred, transcended nationhood: Judaism, Catholicism, the Holy Roman Empire - all the enemies of a narrow, ethnic nationalism. And there is something very decent and infectious about his belief in these ideals. The priest and the Jewish innkeeper; the Emperor and violin prodigy.

What was his life like in Paris?

Paris was his great hope and his huge disappointment. He went there first in 1925, hoping to become foreign correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung, but they gave the job to someone else, a German Nationalist, and that was his big disappointment, though Roth more or less stayed living in Paris. After 1933, he never returned to Germany. He thought Paris was going to be heaven, and it ended up as his place of exile, the place where he was marginalised and ignored.

A wandering Jew.

A wandering Jew, bound up with France and drawn to Catholicism as an outsider. At the beginning, he had such a strong sense of belonging, being somewhere like Marseilles in 1925, seeing people wash up from all over the world.

The Promised Land?

Yes, absolutely.

So what draws us to Roth?

His elegant, reflective, economy of style. He writes novels, invents novels that incorporate the life of his times, peopled by characters who are unaware of themselves in what seems a quite modern way. He has a profound, structural understanding of modern life. I hope that's why we read his books.

Having lived through the disintegration of old Europe and the rise of fascism,
what would Roth feel today?

Probably more irony than similarity.

London, July 2003

Joseph Roth (1984-1939) was the great elegist of the cosmopolitan, tolerant and doomed Central European culture that flourished in the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On Hitler's assumption of power, he was obliged to leave Germany and he died in poverty in Paris.

Michael Hofmann has brought the work of Joseph Roth to the attention of the English-language world through his outstanding, ongoing translations of the author. Born in Freiburg, Germany in 1957, he came to England in 1961 and lives in London. He has published four collections of poetry, which include Nights in the Iron Hotel, Acrimony, Corona, Corona and Approximately Nowhere. Behind the Lines, his first collection of prose, appeared last year. Michael Hofmann will be participating at next year's Festival in March 2004.

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