[This page by Malcolm Spencer]

Joseph Roth (1894–1939)

‘An Eastern European writer in the German language’ is one critic’s description of Joseph Roth (Mueller-Funk (1989), p. 20). He was born in 1894 into a Jewish family in Brody, a town then not far from the Austrian border with Tsarist Russia, the easternmost and poorest province of the Habsburg Empire. The nearest city was Lemberg (from 1919 until 1939, the Polish city of Lwów), today’s Lviv, the capital of the western Ukraine, at whose University Roth briefly studied in 1914, before becoming a student of German literature at the University of Vienna. Roth had acquired his knowledge of German at the grammar school in Brody, though he belonged to the last year of pupils to be instructed in that language; the teaching medium then changed to Polish, the language of the local gentry. Most of the writers of Jewish background who made literary careers in (and after) the Habsburg Empire – Arthur Schnitzler and Stefan Zweig, for instance – came from assimilated Viennese, affluent bourgeois families. Roth’s background was completely different from theirs and his modest provincial origins as well as his upbringing in an area of interlinked cultures (Jewish, Polish, Ukrainian and Habsburg Austrian) influence all his writing.

Roth writes about the Empire’s periphery rather than its centre, he contrasts a natural and mysterious Eastern environment with an artificial or corrupt Western one; his fiction tends to concentrate on the lives of the poor or downtrodden, or on displaced or stateless people who have been uprooted by circumstance. His novels that are set in (or purport to be set in) the vanished Empire usually have characters who have Slav origins and names even if they speak German. Roth disliked intellectuals and preferred the company of the common people – preferably in cafés and bars, while consuming vast amounts of alcohol. This was one reason why Roth was a brilliant journalist, and indeed for some time in the 1920s when he was employed by the illustrious Frankfurter Zeitung, he was the best-paid journalist in Germany. His sharp political antennae were another reason: reporting from Soviet Russia in the mid-1920s, Roth is clear-eyed about the oppressive nature of Communist dictatorship, far more so than many later Western visitors to the USSR; his reports from small towns in Germany in the later 1920s pick up a rising, ominous mood of anti-Semitism. Roth’s prophetic first novel, Das Spinnennetz (The Spider’s Web) serialized in November 1923 at the exact time of Hitler’s beer-hall putsch in Munich, is about a radical right-wing agitator. Roth’s protagonist , Theodor Lohse, is a reactionary, lower middle-class, anti-Semitic former lieutenant in the German army who craves power and is ready to use intrigue and violence to gain it. The figure may be derivative – it recalls the main character of Heinrich Mann’s novel Der Untertan; The Loyal Subject, published a few years before – but Roth’s insight into the prejudices and destructive potential of the ‘authoritarian personality’ is considerable. A final reason for Roth’s achievements as a journalist and novelist is his mastery of the German language. He avoids the long sentences with complex subordinate clauses that are possible in German and instead uses a simple but effective style, with an unerring ability to find the telling word or phrase, often supported by incisive or witty observation. These short sentences are frequently memorable, as an example from chapter eight of the novel Radetzkymarsch shows, which evokes the harsh lives of Austrian soldiers stationed in Galicia: ‘Die Friedhöfe der Grenzgarnisonen bargen viele junge Leiber schwacher Männer.’ (The cemeteries of the border garrisons contained many young bodies of weak men.) With the exception of his most ambitious work Radetzkymarsch, (about 400 pages in most editions), most of Roth’s novels are short works of about 100 to 120 pages. With their clear plots and deliberately formulaic characters, these works are deceptively easy to read. They are however much more difficult to understand: the surface conceals symbolic depths. Roth hides his own standpoint, his characters usually reveal their thoughts in free indirect speech, and the narratives raise many questions that Roth leaves unanswered.

Little is known of Roth’s early life – and the little we know is compromised by Roth’s habit of inventing aspects of it. What is certain is that Roth did not know his father, an agent for a German grain company, who fell into a serious mental illness shortly before his son’s birth and never recovered. (Mental illness was to cloud Roth’s life a second time, when his wife, Friedl Reichler, whom he married according to Jewish Orthodox rites in 1922, became schizophrenic and was confined to an institution for the rest of her life, before she was murdered by the Nazis in 1940.) Roth was a gifted student and seems to have been unaffected by the war until 1916, when he enlisted in the Army, though it is unlikely that he ever saw active service as a soldier. What is significant is that Roth’s career as a journalist and writer began with the defeat and collapse of the Empire in 1918. As he wrote in a letter in 1932: ‘Mein stärkstes Erlebnis war der Krieg und der Untergang meines Vaterlandes, des einzigen, das ich je besessen: der österreichisch-ungarischen Monarchie.’ (My strongest experience was the war and the collapse of my fatherland, the only one I have ever had: the Austro-Hungarian monarchy.)

Roth’s early novels are all Zeitromane set in the chaos of post-1918 Central Europe. It used to be fashionable to divide Roth’s novels into two phases: works in the 1920s set in the contemporary world and coloured by Roth’s presumed socialism and works written in the 1930s predominantly set in the past when he had become (or so it is assumed) a nostalgic monarchist. Few critics would now see Roth’s work in this oversimplified way. Roth’s socialism was short-lived and his monarchism in the 1930s was more a response to the rise of the Nazi dictatorship than a credible political programme, given the impossibility of a Habsburg restoration. Later works such as Radetzkymarsch (1932), Das falsche Gewicht; Weights and Measures (1937), Die Kapuzinergruft; The Emperor’s Tomb (1938) and Die Geschichte von der 1002. Nacht; The String of Pearls (1939) – all set wholly or partly in the Habsburg past – are not real historical novels but fables in which Roth uses evocative or imagined elements of the past to confront the issues of the present. Kati Tonkin argues that there is an underlying logic in Joseph Roth’s development from 1923 to 1938 (Tonkin (2006), p. 4). An essential part of that logic is Roth’s rejection of all the ‘solutions’ on offer in post-war Europe: socialism, American capitalism, withdrawal from political action (as in the figure of Franz Ferdinand Trotta in Die Kapuzinergruft; The Emperor’s Tomb) and, above all, ethnic nationalism, which Roth thinks will be disastrous for Europe.

Roth’s second novel was Hotel Savoy (1924), where a hotel of unclear ownership, full of rootless guests who cannot relate to each other, is used to symbolize the condition of Europe. In the same year, Roth completed Die Rebellion; The Rebellion, a bitter attack on social injustice, in which a soldier returns from the war with an amputated leg and no other way of earning a living except turning a barrel organ. At this point, there was a break in Roth’s fiction, while he worked as a correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung in the USSR and the Balkans and before he published a group of three more accomplished novels: Die Flucht ohne Ende; Flight without End, Zipper und sein Vater; Zipper and His Father and Rechts und Links; Right and Left. Roth now possessed the necessary mastery to write his most successful novel, Hiob; Job (1930), the story of a Jewish family which emigrates to America and – after immense effort over two years – his greatest work, Radetzkymarsch, which narrates within the period 1859 to 1916 the rise and fall of three generations of a Slovene family ennobled by the Emperor.

With the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, Roth was forced into exile in France and lost his principal source of income – his readership and his journalism in Germany. His final years were a time of increasing ill-health and poverty, though he continued writing until his tragic death from alcoholism (in truth, a kind of suicide in face of the coming catastrophe) in Paris in May 1939. During this time, Roth, a writer of Eastern European Jewish origin, now claimed to be a Catholic and a loyal subject of Otto von Habsburg, the heir to the vanished throne, and lived in exile in a hotel in Paris, with an Austrian passport, writing fiction in German. Throughout his life, Roth had believed in the importance of multiple cultural identities, in contrast to the restrictive mono-ethnic identities imposed by the new nation-states in Central and Eastern Europe after 1918. Roth’s opposition to Zionism was consistent with this standpoint, and with his belief that the Jews’ natural condition was diaspora. As he wrote in 1929 in the feuilleton ‘Betrachtung an der Klagemauer’; ‘Wailing Wall’ about a street in Berlin into which Eastern Jews have moved, reminding (in Roth’s view) assimilated German Jews of their collective cultural and religious identity: ‘Offenbar ist es der geheime “Wille der Geschichte”, daß dieses Volk kein Land bewohne, sondern Landstrassen bewandere.’ ‘Clearly it is the secret “will of history” for this people to have no country to live in but to wander the roads.’ – Roth, What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-33, trans. by Michael Hofmann (London: Granta, 2003), p. 47.

After 1945, much of Roth’s work remained unavailable for a long time and a full six-volume edition of all his journalism and fiction was not published in Germany until 1989-1991. Since then, the acclaimed translations of his work by Michael Hofmann (which include some of his journalism, such as his fascinating feuilletons from Berlin) have made Roth’s oeuvre accessible at last to the English-speaking world.

Joseph Roth’s novels are:

Das Spinnennetz (The Spider’s Web) (1923, published 1967)

Hotel Savoy (1924)

Die Rebellion (The Rebellion) (1924)

Die Flucht ohne Ende (Flight without End) (1927)

Zipper und sein Vater (Zipper and His Father) (1928)

Rechts und Links (Right and Left) (1929)

Hiob, Roman eines einfachen Mannes (Job, the Story of a Simple Man) (1930)

Radetzkymarsch (The Radetzky March) (1932)

Tarabas, ein Gast auf dieser Erde (Tarabas, A Guest on Earth) (1934)

Beichte eines Mörders, erzählt in einer Nacht (Confessions of a Murderer, Told in One Night) (1936)

Das falsche Gewicht: Die Geschichte eines Eichmeisters (Weights and Measures) (1937)

Die Kapuzinergruft (The Emperor’s Tomb) (1938)

Die Geschichte von der 1002. Nacht (The String of Pearls) (1939)

Shorter Works by Joseph Roth:

Juden auf Wanderschaft (The Wandering Jews), (Essay, 1927)

Der Stumme Prophet (The Silent Prophet) (novel fragment, 1929)

Stationschef Fallmerayer (Stationmaster Fallmerayer) (novella, 1934)

Die Büste des Kaisers (The Bust of the Emperor) (novella, 1935)

Die Legende vom heiligen Trinker (The Legend of the Holy Drinker) (novella, 1939)

Der Leviathan (novella, 1940)

Journalism by Joseph Roth:

Roth’s feuilletons can be found in the first three volumes of his collected works (6 vols.) Joseph Roth, Werke (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1989-91)

Some selections have been translated into English, for example:

Joseph Roth, What I saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933, trans. by Michael Hofmann (London: Granta Books, 2003)

Further Reading in English

Steven Beller, Vienna and the Jews, 1867-1938 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)

Helen Chambers (ed.), Co-existent Contradictions: Joseph Roth in Retrospect (Riverside CA: Ariadne Press, 1991)

Helen Chambers, ‘“Eine ganze Welt baut sich im Gerichtssaal auf”: Law and order in the reportage of Joseph Roth and Gabriele Tergit’, in Vienna meets Berlin: Cultural Interaction 1918-1933, ed. by John Warren and Ulrike Zitzlsperger (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2005), pp. 95-108

J.M. Coetzee, ‘Emperor of Nostalgia’, New York Review of Books, 28 February 2002

John Heath, ‘The Legacy of the Baroque in the Novels of Joseph Roth’, Forum for Modern Language Studies 40:3 (2004), 329-38

Anthony Heilbut, ‘The Emperor of Ambivalence’, in Anthony Heilbut, The Fan Who Knew Too Much: The Closet Secrets of American Culture (Berkeley: Soft Skull Press, 2013), pp. 200-11

Jon Hughes, Facing Modernity: Fragmentation, Culture and Identity in Joseph Roth’s Writing in the 1920s (London: Maney/MHRA, 2006)

Dennis Marks, Wandering Jew: the Search for Joseph Roth (London: Notting Hill Editions, 2011)

Celine Matthew, Ambivalence and Irony in the works of Joseph Roth (Bern: Peter Lang, 1984)

Ritchie Robertson, ‘1918 ... Joseph Roth’, in The Yale Companion to Jewish Writing and Thought in German Culture, 1096-1996, ed. by Sander Gilman and Jack Zipes (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997), pp. 355-62

Sidney Rosenfeld, Understanding Joseph Roth (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001)

Malcolm Spencer, In the Shadow of Empire: Austrian experiences of modernity in the writings of Musil, Roth and Bachmann (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2008)

Kati Tonkin, Joseph Roth’s March into History (Rochester NY: Camden House, 2008)

Further Reading in German

Telse Hartmann, Kultur und Identität: Szenarien der Deplatzierung im Werk Joseph Roths (Tübingen: Francke, 2006)

Thorsten Jürgens, Gesellschaftskritische Aspekte in Joseph Roths Romanen (Leiden: University of Leiden Press, 1977)

Michael Kessler & Fritz Hackert (eds.), Joseph Roth: Interpretationen Rezeption Kritik (Tübingen: Stauffenberg, 1990)

Wolfgang Mueller-Funk, Joseph Roth (Munich: Beck, 1989)

Helmuth Nürnberger, Joseph Roth (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1999)

Web Link in English

Joseph Roth’s ‘The Coral Merchant’, translated and read by Ruth Martin - April 2020

Web Link in German

Joseph Roth Society in Vienna