Roth's wrath

Translations of Joseph Roth's letters capture the inner man in all his rawness.

joseph roth book 521 (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
joseph roth book 521
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
A literary correspondence is bound to be lively when the person conducting it is “a ferocious, gifted, principled, and implacable hater.”
Take a bow, Joseph Roth: the prodigiously talented Jewish author of The Radetsky March and chronicler of the moral collapse of German-speaking Central Europe in the early decades of the 20th century. He fell out with pretty much every newspaper and publisher, which published his sharply observed feuilletons and novels.
But other passions make themselves felt.
His turbulent spirit ached for the tolerant times of the Habsburg Empire, and sought pockets of relief elsewhere in Europe. His friendship with fellow author Stefan Zweig also gave him solace. Yet many of these letters are screams, not cries, for help, as despair and alcohol tighten their grip. “I am finished.” “I am dying.” “Save me.” They do not make easy reading.
If Roth was Austria’s “poor lieutenant,” then Michael Hofmann is Roth’s aide. Hofmann, who has translated almost everything Roth wrote, fills these letters with a jagged, mercurial and febrile energy that captures the inner man in all his rawness.
The “implacable hater” quotation comes from him.
And it is Hofmann who describes these letters as “the protocol of a man going over the edge of the world in a barrel.” Roth completed the process by drinking himself to death in Paris in May 1939, cheating Hitler by a year. Those with a strong interest in Roth, and the German-speaking literary milieu in which he moved, will find this collection essential. For those who find this sort of correspondence too painful to read (and it is painful), my suggestion is to concentrate on Roth’s other works instead.