Melancholy reflections

A compilation of Austrian novelist and journalist Joseph Roth’s letters reveal a man of contradictions: A Jew in Austria, an Austrian in Germany and a German in France.

Roths horseback riding 521 (photo credit: Wikimedia)
Roths horseback riding 521
(photo credit: Wikimedia)
In Joseph Roth’s final novel, The Emperor’s Tomb, his central character, Franz Trotta, ponders the favorable life he led under the reign of the Habsburg Empire: “Before me spread the whole bright landscape of life, scarcely bound by the rim of a far distant horizon. I lived in the cheerful, carefree company of young aristocrats.”
Nostalgia for the old Austro-Hungarian dominion: its prosperity and concentration of cosmopolitan culture are at the core of Roth’s majestic novels. While his fiction had the ability to transcend his melancholic sensibilities into pathos, A Life in Letters does not have such an effect.
Although he was a highly prolific author, churning out a book – sometimes even two – a year, Roth was a journalist by profession. His work took him across Europe, roaming from hotel to hotel, for nearly two decades, working hard by day, drinking vigorously at night.
In 1925 he was appointed Paris correspondent of the Frankfurter Zeitung, the leading liberal daily in Europe at that time. When Roth arrived in the French capital, he felt at home in a city that gave him intellectual, as well as financial, freedom.
“I feel driven to inform you personally that Paris is the capital of the world, and that you must come here. Whoever has not been here is only half a human, and no sort of European,” he wrote at the time.
This jovial tone did not sustain itself.
The following year the newspaper – which had made Roth the highest-paid journalist in Germany – replaced him with Friedrich Sieburg, who later became a Nazi propagandist. And so began Roth’s contemptuous attitude towards editors.
The little humor that does exist in this volume is to be found in the supercilious and hubristic tone that Roth displays to his superiors. His exceptional capacity as a feuilleton writer was such that he could continually insult his editors, and still manage to get his copy published.
In 1928 he makes his views known about the new literary editor at the Frankfurter Zeitung: “If Kracauer carries on like that, out of laziness or apathy or whatever, then I promise I will wreck his literary career for him,” he wrote.
The remaining correspondences are predominantly about money.
The sending and receiving of mail, for Roth, existed primarily as a way of keeping tabs on where his next pay-check was coming from. The lacunae in these letters seem to speak volumes about Roth’s personality. For example, not one love letter exists here; there are no letters to his mother; very few to personal friends; and no mention of the various female companions we know he kept company with in his later years.
This reticence perhaps coincides with the fact that Roth’s own personal life was imbued with tragedy. He never met his father, who was committed to a sanatorium before he knew he had a son. Roth’s wife, Friedl Reichler, met a similar fate, spending the 1930s in asylums in Germany and Austria; when the Nazis took control she was one of those selected to be euthanized.
When Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, Roth took a one-way train from Berlin to Paris. In a letter to his fellow Austrian writer, friend and editor Stefan Zweig, Roth poignantly describes Europe on the cusp of a catastrophe: “Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns.”
Roth’s journalism had an almost uncanny knack for its portentous dexterity.
In an essay he wrote in 1933 entitled: “The Auto-da-Fe of the Mind,” he aptly delineated the burning of books by the Third Reich, and the expulsion of Jewish writers from Germany, as “an apotheosis of the barbarians.”
However, his political and personal convictions became increasingly suspect towards the end of his life. In 1935, in another letter to Zweig, he calls for a return to a “German Catholic Empire” and asserts that “a Zionist is a National Socialist, a National Socialist a Zionist.”
The correspondence between Roth and Zweig take up the latter half of this book. Zweig’s responses disclose a friendship that was no longer amicable.
After a hurl of abusive insults from Roth, Zweig eventually replies from London in 1936: “Finally have the courage to admit that however great you are as a writer, in material terms you’re a poor little Jew.”
Zweig enjoyed the privileges that accompany an aristocratic lifestyle, and Roth’s jealousy is evident in their exchanging epistles.
Anything we read here written after 1937 reveals a man with little dignity, often suicidal, with a penchant for misanthropic rage. He was also a litany of contractions: a Jew in Austria; an Austrian in Germany; a German in France; a communist who signed his name “Red Roth” and “A Devoted Imperialist.”
Whoever Roth wrote to, he always demanded undying loyalty, the utmost of cordiality, and usually an accompanying honorarium.
As the end beckoned, he was penniless, often going hungry for days, finding refuge in the two things he loved: writing and drinking. He died in January 1939, just 45 years old. The official cause of death was pneumonia, but alcohol was a contributing factor to his eventual decline.
It’s with a tinge of irony that the East Galician Jew, who spent his whole life playing the Austrian aristocrat, died a victim of penury. In life, as in art, Roth didn’t understand the term mediocre.
When he lost the ability to write, he knew his time was up: “I think I can only understand the world when I’m writing, and the moment when I put the pen down, I’m lost.”