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|Joseph Roth (1894-1939)|
Prolific political journalist and novelist, whose major work, the family history Radetzkymarch appeared in 1932. It depicted the Habsburg empire Austria-Hungary from 1859 to 1916. Roth saw admiringly the old empire as a cosmopolitan world and its decline a sad chapter in European history. His ambivalence toward Western civilization led him increasingly to draw on the heritage of Eastern European storytelling.
"The Eastern Jew looks to the West with a longing that it really doesn't merit. To the Eastern Jew, the West signifies freedom, justice, civilization, and the possibility to work and develop his talents. The West exports engineers, automobiles, books, and poems to the East. It sends propaganda soaps and hygiene, useful and elevating things, all of them beguiling and come-hitherish to the East. To the Eastern Jew, Germany, for example, remains the land of Goethe and Schiller, of the German poets, with whom every keen Jewish youth is far more conversant than our own swastika'd secondary school pupils." (from The Wandering Jews)
Joseph Roth was born Moses Joseph Roth in the German colony of Schwabendorf in Volynia (Austro-Hungarian Empire), into a Jewish family. His father-in-law was an installment seller in Vienna, his uncle a tailor, and his grandfather a rabbi. Roth's father left the family before Joseph was born and died according to Roth in a lunatic asylum in Amsterdam – actually he died in Russia. Roth lived by turns with relatives of his father and mother. He never embraced Jewishness as an element of identity, but dismissed it as an accidental quality, "like, say my blond mustache," he once wrote in a letter to his lifelong friend Stefan Zweig.
Roth's early years are little known and his own account is not always reliable. He attended Baron-Hirsch-Schule, Brody (1901-05), Impererial-Royal Crown Prince Rudolph Gymnasium (1905-13), studied literature and philosophy at the University of Lemberg (now Lviv, Ukraine) and Vienna (1914-16). From 1916 to 1918 he served in the Austrian army in the rifle regiment (Feldjäger) – he probably had a desk job. Roth claimed later to have spent months in Russian captivity as a prisoner of war. The Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy, with its 15 official languages, collapsed in the war, but Roth did not lose his adoration of the vanished empire. "... we all lost a world, our world," he once said.
After the war Roth worked as a journalist in Vienna, where he published his first feuilletons, and moved in 1920 to Berlin, which he described as "an aimlessly sprawling stone emblem for the sorry aimless of our national existence." In the 1920s his articles showed traces of socialist conviction, although he never became a political thinker. During his exile years he professed Catholicism. Roth's marriage to Friederike Reichler (1900-1940) failed, his wife became mentally ill and was confined to a hospital in 1928. For a long time, drinking did not affect the quality of his writing; alcohol, along with rootlessness, was an important theme. His characters drink; alcohol giving them a means to cope with life and boredom. Roth's friend saw his alcoholism as a slow form of suicide. (see 'Drinking in Joseph Roth's Novels and Tales' by Edward Mornin, in The International Fiction Review, 6, No. 1, 1979)
From 1923 to 1932 Roth was a correspondent for Frankfurter Zeitung, travelling around Europe. Some of his widely read articles from this period were collected in The Wandering Jews (1927). In 1926 Roth went to the Soviet Union and recorded his resigned Socialist views in Der stumme Propher (The Silent Prophet), which was published posthumously in 1966. When Hitler came into power, Roth was obliged to flee Germany and return to Vienna, where he lived in shabby hotels. He had already mentioned Hitler by name in his first novel, Das Spinnennetz (1967, The Spider’s Web). "The European mind is capitulating," he said in 1933. Roth wrote for emigre publications, and drank even harder than before. In 1933 and 1937 Roth travelled in Poland on PEN lecture tour. His liaison with Andrea Manga Bell ended in 1936 and he formed a new relatioship with the German émigré writer Irmgard Keun. After the assassination of Dolfuss, he moved to Paris, where he died of delirium tremensis and pneumonia in a poorhouse (in some sources in Hôpital Necker) on May 27, 1939. Roth's French translator, Blache Gidon, kept his early manuscripts safe during the war years. Friederike Reichler perished in a Nazi euthanasia programme in 1940.
"Joseph Roth was an enigmatic figure in his life more than in his work. Though Jewish, he rarely spoke about his Jewishness. Plagued by poverty, he admired aristocracy. Though extremely gifted, his truly deserved recognition came to him only posthumously." (Elie Wiesel on Joseph Roth, in a review of Radetzky March, New York Times, Nov. 3, 1974)
Roth started his career as a writer in the 1920s under the influence of French and Russian psychological realism (Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky), but later his works became nearer Viennese Impressionism (Hofmannstahl, Schnitzler). In Hotel Savoy (1924, Hotel Savoy) Roth described a variety of hotel clientele, arranging the stories according to the wealth and status of the figures. Die Rebellion (1924, Rebellion) was a story of Andreas Pum who has lost a leg in battle. "He believed in a just god. One who handed out shrapnel, amputations, and medals to the deserving. Viewed in the correct light, the loss of a leg wasn't so very bad, and the joy of receiving a medal was considerable. An invalid might enjoy the respect of the world. An invalid with a medal could depend on that of the government." He plays the barrel organ on street corners. After a rebellion his marriage is ruined and Pum finds himself in jail. Die Flucht ohne Ende (1927, The Flight Without End) traced the experiences of an Austrian soldier who makes his way back from captivity in Siberia to West, and who finds himself alienated from the bourgeois world. The protagonists of these novels belonged to the wartime generation that found the society changed and the traditional values threatened.
Roth's best-know novel, Radetzkymarsch, portraits the latter days of Habsburg monarch, its multiethnic equilibrium and bureaucratic machinery. In the opening of the work an Austrian army officer saves the life of the young emperor at the battle of Solferino. Through his account of the descendants of this hero Roth creates a Spenglerian vision of European culture in decline and loss. The same nostalgic theme is repeating in Roth's later novels. Its sequel, Die Kapuzinergruft, (1938, The Emperor's Tomb), traced the collapse of the Empire through an account of a whole family, the Van Trottas. It shows Roth responding to the National Socialist takeover in Austria with an expression of passionate commitment for the Hapsburg dynasty. The author once said: "I am a conservative and a Catholic, consider Austria my fatherland, and desire the return of the Empire."
Roth's other works include Rechts und Links (1929), set in Berlin, a disappointment for Nazis and leftists critics, Hiob (1930, Job: The Story of a Simple Man), a modern-day analogy of the biblical story, in which Roth paid his tribute to his Jewish background. Das falsche Gewicht (1937, Weights and Measures) depicted a weight-and measures inspector in the borderlands of the Tsarist Empire, Die Legende vom heiligen trinker (1939, The Legend of the Holy Drinker) was an self-ironic examination, in which Andreas the drinker is suddenly charged, by a total stranger, with the task of delivering a large sum of money to the shrine of St. Therese. "He was one of the most prodigious drinkers of his time," said Hermann Kesten of his friend Joseph Roth.
In his last novel, Die Geschichte von der 1002. Nacht (1939, The Tale of the 1002nd Night) Roth examined the theme of self-deception. The Shah-in-Shah, the great ruler and overlord of all the lands of Persia, feels sick and in 1873 decides to visit Vienna, saying that "Muslims have been there once before, many years ago." His Chief Eunuch, Patominos, corrects him: "Sire, they were unfortunately unable to enter the city. Had they done so, St. Stephen's Cathedral would have not a cross, but a crescent moon on top of it!" In the course of the narrative, the principal figures – Baron Taittinger, the brothel keeper Frau Matzner, and the prostitute Mizzi Schinagl – fall victim to the rewards they have reaped the Shah. He has slept with Mizzi and sends her a string of pearls. She ends in prison and Taittinger shoots himself. Juden auf Wanderschaft (1927, The Wandering Jews) was a fragmented account about the Jewish migrations from eastern to western Europe in the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution. In 1937 Roth wrote a new preface for the book, seeing how temporary the period of peace and shelter was.
For further reading: Understanding Joseph Roth by Sidney Rosenfeld (2001); Encyclopedia of World Literature, Vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); World Authors 1900-1950, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); Joseph Roth by Rainer-Joachim Siegel (1995); Joseph Roths Fluch und Ende by Soma Morgenstern (1994); Co-Existent Contradictions, ed. by Helen Chambers (1991); Joseph Roth byWolfgang Müller-Funk (1989); Ambivalence and Irony in the Works of Joseph Roth by C. Mathew (1984); Von der Würde des Unscheinbaren by Esther Steinmann (1984); Joseph Roth und die Tradition, ed. by D. Bronsen (1975); Joseph Roth: Eine Biographie by David Bronsen (1974); Weit von wo by C. Magris (1974); Lontano da dove by Claudio Magris (1971); Joseph Roth: Leben und Werke by H. Linden (1949) - Key writers of Vienna after WW I: Karl Kraus (1874-1936) wrote a satirical play about the Great War, The Last Days of Mankind, 1922; Herman Broch (1886-1951) wrote The Sleepwalkers (1932) and the prose-poem The Death of Virgil (1946), the first volume of Robert Musil's (1880-1942) novel The Man Without Qualities (1930-43) was immediately hailed as a great and unusual work. Franz Werfel's (1890-1954) Barbara; oder, Die Frömmigkeit (1929) examined the problem of political action in its relation to the significance of religiousness, and Elias Canetti published his first and only novel, Die Blendung, in 1935. Joseph Roth wrote his Radetsky March (1932) in Berlin's hotels and restaurants. Musil's favorite place in Vienna was Café Museum. Soma Morgenstern, the best friend of Roth, also brought him to that café.