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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 Spiders 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.


  • Hotel Savoy, 1924
    - Hotel Savoy (translated by M. Hofmann, 1984)
  • Die Rebellion, 1924
    - Rebellion (translated by Michael Hofmann, 1999)
    - Kapina (suom. Ilona Nykyri, 2002)
    - films: TV film 1962, dir. by Wolfgang Staudte, cast: Josef Meinrad, Erna Schickl-Wegrostek, Hans Putz, Ida Krottendorf; TV film 1993, prod. Österreichischer Rundfunk (ORF), dir. by Michael Haneke, starring Branko Samarovski, Judit Pogány and Thierry van Werveke
  • April, 1925
  • Der blinde Spiegel, 1925
  • Juden auf Wanderschaft, 1927
    - The Wandering Jews (translated by Michael Hofmann, 2001)
  • Die Flucht ohne Ende, 1927
    - The Flight Without End (translated by Ida Zeitlin, 1939; David Le Vay, in collaboration with Beatrice Musgrave, 1977)
    - TV film 1985, prod. Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR), dir. by Michael Kehlmann, starring Helmut Lohner, Dagmar Mettler,  Leslee Udwin, Peter Dirschauer 
  • Zipper und sein Vater, 1928
    - Zipper and His Father (translated by M. Hofmann, 1989)
  • Rechts und Links, 1929
    - Right and Left (translated by Michael Hofmann, 1992)
  • Hiob, 1930
    - Job: The Story of a Simple Man (translated by Dorothy Thompson, 1931; Ross Benjamin, 2010)
    - films: 1936: Sins of Man, prod. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, dir. Otto Brower, Gregory Ratoff, starring Jean Hersholt, Don Ameche, Allen Jenkins, Ann Shoemaker; TV miniseries 1978, prod. Fernsehfilmproduktion Dr. Heinz Schneiderbauer, Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR), Österreichischer Rundfunk (ORF), starring Günter Mack, Despina Pajanou and Jan Dalton, TV film 2009, dir. Peter Schönhofer, starring André Jung, Hildegard Schmahl and Sylvana Krappatsch
  • Panoptikum, 1930
  • Radetzkymarsch, 1932
    - Radetzky March (translators: by Geoffrey Dunlop, 1933; E. Tucker, 1974; Joachim Neugroschel, 1995)
    - Radetzky-marssi (suom. Aarno Peromies, 1968)
    - films: TV film 1965, dir. by Michael Kehlmann, cast: Leopold Rudolf, Helmut Lohner, Hertha Martin, Manfred Inger; TV mini-series 1995, dir. by Axel Corti, Gernot Roll, starring Max von Sydow, Charlotte Rampling, Claude Rich, Claude Rich, prod. Satel Film
  • Stationschef Fallmerayer, 1933/1986 (Fallmerayer the Stationmaster)
    - film 1975, dir. Walter Davy, starring Wolfgang Hübsch, Odile Versois,  Helma Gautier, Natascha Tagunoff
  • Le Buste de l'Empereur, 1934 (Die Büste des Kaisers)
    - The Bust of the Emperor (translated by John Hoare, 1986)
  • Der Antichrist, 1934
    - The Antichrist (translated by Moray Firth, 1935; Richard Panchyck, 2010)
  • Tarabas, ein Gast auf dieser Erde, 1934
    - Tarabas: A Guest on Earth (translated M. Hofmann, 1987)
    - TV film 1981, prod. Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR), dir. by Michael Kehlmann, starring Helmut Lohner, Erik Frey and Luise Prasser
  • Die hundert Tage, 1936
    - The Ballad of the Hundred Days (translated M. Firth, 1936)
  • Beichte eines Mörders, 1936
    - Confession of a Murderer (translaetd by M. Hofmann, 1985; Desmond I. Vesey, 2003)
  • Das falsche Gewicht, 1937
    - Weights and Measures (translated by David Le Vay, 2002)
    - TV film 1971, dir. by Bernhard Wicki, starring Helmut Qualtinger, Agnes Fink, Velimir 'Bata' Zivojinovic, Evelyn Opela
  • Die Kapuzinergruft, 1938
    - The Emperor's Tomb (translated by John Hoare, 1984)
    - film adaptation: Trotta, 1971, prod. Heinz Angermeyer GmbH, Independent Film, Johannes Schaff Productions, dir. by Johannes Schaaf, starring András Bálint, Elma Bulla, Rosemarie Fendel
  • Die Geschichte von der 1002. Nacht, 1939
    - The Tale of the 1002nd Night (translated by Michael Hofmann, 1998) / The String of Pearls (translated by Michael Hofman, 1999)
    - TV film 1969, prod. Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR)  dir. by Peter Beauvais, starring Johanna Matz, Walter Reyer and Greta Zimmer 
  • Die Legende vom heiligen Trinker, 1939
    - The Legend of the Holy Drinker (translated M. Hofmann, 1989)
    - Pyhän juomarin legenda (suom. Heli Naski, 2005)
    - films: TV film 1963, dir. Franz Josef Wild,  starring Ernst Fritz Fürbringer, Hannes Messemer and Herbert Kroll; La Leggenda del santo bevitore, 1988, dir. by Ermanno Olmi, starring Rutger Hauer, Anthony Quayle, Sandrine Dumas, Dominique Pinon, Sophie Segalen;  
  • Der Leviathan, 1940
    - The Leviathan (translated by Michael Hofmann, 2011)
  • Werke, 1956-1976
  • Romane, Erzählungen, Aufsätze, 1964
  • Der stumme Prophet, 1966 (written in 1929)
    - The Silent Prophet (translated by M. Hofmann, 1980; David Le Vay, 2002)
  • Das Spinnennetz, 1967
    - The Spider's Web (translated by John Hoare, 1990)
    - film 1989, dir. by Bernhard Wicki, starring Ulrich Mühe, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Corinna Kirchhoff
  • Der Neue Tag: unbekannte politischen Arbeiten 1919 bis 1927. Wien, Berlin, Moskau, 1970
  • Briefe 1911-39, 1970 (edited by Hermann Kesten)
  • Die Erzählungen, 1973
  • Werke, 1975 (4 vols., edited by Hermann Kesten
  • Perlefter, 1978
  • Berliner Saisonbericht: unbekannte Reportagen und journalistische Arbeiten 1920-39, 1984 (edited by Klaus Westermann)
  • Orte: ausgewählte Texte, 1990 (edited by Heinz Czechowski)
  • Aber das Leben marschiert weiter und nimmt uns mit: der Briefwechsel zwischen Joseph Roth und dem Verlag De Gemeenschap 1936-1939, 1991 (edited by Theo Bijvoet and Madeleine Rietra)
  • Unter dem Bülowbogen: Prosa zur Zeit, 1994 (edited by Rainer-Joachim Siegel)
  • Briefe aus Deutschland, 1997 (edited by  Ralph Schock)
  • Im Bistro nach Mitternacht, 1999 (selected by Katharina Ochse) - Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France, 1925-1939 (translated by Michael Hofmann, 2004)
  • Collected Shorter Fiction by Joseph Roth, 2001 (translated by Michael Hofmann)
  • What I Saw: Reports From Berlin, 1920-1933, 2002 (translated with an introduction by Michael Hoffman)
  • Geschäft ist Geschäft; Seien Sie mir privat nicht böse; Ich brauche Geld: der Briefwechsel zwischen Joseph Roth und seinen Exilverlagen Allert de Lange und Querido 1933-1939, 2005 (edited by Madeleine Rietra)
  • Jede Freundschaft mit mir ist verderblich: Joseph Roth und Stefan Zweig: Briefwechsel 1927-1938, 2011 (edited by Madeleine Rietra and Rainer Joachim Siegel)  
  • Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, 2012 (translated and edited by Michael Hofmann)

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