A life in the times: Joseph Roth

in Essays by

In the spirit of living up to Ark Book’s mantra “Home of the best stories you’ve never heard”, this is a short story of a magnificent author, well-known to some but forgotten by many. An author who lived in turbulent times and in a turbulent way, and whose stories are all the more relevant for today.

job joseph rothFor many years, the novel Job was standing on my bookshelf, pressed in between other books, a tiny sliver of a thing that my finger always brushed by when choosing my next read. I had initially bought the book because its Danish translator had once been a colleague of mine at a bookstore while we were both still green and aspiring to something—me quite a bit greener than she. She left the bookstore a few years before me, but then returned in the form of this novel. Red and black and unremarkable, except for the reviews that followed it, which glowingly mentioned not only the book but also the translation. So, in support of her great endeavour, I bought it. This must have been about seven years ago.

Then, as happens, the time came to read it. I had always secretly known that somewhere in the folds of that paperback would be golden pieces of poetry that could not be encountered elsewhere. What I hadn’t counted on was that this novel would leave me with an unquenched thirst to find out more about its author. It was like no other novel I have read, both incredibly specific and particular—a poor Russian-Jewish family whose fate takes them to New York before the outbreak of WWI—and yet largely universal in its scope—the fates of individuals in the machine of history, the question of home, the tensions of family, the doubts of progress. The man who had written this, I thought, must surely be someone with a certain experience and scope.

And he was. Joseph Roth was born into a Jewish family at the end of the 19th century, and his life became so inevitably caught up in the violent history of Europe in the first half of the 20th century that, looking back, it seems he hardly had any free choice at all—thus in many ways mirroring the fate of the family in Job. In 1914, he left his studies in Vienna to fight (or, as it turned out, to write) in the First World War for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When this homeland crumbled, he moved to Berlin and began a life as a journalist, ending up at the Frankfurter Zeitung for which he travelled across Europe to report with comments, articles and essays nearly every day.

It seems Roth was the Central European version of Henry Miller … except that his words and works betray no sign of this mania. They are the steady hand that hide the inner tremblings, or rather, expose the greater tremblings of the world.

In the always weighty words of Simon Schama, Joseph Roth was “one of the greatest writers of the first half of the tormented 20th century.” 1 And tormented he was. According to Roth himself (who was known for his exaggerations), he had been an alcoholic from the age of 8. 2 He was also highly attuned to the events unfolding in Europe; an awareness that made him leave Berlin for Paris on the day of Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in 1933. “Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns.”, he wrote to his less prophetic friend, Stefan Zweig, in the same year. 3

According to Roth’s English translator, Michael Hofmann, whose translation of Roth’s whole oeuvre over a period of 30 years has provided him with considerable insights, Roth moved through the world with turbulence: “He lived out of two suitcases in six countries. His characteristic mode of progress was the somersault” 4 In essence, Roth’s life fits perfectly to the image of life in the early 20th century that pervades our cultural imagination of the wandering, writing, intellectual Jew … who also happened to be an intense alcoholic. Always on the move, always writing articles and tidbits of novels and letters from cafés and coach cars, always drinking, drinking and drinking. It seems Roth was the Central European version of Henry Miller (or George Orwell, as Schama writes) 5, except that his words and works betray no sign of this mania. They are the steady hand that hide the inner tremblings, or rather, expose the greater tremblings of the world.

joseph roth 2

It is a production born of struggle, not only financially (Roth couldn’t afford hotel rooms and lived off loans and advances and without a bank account) 6 but also emotionally and politically. He nostalgically yearned for the peaceful days of the of the Austro-Hungarian empire in an age where fascism was taking Europe in a stranglehold, something that his “quivering antenna of the murderous fatality of the time” 7 wouldn’t let him forget.

Roth died from his bad health in 1939 in Paris, a few months before Hitler invaded Poland and exactly a year before he would invade France. Though his letters attest to his prophetic knowledge of things to come, he would never fully witness the horrors that befell his kin. Today, we are left with his prolific works which testify to his great skill and empathy as a writer. Having delved into his biography but only read one of his books, I feel that Job is only a small taste of what Roth was capable of. In many ways, it fits Hofmann’s description of Roth’s novels as “calm, temperate, crystalline planets”, but I also want to read the “sparkling asteroid belt of his articles” and get to know Roth’s “molten, sun-spotted core” through his letters. 8

That is why I have ordered several of Roth’s books to come with Ark Books’ next book order: Job, which I now already know and love, The Radetzky March, his most famous novel, and What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-33. I feel that Roth, with his clear vision of a European society in freefall, is a suitable and important voice not only for the early 20th century but for the early 21st as well, where we are once again witnessing the anti-democratic tendencies that always seem to be lurking beneath the veneer of civilization on this continent. Perhaps Roth can be a guiding light; one that burned bright but burned out fast. Let us hope that we last a little while longer.

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  1. Simon Schama, “Simon Schama om Joseph Roth”Financial Times 3 March 2012
  2. Michael Hofmann, “I learned to see Joseph Roth as his own solar system”, The Guardian 17 Feb 2012
  3. Gary Shapiro, “Tortured Soul of Joseph Roth”, Forward Jan 19 2012
  4. Hofmann, The Guardian
  5. Schama, Financial Times
  6. Hofmann, The Guardian
  7. Schama, Financial Times
  8. Hofmann, The Guardian

Aspiring writer and avid reader of fiction. Has an odd penchant for white, American male authors such as Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Franzen. Likes to discuss the failings of neoliberalism and other systems of oppression. Has yet to find a way to do anything about them. Had her eyes opened by postcolonial and gender theory (which has yet to do anything to her love of aforementioned white American male authors). Prefers Nescafé over real coffee, which everyone in the bookshop finds strange.

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