A TIME of violence, fleeing refugees, and populist politicians: “The barbarians have taken over. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns.” This is Joseph Roth writing from Berlin in January 1933. Soon his books will burn on the Bebelplatz.
Who was Roth and why is he still important? Keiron Pim’s superb biography provides answers and shows how Roth’s life and work asks serious questions of our world today, problems that confront a potentially independent Scotland.
Roth was born in 1894 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire town of Brody, a Galician shtetl, now in modern Ukraine. A single child, he never knew his father. His university education was in Lviv and Vienna. In 1916, he volunteered for active service; it is said he marched at the emperor’s funeral. The First World War was, for Roth, “the most powerful experience of my life” and “the end of my fatherland, the only one I have ever had: the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary”.
He becomes a journalist specialising in feuilletons, miniature pieces that seize the moment.
Here he is in 1926: “I don’t write ‘witty glosses’. I paint a portrait of the age. That ought to be the job of a great newspaper.”
Roth was diagnostic on the evils of totalitarian states, a Cassandra issuing warnings entirely prescient today in the 21st century. He was scathing about fascist Berlin and communist Moscow; he risked being shot by both sides.
Here he is on Mussolini and his control of the press: “The Italian journalist … is no longer a journalist. Not only is he not free to write what he wants, in theory he must be shaped in a way that he is not able to write anything forbidden. As a consistent yes-man, he follows the decrees, orders, resolutions and measures of the government. He is not a critic but an echo …”
Roth soon graduates to writing novels.
His debut, The Spider’s Web, is published in 1923 and is thought to be the first novel to mention Hitler; he’s on the case. Pim is particularly astute on Roth’s masterpiece The Radetzky March, saying its characters “strain for agency in a tumultuous world like birds trying to fly through a gale”.
The Shoah looms and Roth’s life and work foreground its horrors. Pim particularly admires Michael Hoffmann’s English translations that give Roth “a voice by turns nimble and melancholic, wry and skeptical, in his correspondence often brusque and splenetic, and in his fiction consistently moral and perceptive”.
But despite Roth’s “torturous personal decline” through booze “that paralleled the collapse of the civilized world”, we read that he drew from his multiple traumas to create works that “endure owing to their conscience, percipience, ironic humour and naked humanity”. Roth, we learn, was “a poet of the marginalised, the alienated and the dispossessed”.
He embraced hyphenated identities as an Austro-Hungarian with Pim adding “the more hyphenation in individual and collective identities, the better”. Likely Roth would suggest we Scots do the same and celebrate our Afro- and Asian- and Anglo-Scots populations. Roth knew the difference between a nationalism that was persecutory and one that was emancipatory.
He loved Paris and France, the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, a nationalism that, in Pim’s words, “subverts itself, (is) hardly nationalism at all”: the heart of the European ideal. But Roth was always ambivalent about assimilation. He anticipated in Germany, in Austria, assimilation would be a doomed project for his beloved Ostjuden. And he saw the pain of inauthenticity for those who tried to fit in; he was proud to be – what Theresa May sarcastically called – a “citizen of nowhere”.
Stefan Zweig becomes his long-suffering benefactor. See them arguing about Sigmund Freud in Vienna’s Hotel Bristol with the Anschluss only days away. How’s that for the narcissism of minor difference? Roth dies in delirium tremens months later after his abortive attempt to restore Otto von Hapsburg to the throne.
How sad was Roth? In his own words he was “as sad as a stripped railway coach standing on a rusty line”. The heart of Roth’s tragedy was his marriage. His wife, Friedl, was diagnosed as schizophrenic. Admitted to an Austrian hospital, she outlives Roth only to be gassed in 1940 as part of the Nazis’ gut-wrenchingly evil Aktion T4 euthanasia programme.
This is easily the best book I’ve read this year.