April 25, 2012
Joseph Roth: Letters from a visionary correspondent
Among the many Roths who figure importantly in Jewish letters — Henry, Cecil and Philip are only the most famous — perhaps the least celebrated is Joseph Roth. As a novelist (“The Radetzky March”) and an essayist (“The Wandering Jews”), but even more crucially as a foreign correspondent for German newspapers during the 1920s and early 1930s, Roth was an eyewitness to the great events of the 20th century.
Roth reported from Germany and Austria, Poland and the Soviet Union, and, perhaps most memorably of all, from Paris. His dispatches have been collected and published by Norton (“Report From a Parisian Paradise”), but no English-language biography is available to tell his life story. “[A]bsent a biography,” writes poet and translator Michael Hofmann, only his personal letters are available to describe “the stations of the man’s life, his classic westward trajectory…, from the Habsburg crown land of Galicia just back of the Russian border…to Vienna, to Berlin and Frankfurt, and then to Paris.”
Roth’s letters have been collected, translated and edited by Hofmann in “Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters” (Norton, $39.95). Hofmann, who has worked on other volumes of Roth’s writings as published by Norton, selected and organized the letters in an effort to penetrate the inner motives and meanings of Roth’s life: “To understand that this grievously disappointed and multiply broken man somehow continued to align himself toward the true and the beautiful in his articles,” Hofmann, “and the beautiful and the true in his books.”
The letters date back to 1911, when Moses Joseph Roth was still living in Brody in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but he later dropped “Moses” from the byline that appeared over his poems and articles. By 1920, he had arrived in Berlin to embark upon his career as a writer, but he soon saw and fell in love with Paris, the place where he served as a correspondent, where he wrote his novels after his journalism could no longer be published in Nazi Germany, and where he died in 1939.
“I fear this letter may given you the impression that I am so besotted with Paris, and with France, that I have lost the balance of my mind,” he wrote to one correspondent. “I feel driven to inform you personally that Paris is the capital of the world, and that you must come here.”
Hofmann acknowledges that Roth’s letters reveal less about his intimate human relationships than about the interior life of a writer. “I see through a magnifying glass,” Roth wrote. “I peel the skins off people and things to see their hidden secrets — after that, you can’t really believe anything.” He paid a terrible price for his x-ray vision: “It precludes all of love and most of friendship,” confessed Roth. “My mistrust kills all warmth, as bleach kills most germs.”
But it’s also true that Roth allowed the recipients of his letters to glimpse details — some poignant, some bitter — that we may not encounter in the work of other observers. “Christmas tree in Montmartre,” he wrote on Dec. 27, 1927, “little baby Jesuses in all the brothels.” He admonished his friend and fellow writer, Stefan Zweig, about the flaws in a manuscript that Zweig has shared with him: “You don’t use the semicolon enough.” Of his own literary reputation, he despaired: “If the Jewish scribblers trash me, then I have no money.”
Inevitably, the stresses and terrors of Nazi Germany are reflected in the letters, although Roth was conflicted about his own Jewish background and refers to himself as a Catholic. A month or so after Hitler came to power, he wrote to Zweig that the Jews “are facing their dissolution,” but he blames Russia rather than Germany for the threat. “You and I are Germans in the midst of Germans,” he insisted, “with a strange inheritance that other peoples in the civilized world react to, if not with joy, then at least without a rubber truncheon.”
By 1938, Stefan Zweig discerned that Roth was in sharp decline by the mere appearance of his latest letter: “The handwriting looked really sick to me,” Zweig wrote, “and I’ve sense for a long time that you are desperate.” In May, 1939, suffering from both pneumonia and delirium tremens, Roth ended up in a Paris hospital and died four days later. “I have finished my last book,” he told a friend. “I don’t want a doctor, just a priest.”
Perhaps the most profound insight to be gained from the collection is what we have lost now that people (and even writers) no longer write letters. Roth struggled to earn his living as a writer — “Being an author…may be my official designation,” he wrote in one letter, “but privately I’m just a poor wretch who’s worse off than a tram conductor” — but he somehow found the time, energy and motivation to keep up his correspondence. “Even a letter is a colossal effort,” he complained. “Frankly, even a stamp is a significant item for me.” Yet Hofmann’s well-chosen sample of Roth’s correspondence includes nearly 500 letters. For readers who live in the age of the 140-character tweet, Roth’s missives are a long-delayed gift from a writer who deserves to be remembered.