Reconstructing a self-destructive life

One thing in Roth’s messy existence makes him worth our time: his writing


This article is taken from the November 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Joseph Roth lived his life on the peripheries and between the gaps of European civilisation. He was born in Brody, now in Ukraine but then a shtetl at the easternmost edge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He yearned to escape west to Vienna, where he arrived just in time for the outbreak of the Great War, and encountered prejudice and frustration. 

After the defeat and dismemberment of the multinational Habsburg monarchy, he never really settled anywhere that could be called a home. “I shit on furniture. I hate houses,” he declared. 

Instead, he became what he called a “hotel patriot”, forever ready to check out and move on as political and professional borders closed in on him. In Vienna, Berlin, Marseilles, Amsterdam and above all Paris, he measured out his life in brandy bottles, turning out clear-eyed journalism and haunting, penetrating novels from hotel bars and café tables. Some of his bar bills remain unpaid to this day.

Endless Flight: The Life of Joseph Roth, Keiron Pim (Granta, £25)

For a long time, to be an Anglophone reader of Joseph Roth was to exist in a comparably vagrant state. Roth’s novels were practically unknown in the English-speaking world. Finding them meant an endless search through academic libraries and musty second-hand bookshops: a Penguin Radetzky March in a Liverpool side-street; a waterstained Legend of the Holy Drinker in a far-flung Goethe-Institut. 

When, shortly before the Millennium, Granta started publishing Roth’s novels (and his equally crystalline journalism) in translations by Michael Hofmann, it felt like one of the dazzling, unexpected moments of grace that befall Roth’s luckless characters. 

But the man remained elusive: a life pieced together from contradictory accounts in forewords and on dustjackets. Rumours came and went of a forthcoming English translation of David Bronsen’s German biography. Hofmann’s Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters (2012) threw fierce but necessarily partial light upon a confused but fascinating picture.

With the publication of Keiron Pim’s Endless Flight, the shutters have been flung open and the lights switched on. English readers finally have a comprehensive, detailed and supremely empathetic account of Roth’s whole life, researched with breathtaking thoroughness and told with a transparency and a compassion worthy of Roth’s own writing. At last, the puzzles are cleared up; the contradictions (and few authors muddied their own tracks more creatively than Roth) resolved into a coherent, but still compelling, narrative. 

No, his absent father wasn’t a nobleman; no, Roth was never a decorated officer in the Imperial and Royal Army. But yes, he served on the Eastern Front, and perhaps he stood guard at the funeral of the Emperor Franz Josef in 1916. Most remarkable of all, in 1938 he genuinely did undertake a secret (and potentially deadly) mission to Vienna in a last-ditch attempt to thwart the Anschluss and restore Otto von Habsburg to the Austrian throne. 

Financial obligations pushed Roth into a freelancer’s death-spiral

Many commentators on Roth come unstuck here: incapable of understanding his monarchism as anything other than an aberration or an embarrassment. Pim keeps a cooler head, noting that “while the scheme itself showed a lack of judgement, Roth was not wrong in his assessment of Otto’s capabilities”. 

Pim tells the story of a writer who experienced modernity from the blunt end, and who, as a provincial, was able to perceive its failure with a clarity denied to his smarter, more progressive (and in the case of his friend Stefan Zweig, immeasurably wealthier) metropolitan colleagues. 

Pim is superb on Roth’s simultaneous devotion to and rejection of his roots among the Hasidim of Galicia. The rackety border town where he grew up recurs in his fiction as a sort of Austro-Hungarian Eden, warmed by the sinking sun of the Habsburgs and protected (as portrayed in Roth’s masterpiece The Radetzky March) by the ageing Franz Josef — a Catholic, pan-European patriarch to replace Roth’s own vanished Jewish father. 

Quietly, and not without scepticism, Pim shows how Roth’s political evolution from the socialist “Red Joseph” of the 1920s to a committed Habsburg legitimist was not, in the context of the 1930s, an escape from reality but a rational and humane response to it. He is unblinking (and Roth would have demanded no less) on Roth’s failings as a man: his alienation from his mother, his mockery of the long-suffering Zweig, his exorbitant demands for cash from successive editors and his epic (and ultimately fatal) alcoholism. 

Roth’s complex private life burdened him with financial obligations which — in the shrinking professional world of a German refugee writer in the 1930s — pushed him into a freelancer’s death-spiral. Debts mounted faster than he could write his way out of them, and his publisher noticed with alarm that the final chapter of The Emperor’s Tomb was almost the same, word for word, as the equivalent chapter in Flight Without End

Roth’s neglected wife was murdered by the Nazis in 1940

“Roth’s life by now was both chaotic and desperate enough that it is equally plausible he intended to dupe his publisher or wrote it in such drunken confusion that he’d forgotten it was near-identical to a book from eleven years earlier,” observes Pim. 

At the heart of it all lies the tragedy of Roth’s neglected wife Friedl. Her collapse into schizophrenia consigned her to a series of expensive psychiatric institutions whose bills Roth always, somehow, found a way to pay even as — wracked with guilt — he failed to visit her. Pim details Friedl’s story without sensationalism: she would be murdered by the Nazis in 1940, a year after Roth had finally drunk himself to death in Paris. 

Pim handles even the darkest and most tangled threads of Roth’s life with understanding, eyes fixed on the one thing in Roth’s messy, self-destructive existence that makes him worth our time: his writing. The world around Roth spiralled towards hell, but he continued to observe and to write with near-heroic integrity and insight. Pim’s analyses of Roth’s novels are lucid and perceptive, bringing out the countless ways in which Roth’s life informed and intersected with his work, but without insisting that the one could ever do anything as simple as explain the other. 

From time to time Pim internalises Roth’s artistry — his verbal extravagance, as well as his objectivity — and takes wing in passages of descriptive writing as evocative and as lovely as Strawberries, The Leviathan or The Radetzky March itself. Towards the end, Pim visits Roth’s final resting place:

A conifer stands at the foot of the grave, emerging from a tangle of ivy and grass. It is a quiet place where birdsong dances over a low hum of traffic, secluded by trees against the urban mess of an ugly banlieue. It feels far from Paris, let alone from Brody. To the west you can see the sunset then, overhead, the stars.

This is a masterly and moving biography, and anyone interested in the fate of European culture in the 20th century will want to read it. Then, as with Roth’s own work, return and re-read it in mounting gratitude, pity and wonder.

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