A March to the Grave
January 5, 2015 8:18 PM   Subscribe

Joseph Roth and the End of the Austro-Hungarian Empire
No standard biography of Roth exists in English, but this collection of his letters, superbly translated and judiciously edited by long-time Roth advocate Michael Hofmann, provides a more intimate portrait than any biography could. Roth’s letters are a study in authorial candor: in vino veritas, at least in part, for some of them were composed while he was drunk, getting that way, or hungover—the grim trinity that dominated his life more and more until he died of it, plus weltschmerz, in Paris in 1939. He was just short of 45 and had come a long way to die so young. He left behind one masterpiece, The Radetzky March, in which, in a series of vivid set-pieces, he evokes the reality of life high and low during the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s long decline, a vast theme encapsulated in the Trotta family, who ascend to nobility and imperial favor from provincial origins on the obscure fringes of the realm.

The Lost Worlds of Joseph Roth
I must confess at once that I find it impossible to explain with any certainty why a writer of such immense gifts and achievements should not be more revered. In Germany, it is true, he is recognized, but not nearly in the same way as his contemporaries, for example his friend Stefan Zweig or Thomas Mann. In France, his reputation is more modest, although if you visit the rue de Tournon you will find on the wall of what is now Le Tournon Brasserie a plaque informing you that the writer lived in an upstairs room. And it is also possible to buy a postcard of the brasserie, inset with a photograph of Joseph Roth in which he looks like the caretaker of a synagogue whose congregation has dwindled.

In the English-speaking world he is even less revered. When I have mentioned him to friends, many of them, while they had heard of Roth, had never read him. Yet he is brilliantly translated by a number of people, especially Michael Hoffman, who has valiantly championed Roth in this country and in the United States. Roth remains obstinately in the shadows but, to my mind, he is infinitely more important than many of those who have been placed in the pantheon of twentieth-century European literature, and I hope to be able to prove my point.
The New York Review of Books, J.M. Coetzee: Emperor of Nostalgia
Nostalgia for a lost past and anxiety about a homeless future are at the heart of the mature work of the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth. “My most unforgettable experience was the war and the end of my fatherland, the only one that I have ever had: the Austro-Hungarian monarchy,” he wrote in 1932. “I loved this fatherland,” he continued in a foreword to The Radetzky March. “It permitted me to be a patriot and a citizen of the world at the same time, among all the Austrian peoples also a German. I loved the virtues and merits of this fatherland, and today, when it is dead and gone, I even love its flaws and weaknesses.” The Radetzky March is the great poem of elegy to Habsburg Austria, composed by a subject from an outlying imperial territory; a great German novel by a writer with barely a toehold in the German community of letters.
Anka Muhlstein: The Genius in Exile
Roth was born to Jewish parents in 1894, in Brody, a small town in East Galicia, near the border between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia. An only child (his father went mad and was committed before Roth was born), he was raised by his mother in her father’s home, in a family sufficiently assimilated that it spoke German instead of Yiddish in its daily life. Joseph was a star student in the gymnasium, where the makeup of his class was reflective of the town’s population (twelve Polish Catholics, fourteen Orthodox Ukrainians, and seventeen Jews), then spent a semester at the university of Lemberg (Lviv), and finally studied German literature in Vienna. In 1916, he enlisted. His military career was neither heroic nor even particularly active. He was assigned first to work as a censor, then as an editor of a military newspaper.

When peace returned, Austria-Hungary was no more.
The Kaffeehaus Canon: Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, Veza Canetti, Arthur Schnitzler and Karl Kraus
posted by the man of twists and turns (7 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
Amazing post! Thank you!
posted by orrnyereg at 8:47 PM on January 5, 2015

It's getting to where I can spot a post from TMOTAT from 50 paces. I'm currently reading "The Sleepwalkers"; this post is well timed.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 9:01 PM on January 5, 2015

First it was the midlife crisis thread, then "On Not Remembering", now A March to the Grave...Metafilter seems to have taken a bit of a morose turn today. What's up guys? Are y'all okay? Is there something in the zeitgeist you need to talk about?
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:05 PM on January 5, 2015

Can someone smarter than me recommend an English translation that is both good and fairly easily available? And is The Radetzky March the place to start for someone who liked this post and wants to read Roth?
posted by seasparrow at 9:26 PM on January 5, 2015

seasparrow: Maybe start with some of his non-fiction? I like this collection of his feuilletons (which, in my head, I always pronounce 'fool-i-tons') from the interwar period.
posted by orrnyereg at 9:50 PM on January 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

Can someone smarter than me recommend an English translation that is both good and fairly easily available? And is The Radetzky March the place to start for someone who liked this post and wants to read Roth?

Well, I'll make no claims to being smarter than you, but I recently read The Radetzky March. It's the only Roth I've read so I can't answer your second question. As far as I know there are two translations of Radetzky March available in English, one by Joachim Neugroschel and the other by Michael Hoffman. I picked Hoffman but I think either one is probably fine; read a little bit of each one and decide which one you prefer. Here are a few passages chosen more or less at random for comparison:

The Trottas were a young dynasty. Their progenitor had been knighted after the Battle of Solferino. He was a Slovene. Sipolje—the German name for his native village—became his title of nobility. Fate had elected him for a special deed. But he then made sure that later times lost all memory of him
The Trottas were not an old family. Their founder had been ennobled following the battle of Solferino. He was a Slovene. The name of his village – Sipolje – was taken into his title. Fate had singled him out for a particular deed. He subsequently did everything he could to return himself to obscurity.
(I actually prefer Neugroschel here.)

Gradually she got used to seeing men come and go: a race of childish giants, resembling clumsy mammoth insects, fleeting and yet weighty; an army of awkward fools who tried to flutter with leaden wings; warriors who believed that they had conquered when they were despised, that they possessed when they were ridiculed, that they had enjoyed when they had barely tasted; a barbaric horde, for whom she nevertheless waited lifelong.
Gradually, she got used to seeing men come and go, the race of infantile giants, like foolish oversized insects, at once fleeting and ponderous; an army of crass idiots who tried to flap their leaden wings; warriors who imagined themselves victorious when they were held in contempt, possessors when they were laughed at, gourmets when they had barely had a taste; a horde of barbarians that you nevertheless spent all your time waiting for.

It exhaled the radiant mildness of an unknown, perhaps otherworldly day that was already dawning in the midst of Herr von Trotta’s earthly life, just as the mornings of this world begin to dawn while the stars of the night are still shining.
It gave out the mild luminescence of an unknown, possibly otherworldly light that had begun to dawn right in the middle of Herr von Trotta’s terrestrial life in the way that the mornings of this world break even while the stars are still visible in the night sky.

(Sorry, I hope I didn't violate some rule about long quotes.)
posted by Peter J. Prufrock at 6:46 AM on January 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

Thanks for the comparison, Peter J. Prufrock.

Based on what I've read of the original German (I've never finished it, but will get around to it), Neugroschel's translation is more literal, especially since Hoffman's translation seems to be particularly loose. Hoffman changes turns of phrase for no apparent reason, including in the first paragraph of the novel you quoted (which is what stuck in my memory and got me looking up the original right now). Of course, Hoffman's translation might sound better overall.

If anyone wants to do your own comparison, the original is here.
posted by Gnatcho at 10:24 AM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

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