A March to the Grave
January 5, 2015 8:18 PM Subscribe
Joseph Roth and the End of the Austro-Hungarian Empire
The Lost Worlds of Joseph Roth
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.The New York Review of Books, J.M. Coetzee: Emperor of Nostalgia
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.
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.The Kaffeehaus Canon: Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, Veza Canetti, Arthur Schnitzler and Karl Kraus
When peace returned, Austria-Hungary was no more.
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