Philip Hensher

‘A world dying of ugliness’

Philip Hensher on the marvellous, brutal, excoriating letters of the novelist Joseph Roth

‘A world dying of ugliness’
Text settings

Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters

translated and edited by Michael Hofmann

Granta, pp. 551, £

Some writers’ lives are estimable, some enviable, some exemplary. And some send a shudder of gratitude down the spine that this life happened to somebody else. It isn’t necessarily about success or acclaim — most rational people would very much prefer to have had Rimbaud’s life rather than Somerset Maugham’s. But sometimes it is. In the ranks of Mephistophelean terror, there are few more frightening stories than the life of the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth.

Everything went wrong for him, and it must have been simply appalling to have had to live within that head, with those thoughts. That he is also a great novelist merely adds to the horror that this collection of his letters conveys. He saw too clearly for his own sanity.

Roth’s great novel is The Radetzky March, a study of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire seen from the overlooked outposts of vast territory. It is a sequence of intensely conceived and visualised episodes between individuals; possibly the best novel of military life ever written. It is a masterpiece of controlled, worldly irony which maintains a studious detachment. In this, and almost all of Roth’s other novels, the writer does not intrude himself, but allows a view of a larger situation to emerge through an individual situation.

Several of his novels are Heimkehrromane, a small but vivid genre of novels in German between the wars, showing a soldier returning home to a betrayed society, such as Zipper and his Father or the chilling Rebellion; others are epics of homelessness and flight, such as the marvellous Tarabas, subtitled ‘A Guest on Earth’ or his last novella, Legend of the Holy Drinker; others still are wry entertainments on historical themes, including a rippling, bewildering account of the Shah of Persia in 19th-century Vienna, Tales of the 1002nd Night. Roth was highly productive: he wrote 14 novels in his short life, most of which are remarkable for their swift changes of tone and voice. He has the quality that Calvino describes as leggerezza.

It is sometimes difficult, enjoying the sophisticated, detached gaze of the best of the novels, to remember the extraordinarily difficult circumstances in which most of them were written. Roth saw immediately the threat of Hitler — he is mentioned by name in his very first novel, The Spider’s Web in 1923, before the Beer Hall putsch took place. Roth, as a Jew and a congenitally critical spirit, would always have a career of awkwardness and dissent. In the years of his active writing, 1923 to his death in 1939, his life was wrecked by the lack of support from newspapers, principally the Frankfurter Zeitung, political oppression —The Radetzky March was finished, as Michael Hofmann observes, just in time to be burnt in the Bebelplatz — and personal difficulties.

His wife developed schizophrenia, and in a state of constant movement from hotel to hotel, Roth became chronically dependent on alcohol, which ultimately killed him. ‘I have covered many miles,’ he wrote in a famous letter, the so-called ‘Kiepenhauer Letter’, in 1930. He was to cover many more.

There are several members of a brilliant literary generation whose careers were destroyed by the Nazis, and who were, often indirectly, killed by them. The lucky ones are Odon von Horvath, who was killed by nothing worse than a falling branch on the Champs Elysées, and the Mann brothers, who went into exile. Erich Kastner stayed and disappeared into a kind of ‘inner exile’; Kurt Tucholsky, Stefan Zweig and Walter Benjamin committed suicide; Hans Fallada fell into heroin and alcohol addiction before capitulating and writing at the demand of Goebbels. Roth had the worst fate of all.

Many of these marvellous, brutal, excoriating letters are demands for money and complaints about suffering — mostly angry demands, directed first at Benno Riefenberg, an editor at the Frankfurter Zeitung, who never really gave Roth the support he felt was his due. In the latter part of this collection, the demands and denunciations tend to be directed at the apparently long-suffering Stefan Zweig.

Zweig, who was a hugely well-known writer in the 1920s and 1930s and lived a luxurious life in a Salzburg schloss until the Nazis put him to flight, was the original shit in a shuttered chateau, and, in most people’s eyes nowadays, a complete artistic and intellectual lightweight. Why did he put up with Roth? As Hofmann says ,‘Eventually there is nothing that Roth will not write; a letter, in his hands, is an instrument of necessary terror. The extremity of his situation justifies it.’ I wonder whether, at the beginning at least for Zweig, there was not some of the middle-brow novelist’s fascination with the desperate bohemian; Zweig perhaps wanted to see how low Roth could sink in asking for 200 marks.

The relationship with Zweig is summed up by a brutal anecdote that Hofmann brings to our attention. Zweig ordered a pair of trousers for Roth, since he only had one pair, unfit for the sort of restaurants Zweig liked. Roth insisted that they be cut in an Austrian cavalry style, making them immensely expensive. The next day, Roth, sitting in a bar in Ostend with his cronies, ordered a vividly coloured liqueur, which he proceeded to pour all over his jacket. He was ‘punishing Stefan Zweig’, he explained, and he was going to embarrass him by turning up for dinner in a stained and stinking jacket: ‘Millionaires are like that! They take us to the tailor and buy us a new pair of trousers, but they forget to buy us a jacket to go with them.’

Roth said, in 1932: ‘To this date I am a patriotic Austrian and love what is left of my homeland as a sort of relic.’ But for the most part he is a denouncer of all things Germanic:

Every street corner expresses the awfulness of the whole country. It has the ugliest prostitutes, the girls indistinguishable from the women who swab the floors of the FZ at night; in fact I think they’re the same. The men are all scoutmasters on display.

He saw the terrible nature of his own predicament, and the work he had achieved rose up before him, not like a triumph of the will over circumstances, but as something which might fall and crush him. ‘Eight books to date, over 1,000 articles, ten hours’ work a day, every day for ten years, and today, losing my hair, my teeth, my potency, my most basic capacity for joy.’ Often rage overtakes him, almost certainly written in drunken abandon: Bernard von Brentano, a literary dilettante and descendant of the poet, is ‘one of those three or four people I would happily murder, with no more compunction than putting out a cigarette.’ You feel this isn’t just a turn of phrase.

Roth’s denunciations of Germany might, in any other circumstances, seem hysterically exaggerated — in a letter to Brentano, there is a portrait of a Frankfurt party straight out of Act III of Berg’s Lulu, summing it up as ‘a stench of living bourgeois corpses … a world dying of ugliness’.

The tone is hysterical, hectoring, furiously in the right; everything that the novels are not. How easy to dismiss Roth on the basis of his tone. But the fact remains that he was right in every single respect. These are extraordinary letters, as finely written as any letters of the century in a dark, impassioned, suffering cause.

It is surprising that it has taken 40 years for them to make their way into English, but they have done so most beautifully and sensitively rendered by Michael Hofmann, who has lived with, understands, and warily respects Roth’s difficult spirit; the translator enters this writer’s world like a man entering a tiger’s cage.