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Joseph Roth: a Life in Letters

A translator's hero worship.

Joseph Roth: a Life in Letters
Edited and translated by Michael Hofmann
Granta Books, 576pp, £25

There are at present more than 20 books of Joseph Roth's in print in English. That's not bad for an Austrian writer who died in 1939, was dismissed by Thomas Mann as a mere drunkard and, towards the end of his life, was regarded with suspicion by émigré publishers, who were the only ones who might have published him, for writing too much and too fast.

He was born Moses Joseph Roth in 1894 in Brody in Galicia, a largely Jewish town in the extreme east of the Habsburg empire. His father disappeared before he was born and he was raised by his mother and her family. Having matriculated at the University of Lemberg (now Lviv) in 1913, he moved on in 1914 to the University of Vienna. He then served with the Austro-Hungarian army on the eastern front, in what he later said was the most important period of his life.

Returning to Vienna in 1918 (after the first ten pages of these letters, it is as if his family and Brody had never existed), he began to write for the left-wing press. In 1920, he moved to Berlin and then, in 1923, began a long association with the liberal newspaper the Frankfurter Zeitung. For the FZ, he travelled to France, the USSR, Albania, Germany, Poland and Italy and became one of the most distinguished and best-paid journalists of the period. At the same time, novels were pouring out of him, written in the same way as his journalism - on the hoof, at café tables and in hotel rooms, at all hours of the day or night. More Dickens than Joyce or Mann, his novels were serialised in the FZ as he was writing them.

On the way, he acquired a wife ("in a fit of mindlessness", as he put it in a letter to his friend Stefan Zweig) but there was really no room in his peripatetic life for any permanent attachment. Poor Friedl "disappeared into schizophrenia", as the editor and translator of this volume, Michael Hofmann, has it, and into a sanatorium in Vienna - an outcome that made deep inroads into Roth's precarious finances and left him with an acute sense of guilt. This did not stop him attaching himself to a string of women, the most exotic of whom was the half-Cuban beauty Andrea Manga Bell, who had been married to an African chief and for whose children Roth found himself having to fend.

The Radetzky March, his longest and best-known novel, came out in 1932 but by then Roth was aware that his life and those of all left-wing and Jewish writers in Germany were about to change forever. When Hitler came to power in January 1933, Roth immediately severed all ties with the country and tried to pursue his career in Paris and then in Holland and Belgium. His German and Austrian publishers would no longer publish the work of a Jew and the FZ ceased to employ him.

Increasingly desperate and increasingly drunk, he found himself having to write novels for the few émigré firms that would still publish him at an increasingly fast rate, so as to move on to the next book and the next advance. Although his work began to be translated into English (Job was made into a film in the US and was even mentioned by Marlene Dietrich in an interview as being her favourite novel), the international situation and his own ineptitude meant that by the end he was reduced to begging for money from friends, especially the wealthy and highly successful Zweig. But even that could not stop the slide and he died in 1939 at the age of just 44 - but, as all his friends remarked, looking already like an old and very sick man.

Hofmann has long championed Roth and has translated ten of his works to date. Here, he translates a volume of letters published in Germany in 1970 and adds his own notes, making this a sort of tour of the life in the company of a passionate but biased and idiosyncratic guide. There are no letters to his mother or his lovers and we learn little about his literary tastes or his artistic aims and ambitions. Apart from those to Zweig, the letters are largely addressed to his editors at the FZ, to his French translator and to the editors of the émigré magazines for which he wrote after 1933.

Those to Zweig make up the bulk of the volume, which also includes several of Zweig's replies. Hofmann clearly has it in for Zweig - he wrote one of the most vitriolic reviews of Zweig I have ever read, a review so unbalanced that it made me, no fan of his sentimental and conventional work, want to rush to the poor man's defence. He asserts that Roth and Zweig knew that the former was the better writer by a mile. Whether that is true or not, Zweig did all he could for his friend, while watching him drink himself first into penury and then to death. Their exchanges bring out the peculiar horror of addiction (one feels the same thing reading how Dostoevsky's wife and friends tried to wean him off gambling). The wise and well-meaning words of friends can only strike the addicted person as ridiculous - part of him knows they are right, part of him resents them for saying so and part of him is sure that what they say has absolutely nothing to do with his particular case.

During the last years, we find Zweig repeatedly writing anxiously to find out why Roth has not replied to him, begging him to look after his health for the sake of his work, offering suggestions as to how to dry out and sometimes bailing him out with money. But all too often, one can see that Zweig has simply no idea how the other is living - not only because he has no clue what addiction is but because, with his success and his wealth, he has no conception of his friend's living conditions. A hilarious but also horrible example comes right at the end of this volume. Zweig writes to Roth in October 1937:

The smell of Europe's putrefaction is in all our nostrils: a little fresh air and you, my dear and important friend, would feel refreshed in your soul. I am glad at least that you are in Paris - don't forget to take a look at the literary pavilion in the exhibition "Ébauche d'un musée de littérature" . . .

Hofmann comments:

Here, as so often, one gets the impression that Zweig and Roth simply inhabited different planets, and couldn't open their mouths without wounding each other . . . It is really hard to imagine the penurious Roth . . . with his swollen feet and in the last stages of alcoholism doing something as otiose as taking himself to a literary exhibition.

Hofmann is aware of his hero's failings but is still too kind to him. Even if we grant that alcohol warped his judgement, it is not a pretty sight to see Roth, in the 1930s, flailing at Jewish publishers in Austria for dropping him and accusing the Jews of being somehow responsible for Hitler: "It's the Jews . . . who have introduced socialism and catastrophe into European culture . . . They are the real cradle of Hitler and the reign of the janitors."

Roth's novels capture something of the spirit of the times but to talk about him as one of the great German writers of the first half of the 20th century, as Hofmann does, is to do a disservice to Mann, Robert Musil and Bertolt Brecht. Reading hundreds of pages of angry, begging letters from an alcoholic, no matter how well written they are, is in the end a dis­piriting experience.

Gabriel Josipovici's new novel, "Infinity: the Story of a Moment", will be published by Carcanet (£12.95) in May

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The God Wars