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A Timely Death

Enda O’Doherty writes: Joseph Roth had a writing career of little more than twenty years, from his return in 1919 from the First World War, where he had served in the Austrian army, to 1939, when he died in Paris aged only forty-four. Included in his work are stories, novellas and about a dozen novels and fragments, of which the most famous is his magnificent elegy for the vanished Austro-Hungarian empire, The Radetzky March. He also wrote hundreds of articles in German-language newspapers, chiefly in the continental European form known as the feuilleton, a rather freestyle, often lighthearted, composition on cultural or human subjects which Roth understood as being simply an invitation to “[say] true things on half a page”.

He was born in 1894 in Brody, close to what was then the border of Austria-Hungary and Russia. Brody was predominantly Jewish, a once wealthy trading town plonked down in an impoverished countryside inhabited by “the only productive class”, the peasants.

These are devout, superstitious, anxious. They live in timid awe of the priest, and have boundless respect for the “city”, from which come strange horseless carriages, officials, Jews, gentry, doctors, engineers, geometers, electricity, which is known as “elektryka”; the town into which they send their daughters for them to become maids or prostitutes; the town where the law courts are, the clever lawyers a man has to be wary of, the wise judges in their gowns behind metal crosses under the colourful pictures of the Saviour in whose Holy Name a man is sentenced to months and years and sometimes even to death by the rope; the town which he feeds so that it can feed him, so that he can go there to buy colourful headscarves and aprons, the town where “commissions”, decrees, local ordinances and newspapers break out.

In 1913 Roth went to nearby Lwów (in German Lemberg, today L’viv in Ukraine) to attend university but was forced to transfer to the University of Vienna in the following year when the Russians captured the city in the early stages of the First World War. In 1916 he joined up himself, more out of embarrassment than enthusiasm, serving for the most part, it seems, as an army journalist and mail censor. After the war he returned to Vienna, where “[f]or lack of money [I began] to write for the newspapers ... My nonsense was printed. I began to live off it. I became a writer.”

In 1920 he moved to Berlin, where his articles – cinema reviews at first ‑ began to appear in the Freie Deutsche Bühne, then the Neue Berliner Zeitung, which soon changed its name to the 12 Uhr Blatt, the Berliner Tageblatt, the socialist Vorwärts and the Berliner Börsen Courier. In 1923, after some time back in Vienna and in Prague, his journalistic career took a turn for the better when he was hired to write from Berlin for the prestigious Frankfurter Zeitung, the leading German liberal paper in the interwar period, which published the work of many distinguished authors and intellectuals, among them Max Weber, Stefan Zweig, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Sándor Marai and Alfred Döblin.

As a journalist, Roth was not so much a reporter as what is known as a colour writer. In this he was working from the same box of tricks as many others, but he brought to the task considerable literary elan and an imagination that was always fertile and frequently acrobatic or surreal: a sudden loud noise in his apartment block sets off the neighbour’s canary, who “cheeps and twitters and warbles like a bird song imitator”; looking out from a tram at a semi-rural wasteland, he sees “a kind of beginning vegetative bald patch with comb-over fronds of pine”.

In Hamburg and Bremen in 1924, he noted that political “forces unknown are competing over the lumpenproletariat”, feeding with free beer and sausages, and propaganda – of both the red and brown varieties – unemployed workers who would probably otherwise starve. It is odd, he remarks, that these are two cities with a peculiarly conservative middle class, odd too that looking out on so much water has not broadened their minds. But no, the contradictions are unbridgeable: “In no German city is there such fierce hatred of the poor [as in Hamburg]. Nowhere is the obstinacy of the propertied classes stronger.”

There was little doubt about the kind of person that Roth didn’t like. In a vignette from 1924 he escorts two pretty young gypsy girls alarmed by heavy city traffic across the street safely, tipping his hat graciously to them as they reach the pavement on the other side. “A gentleman with a large blonde moustache that went out into a couple of butchers’ hooks threw me an angry look from his sky-blue eyes, full of contempt and menace and inexpressible rage.” Something is brewing in Germany; it will not be too long before it comes to the boil.


After the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, Roth ‑ like all Jewish writers – found himself excluded from the pages of the Frankfurter Zeitung and abruptly deprived of the comfortable living to which he had become accustomed. He left Germany definitively and spent most of the rest of his life in Paris, a city to which he became attached. Increasingly indigent and his health severely affected by his alcohol dependency, he nevertheless continued to write, finishing The Emperor’s Tomb, a sequel to his masterpiece The Radetzky March, and the moving fable of debt and redemption The Legend of the Holy Drinker, as well as contributing to the émigré German-language press of France and Czechoslovakia.

In his final years his thoughts often turned to the no longer existing state in which he had been born, “my fatherland, the only one I ever had, the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary”, which, in contrast with the chaos and threatening barbarism of the 1930s, acquired a retrospective glow it perhaps did not wholly merit. Equally, against German paganism’s glorification of war, hatred and violence, the Christian ‑ practically speaking Catholic ‑ message seemed to provide him with increasingly more sustenance: “Furlough in Jablonovka”, a piece posthumously published in the Neue Tage-Buch in Paris in September 1939, at a time when the Germans and Russians had already begun to devastate Poland, recalls a moment of respite during the First World War when Roth and his comrade Rainacher are billeted with the widow Josefova Gargas and her three-year-old twins:

The boys came in with their pumpkin lanterns. They sang. Stable and manger and donkey were nearby, if you could follow the singing. If you could believe them, the Saviour was born in Jablonovka, not far from Josefova Gargas’s hut, and not two thousand years ago, but sixty at most, and the oldsters still remembered the event. You could practically see the footprints of the Three Kings in the snow. The star was graspable. The Podolian plain was swaddled in faith. God was in Podolia, and Bethlehem was a hop and a skip away, much closer than the front.

Roth’s imaginative embrace of Christianity implied no disloyalty to his Jewish roots: he continued to write sensitively about the experiences of the Jewish poor and to vigorously defend the contribution to culture of Jewish artists and intellectuals. But he was in love with something rather larger than any particular ethnicity or religious or national heritage. True, it was a rather hopeless love for, as he acknowledged, the sense of Europe had started to fade in the years when a sense of nationhood awoke.

And yet: European culture is much older than the European nation-states. Greece, Rome, Israel, Christendom and Renaissance, the French Revolution and Germany’s eighteenth century, the polyglot music of Austria and the poetry of the Slavs. These are the forces that have formed Europe. These forces have combined to form European solidarity and the cultural conscience of Europe. Not one of these forces was bounded by a national border. All are naturally opposed to the barbarity of so-called national pride.

From his French exile Roth continually bombarded the Nazi regime, urging other European states first to isolate it diplomatically, then to stand up to its bullying before it was too late.

From 1937, he lived at the Hôtel de la Poste in the rue Tournon in Paris’s sixth arrondissement, spending much of his day working at a table in the Café Tournon on the ground floor of the hotel and in the evening receiving guests. By 1939 his health was failing rapidly. He had finished his classic short story The Legend of the Holy Drinker but though he was still spending hours at his regular table he was not writing very much and often seemed lost in thought. By this stage he was thought to be consuming between twenty and thirty glasses of Suze à la mirabelle (an aperitif made with gentian and flavoured with plum liqueur) every day. Paralysed by stomach cramps, he slept little and preferred to stay in convivial company among fellow exiles in the cafe below his bedroom until the small hours. Eventually, however, as he became weaker and weaker, his friends felt he should be brought to hospital and it was at the hôpital Necker on the rue de Sèvres, on May 27th, 1939, that he died just before six in the morning.

Later that year war finally broke out and in June 1940 the Germans entered Paris. Joseph Roth was at least spared the fate that his record as an inveterate opponent of national socialism would no doubt have earned for him. His wife, Friederike (Friedl) Reichler, who had been a long-term patient in a number of mental institutions in Austria, where she was being treated for schizophrenia, was murdered, in accordance with national socialist policy on the mentally ill, in July 1940.

Image: Joseph Roth at the Cafe Tournon.

27/5/2019