Simon Schama on Joseph Roth

Those of us who are habitually guilty of the misdemeanour know how easy it is to bore for Joseph Roth. The Radetzky March, his 1932 novel of the Habsburg empire’s decrepitude, is so rivetingly peculiar that it inspires a kind of evangelical cult passion among its devotees.

“Read this and your life will change,” we say, pressing it relentlessly on strangers encountered in Daunt Books who might confuse him with Henry or Philip of the same moniker. “So what’s it about?” they reasonably inquire. “Ah, well,” you say, “it follows an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army before the first world war, stuck in a provincial border garrison doing nothing in particular except getting drunk on 180 per cent schnapps and haplessly wandering from calamity to disaster ... ” “Oh, right, thanks,” they say, looking around for an escape route before you can add: “Oh and, of course, all of human life – sex, class, food, music, land, power, and Jews – there’s this scene where Kaiser Franz Joseph runs into an old Hasidic rabbi ... ” But you’ve already lost them to the Man Booker shortlist table.

Which is a pity because Joseph Roth is, indeed, one of the greatest writers of the first half of the tormented 20th century. Though in many ways not a modernist, he nonetheless belongs in the company of the big boys of bad times: Joyce, Kafka, Musil, Svevo, Mann. As Dennis Marks points out in his brilliant little study Wandering Jew: The Search for Joseph Roth, published last year, the facts of his life are notoriously difficult to disentangle from his autobiographical inventions. He was born in 1894 in the Galician town of Brody; and though he claimed active service in the first world war, the action might have been confined to censorship or propaganda. But when it was over, in the course of two decades, he wrote 13 novels and thousands of pieces of journalism for German and Austrian newspapers. None of the fiction ever quite reached the sublime pitch of Radetzky but a number of the novellas, set in the drifting wreckage of postwar Europe, peopled with its tattered nomads – tarts and pimps; small-time hoods and smugglers in human traffic; forgers and fiddlers – are by any standards but his own highest ones, rich in all kinds of wonders. Job, the story of the Singer family, translated from Russia to New York, and the first of Roth’s publishing successes, has the same up-close physical intensity as Radetzky; and I have a soft spot for the tender Zipper and his Father and for Rebellion, featuring the hurdy gurdy player Andreas Pum, crippled in the first world war and longing for a warm bed and a warm woman to go with it.

Through all his writing, Roth, staring incessantly from slightly exophthalmic glittering eyes, set in a small birdlike face (until, rotted by schnapps, it dissolved prematurely into pudding-like bloat), was a matchless observer, whether of the Sunday tafelspitz of boiled beef accompanied by “the lush-green earnest spinach ... the perfect oval of new potatoes swimming in melting butter and recalling delicate baubles” or of human types such as a haughty village aristocrat “small, ancient and pitiful, a little yellow oldster with a tiny wizened face” sitting in his barouche and driving “through the brimming summer like a wretched bit of winter”. He was also a fiendishly accomplished manipulator of pace, stranding the reader in scenes of apparent inertia where nothing much occurs but the croaking of swamp frogs and the yawning and yapping of epaulette-ed mediocrities, and then, without warning, interrupting the turbid stillness with flashes of sudden, noiseless lightning bolts.

The 14-year-old cadet Carl Joseph in Radetzky – living forever under the long shadow of his grandfather, “the Hero of Solferino”, who through lucky chance had saved the emperor’s life – wanders from the Sunday dinner to the house of a local police officer. Instead of the constable, he finds Frau Slama, who brings the lad lemonade and jiggles her unstockinged, red velvet-slippered foot. “Suddenly without a word she took his cap from his knees and put it on the table. Then she thrust her cigarette into his mouth. Her hand was redolent with smoke and cologne; the bright sleeve of her dressing gown with its pattern of summery flowers shimmered before his eyes. He politely puffed the cigarette, its tip wet from her mouth and gazed at the lemonade ... ”

Roth carried something of the same eagle-eyed mischief into his prolific journalism written, virtually every day, for newspapers such as the Frankfurter Zeitung. Like the novellas, some of those were no more than jobbing for the rent but, at their sharpest, Roth’s essays combine acuteness of observation, a mordant sense of the human comedy and, as decency beat a tragic retreat in Weimar Germany, an unembarrassed ferocity of polemic. At a restaurant in the Hirtenstrasse, the Berlin district flooded with displaced, impoverished Jews from the east, Roth finds one L. Schwarzbach, “who hails not from Ophir but from distant Drohobycz” attempting to make a living by selling tickets to see his 1:70 model of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Alas, no one buys, for “the people are godless and republican. In the adjacent restaurant, drying tench lie on sticky plates and stick their forked tails into the air.” When the worst happens and the monsters take over Germany, Roth isn’t satisfied to be a documentary scenographer, and his prophetic rage bites like acid on the complacency of those inside and out of Germany who imagine the Nazis merely another species of comically contemptible thugs. “It must be understood – let me say loud and clear – the European mind is capitulating. It is capitulating out of weakness, out of sloth, out of apathy, out of lack of imagination ... ” In his unsentimental, comfortless, insistence on clarifying the face of atrocity, Roth is the nearest thing expiring Weimar had to a German Orwell.

If there is any justice in the world and Joseph Roth does at last find the mass reading public he deserves, the lion’s share of credit will have to go to Michael Hofmann, who, for decades has been translator, editor, drum-beater, interpreter, and almost unofficial executor of the estate. In fact, Hofmann has been living with the cantankerous ghost of Roth for so long that his comments in the edition of letters he has just published – Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters – sometimes sound like one of his hero’s more impassioned protagonists. Self-effacing Hofmann is not, and sometimes he strains to make Roth sound jarringly of now – “physically I’m fucked”; “Unless I get a passport I’m toast”; “may God give me ... a shedload of money”. But Hofmann, a poet, often delivers Roth-calibre turns of phrase that get the frantic desperation, the scratchy paranoia, the deluded yearning for the old Habsburg monarchy just right: “He [Roth] doesn’t deal in anything less than an ultimatum”, he is “both a kisser of hands and kisser of feet”. Roth’s letters, Hofmann writes, “burn off the page with their indignation ... their indifference to excuses, their terminal wretchedness and combusted dignity.”

“In these letters,” Hofmann adds, “these IOUs and SOSs – we have something like the protocol of a man going over the edge of the world in a barrel.” The problem for a newcomer to Roth, though, is that in his correspondence often all you hear is the screaming. Admittedly, it is screaming of a high operatic order – “I am myself a wailing wall of collapsed rubble”; “physically, since childhood I’ve been groaning up at the brightness” – for Roth had much to scream about. His wife Friedl had some sort of mental illness that put her in an institution for which Roth had to pay for the rest of his days. The “companion” whom he refers to in his letters as “Mrs Manga Bell”, the Cuban-born wife of an African chief who had deserted her, depended on him as well. When professional adversity struck, his body erupted in expressive sympathy. Fired by the Frankfurter Zeitung from the French posting he loved, Roth succumbed to a skin condition that he let his editor know all about. “I am completely covered with red boils. I can only go out after dark ... I’m completely slathered with sulphur and stink.” But Roth could also declare war for no good reason. When Victor Gollancz, negotiating to publish an English translation of a novel, Antichrist, discovered he was already placed with another and withdrew, Roth treated the affront, and the conventions of publishing gallantry in England, as unforgivably odious hypocrisy.

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