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Joseph Roth

Joseph Roth

(1984-1939)

 

Prolific political journalist and novelist, whose major work, the family history Radetzkymarch appeared in 1932. It depicted the Habsburg empire Austria-Hungary from 1859 to 1916. Roth saw admiringly the old empire as a cosmopolitan world and its decline a sad chapter in European history. His ambivalence toward Western civilization led him increasingly to draw on the heritage of Eastern European storytelling.

Joseph Roth was born Moses Joseph Roth in the German colony of Schwabendorf in Volynia (Austro-Hungarian Empire), into a Jewish family. His father-in-law was an installment seller in Vienna, his uncle a tailor, and his grandfather a rabbi. Roth's father left the family before Joseph was born and died according to Roth in a lunatic asylum in Amsterdam - actually he died in Russia. Roth lived by turns with relatives of his father and mother.

Roth's early years are little known and his own account is not always reliable. He attended Baron-Hirsch-Schule, Brody (1901-05), Impererial-Royal Crown Prince Rudolph Gymnasium (1905-13), studied literature and philosophy at the University of Lemberg (now Lviv, Ukraine) and Vienna (1914-16). From 1916 to 1918 he served in the Austrian army in the rifle regiment (Feldjäger) - he probably had a desk job. Roth claimed later to have spent months in Russian captivity as a prisoner of war. The Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy, with its 15 official languages, collapsed in the war, but Roth did not lose his adoration of the vanished empire. "... we all lost a world, our world," he once said.

After the war Roth worked as a journalist in Vienna, where he wrote his first feuilletons, and moved in 1920 to Berlin, which he described as "an aimlessly sprawling stone emblem for the sorry aimless of our national existence." In the 1920s his articles showed traces of socialist conviction, although he never became a political thinker. During his exile years he professed Catholicism. Roth's marriage failed, his wife became mentally ill and was confined to a hospital.

From 1923 to 1932 Roth was a correspondent for Frankfurter Zeitung, travelling around Europe. Some of his widely read articles from this period were collected in The Wandering Jews (1927). In 1926 Roth went to the Soviet Union and recorded his resigned Socialist views in Der stumme Propher, which was published posthumously in 1966. When Hitler came into power, Roth was obliged to flee Germany and return to Vienna. "The European mind is capitulating," he wrote in 1933. Roth wrote for emigre publications, and drank even harder than before. In 1933 and 1937 Roth travelled in Poland on PEN lecture tour. After the assassination of Dolfuss, he moved to Paris, where he died in a poorhouse (in some sources in an army hospital) on May 27, 1939.

Roth started his career as a writer in the 1920s under the influence of French and Russian psychological realism (Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky), but later his works became nearer Viennese Impressionism (Hofmannstahl, Schnitzler). In Hotel Savoy (1924) Roth described a variety of hotel clientele, arranging the stories according to the wealth and status of the figures. Die Rebellion (1924) was a story of Andreas Pum who has lost a leg in battle. "He believed in a just god. One who handed out shrapnel, amputations, and medals to the deserving. Viewed in the correct light, the loss of a leg wasn't so very bad, and the joy of receiving a medal was considerable. An invalid might enjoy the respect of the world. An invalid with a medal could depend on that of the government." He plays the barrel organ on street corners. After a rebellion his marriage is ruined and Pum finds himself in jail. Die Flucht ohne Ende (1927) traced the experiences of an Austrian soldier who makes his way back from captivity in Siberia to West, and who finds himself alienated from the bourgeois world. The protagonists of these novels belonged to the wartime generation that found the society changed and the traditional values threatened.

Roth's best-know novel, Radetzkymarsch, portraits the latter days of Habsburg monarch, its multietnic equilibrium, bureaucratic correctness, and hedonistic sensuality. In the opening of the work an Austrian army officer saves the life of the young emperor at the battle of Solferino. Through his account of the descendants of this hero Roth creates a Spenglerian vision of European culture in decline and loss. The same nostalgic theme is repeating in Roth's later novels. Its sequel, Die Kapuzinergruft, (1938), traced the collapse of the Empire through an account of a whole family, the Van Trottas. It shows Roth responding to the National Socialist takeover in Austria with an expression of passionate commitment for the Hapsburg dynasty. The author once said: "I am a conservative and a Catholic, consider Austria my fatherland, and desire the return of the Empire."

Roth's other works include Rechts und Links (1929), set in Berlin, a disappointment for Nazis and leftists critics, Hiob (1930, Job: The Story of a Simple Man), a modern-day analogy of the biblical story, in which Roth paid his tribute to his Jewish background. Das falsche Gewicht (1937) depicted a weight-and measures inspector in the borderlands of the Tsarist Empire, Die Legende vom heiligen trinker (1939) was an self-ironic examination, in which Andreas the drinker is suddenly charged, by a total stranger, with the task of delivering a large sum of money to the shrine of St. Therese.

In his last novel, Die Geschichte von der 1002. Nacht (1939) Roth examined the theme of self-deception. The Shah-in-Shah, the great ruler and overlord of all the lands of Persia, feels sick and in 1873 decides to visit Vienna, saying that "Muslims have been there once before, many years ago." His Chief Eunuch, Patominos, corrects him: "Sire, they were unfortunately unable to enter the city. Had they done so, St. Stephen's Cathedral would have not a cross, but a crescent moon on top of it!" In the course of the narrative, the principal figures - Baron Taittinger, the brothel keeper Frau Matzner, and the prostitute Mizzi Schinagl - fall victim to the rewards they have reaped the Shah. He has slept with Mizzi and sends her a string of pearls. She ends in prison and Taittinger shoots himself. Juden auf Wanderschaft (1927, The Wandering Jews) was a fragmented account about the Jewish migrations from eastern to western Europe in the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution. In 1937 Roth wrote a new preface for the book, seeing how temporary the period of peace and shelter was.

For further reading: Understanding Joseph Roth by Sidney Rosenfeld (2001); Encyclopedia of World Literature, vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); World Authors 1900-1950, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); Joseph Roth by Rainer-Joachim Siegel (1995); Joseph Roths Fluch und Ende by Soma Morgenstern (1994); Co-Existent Contradictions, ed. by Helen Chambers (1991); Joseph Roth byWolfgang Müller-Funk (1989); Ambivalence and Irony in the Works of Joseph Roth by C. Mathew (1984); Von der Würde des Unscheinbaren by Esther Steinmann (1984); Joseph Roth und die Tradition, ed. by D. Bronsen (1975); Joseph Roth: Eine Biographie by David Bronsen (1974); Weit von wo by C. Magris (1974); Lontano da dove by Claudio Magris (1971); Joseph Roth: Leben und Werke by H. Linden (1949) - Key writers of Vienna after WW I: Karl Kraus (1874-1936) wrote a satirical play about the Great War, The Last Days of Mankind, 1922; Herman Broch (1886-1951) wrote The Sleepwalkers (1932) and the prose-poem The Death of Virgil (1946), the first volume of Robert Musil's (1880-1942) novel The Man Without Qualities (1930-43) was immediately hailed as a great and unusual work. Franz Werfel's (1890-1954) Barbara; oder, Die Frömmigkeit (1929) examined the problem of political action in its relation to the significance of religiousness, and Elias Canetti published his first and only novel, Die Blendung, in 1935. Joseph Roth wrote his Radetsky March (1932) in Berlin's hotels and restaurants. Musil's favorite place in Vienna was Café Museum. Soma Morgenstern, the best friend of Roth, also brought him to that café.

SELECTED WORKS:

Hotel Savoy, 1924 - trans.

Die Rebellion, 1924 - Rebellion - Kapina

April, 1925

Der blinde Spiegel, 1925

Juden auf Wanderschaft, 1927 - The Wandering Jews

Die Flucht ohne Ende, 1927 - The Flight Without End

Zipper und sein Vater, 1928 - Zipper and His Father

Rechts und Links, 1929 - Right and Left

Hiob, 1930 - Job: The Story of a Simple Man

Panoptikum, 1930

Radetzkymarsch - Radetzky March, 1932 - Radetzky-marssi

Le Buste de l'Empereur, 1934 - Die Büste des Kaisers - The Bust of the Emperor

Der Antichrist, 1934 - Antichrist

Tarabas, ein Gast auf dieser Erde, 1934 - Tarabas

Die hundert Tage, 1936 - The Ballad of the Hundred Days

Beichte eines Mörders, 1936 - Confession of a Murderer

Das falsche Gewicht, 1937 - Weights and Measures

Die Kapuzinergruft - The Emperor's Tomb, 1938

Die Geschichte von der 1002. Nacht, 1939 - The Tale of the 1002nd Night

Die Legende vom heiligen Trinker, 1939 - The Legend of the Holy Drinker

Der Leviathan, 1940

Werke, 1956-1976

Romane, Erzählungen, Aufsätze, 1964

Der stumme Prophet - The Silent Prophet, 1966 (written in 1929)

Das Spinnennetz, 1967 - The Spider's Web

Der Neue Tag, 1970

Briefe 1911-39, 1971

Die Erzählungen, 1973

Perlefter, 1978

Berliner Saisonbericht, 1984

Collected Shorter Fiction by Joseph Roth, 2001 (trans. by Michael Hofmann)

What I Saw: Reports From Berlin, 1920-1933, 2002 (trans. with an introduction by Michael Hoffman)

 

Some intersting websites on Joseph Roth:

Joseph Roth Online

Joseph Roth Homepage