Mark's Reviews > Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters

Joseph Roth by Joseph Roth
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's review
Dec 17, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: 20th-century-austria, literature-german
Read from March 11 to April 22, 2012

Lacking an English-language biography of the Austrian writer Joseph Roth, MIchael Hofman's selection and translation of Roth's letters will have to suffice for now. The selection ranges from Roth's first letters to his cousins in 1911 up to shortly before his death (from alcoholism) in 1939. One can gather together some major themes in Roth's letters: his tiresome dealings with publishers and endless wheedling for money; his commentaries on contemporary authors including Thomas Mann, Annette Kolb, Irmgard Keun, and of course his great friend Stefan Zweig; his pining for the lost world of the Austro-Hungarian empire; and his bitter and exceedingly clear-sighted vision of Germany and the Germans.

In 1925, Roth wrote, "My so-called subjectivity is in the highest degree objective. I can smell things he won’t be able to see for another ten years." At the time, he was writing marvelous short pieces for Berlin newspapers. A few years later, Roth noted to a friend that "What’s insufferable about Germany isn’t the technology so much as the romantic cult of the technology. ... The most important difference between the American and the German is that the former uses the technology as naturally as a baby drinks milk, while the latter is incapable of making a phone call without lyrical commentaries on what a great thing the telephone is." It’s as if Roth new the horrible uses to which Germany would put technology in the decade to come. And after Hitler's rise to power, Roth knew very clearly what was to come, and told his friends in no uncertain terms: in a February 1933 letter to Stefan Zweig, Roth observed, "It will have become clear to you now that we are heading for a great catastrophe. Quite apart from our personal situations—our literary and material existence has been wrecked—we are headed for a new war. I wouldn’t give a heller for our prospects. The barbarians have taken over. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns." Roth's comments on Germany became increasingly bitter as events progressed. "Don’t make comparisons with Germany. Only hell is comparable. Everything, everything evil in the world, becomes noble by comparison with Germany. Germany is accursed, you have to learn to get out of the habit of comparing anything at all to this German shit."

I was struck by Roth's extravagant praise for the Bavarian-French author Annette Kolb (1870-1967). To Felix Bertaux Roth wrote, "In this context, can I draw your attention to the newest novel by Annette Kolb (published 1927, chez S. Fischer) [Daphne Herbst]. It describes nothing less than the last remnants of a cultivated German society. It’s exemplary, less a novel than a symptom, last sign of life of people who no longer exist." Roth wrote to Kolb herself in 1934:

"Truly loved Annette Kolb, here is confirmation of your great talent, and my great devotion to you as well. If I could ever have thought your charm led me to rate your work higher than my cruel authorial conscience permits: well now, thanks to your divine Schaukel,1 I can turn to myself in triumph, and say: you know, you were right about her all along. She is beguiling IN EVERY WAY! Annette, I want to say—no Kolb—but don’t worry, I’m only intrusive like this in my initial rapture! I have just finished reading your Swing, interrupting work on my own book, thinking I can read ten pages—and now you’ve cost me a day and a half of work. Blissful vacation! How rotten I feel, confronting my own book again! You write like a bird, and I like an elephant."

I hope some of Kolb's work makes it into English--there isn't anything available now, and I would like to get to know this author who is so highly praised by Roth.

Later in the letters, Roth's debilitating love of schnapps becomes a regular subject. In 1935, four years before Roth's untimely death, he wrote to Stefan Zweig, "Don’t worry about my drinking, please. It’s much more likely to preserve me than destroy me. I mean to say, yes, alcohol has the effect of shortening one’s life, but it staves off immediate death. And it’s the staving off of immediate death that concerns me, not the lengthening of my life. I can’t reckon on many more years ahead of me. I am as it were cashing in the last 20 years of my life with alcohol, in order to gain a week or two. Admittedly, to keep the metaphor going, there will come a time when the bailiffs turn up unexpectedly, and too early. That, more or less, is the situation." A sad, early end to a sad life. If there is any mercy in Roth's early death, it's that he did not live to see how terribly right he was about the barbarism of the Germans.
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Reading Progress

03/24/2012 page 267
52.0% "Reading these letters, I can't fathom why on earth his recipients saved them. Endless whining and moaning about money--and for good reqson, but still. I am just not certain that the literary world has received immeasurable benefit from this letter collection."
04/20/2012 page 500
98.0% "Roth in a nutshell: "I take more time dying than I ever had living.""
09/07/2016 marked as: read

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