When Joseph Roth was asked once to write about his earliest memory, he described how as a baby he had seen his mother strip his cradle and hand it over to a strange woman, who ‘holds it to her chest, as though it were some trifling object of negligible dimensions, speaks for a long time, smiles, showing her long yellow teeth, goes to the door and leaves the house. I feel sad, unspeakably sad and helpless. I “know” that I have lost something irrecoverable.’ This is an outrageous story: but one may admire it for that, for its mischievous invention, and for its limited awareness of such gestures and proportions as a baby might truly have observed. It brings to mind what Roth said about his revered Heine: ‘Maybe he did make up the odd fact, but then he saw things the way they ought to be. His eye was more than visual apparatus and optic nerve.’ Roth, too, was endowed with an eye like that: it specialised in seeing things that had vanished off the face of the earth.
The loss of his cradle wasn’t the first in a life of losses – Roth’s father disappeared before he was born – but it was the earliest he could register. The robbed child would later see his birthplace batted about between Austria, Poland, the Ukraine and the USSR. The Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, ‘the only fatherland I ever knew’, would be torn to pieces. Except for a few months in a flat in Berlin – ‘and who,’ he asked, ‘in all the world comes to Berlin voluntarily?’ – the adult Roth would never have a place of his own. Instead, he lived in, and transferred all other loyalties to, hotels, calling himself a ‘Hotelpatriot’, and comparing the welcoming expression of a porter to a father’s embrace. (His cradle of the Thirties, the Hotel Foyot in Paris, was demolished in 1937.) The cradle-robber also took his youth, for Roth looked and felt old practically all his life: ‘like a thousand-year-old man returning from Beyond,’ he once said. Last but not least, the cradle episode prefigures his relationships with women: in his life and in his books, their behaviour is unpredictable and hurtful, and when it isn’t, his apprehension, pessimism and guilt soon make it so. The cradle is an emblem of the losses and hungers, personal and historical, magical and institutional, at the heart of Roth’s writing.
Joseph Roth was born Moses Joseph Roth, in 1894, in the small town of Brody, north-east of Lvov, in what was then Austria-Hungary, and is now the Ukrainian Socialist Republic of the USSR. He grew up with his mother, supported by his uncles, and in 1913 went to Vienna to study German. Initially a pacifist, he joined up in 1916 and served on the Eastern Front, mainly, it seems, in a literary capacity, writing for army newspapers and censoring mail. Although most of his subsequent writing would have it otherwise, he was neither an officer nor a prisoner-of-war. He did, however, have a complicated time getting back through the various small wars that erupted after the Great War, and he wasn’t back in Vienna until December 1918. He found work on Viennese newspapers of a socialist hue, and began to specialise in feuilletons – personal, impressionistic, belletristic articles.
In 1920 he moved to Berlin, a refugee from inflation, and wrote for papers there and in Prague and Frankfurt. His association with the Frankfurter Zeitung, the antecedent of the present-day Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, began in 1923, the year his first novel Das Spinnennetz (The Spider’s Web) was serialised in a Viennese newspaper. In 1924, the Frankfurter ran his second, Hotel Savoy. It was published in book form by the Schmiede-Verlag, publishers of Kafka and Proust, and he counted it his first novel. He took to the life of a wandering reporter, visiting France and Russia, Poland, Albania and Germany for his papers, and writing them up in long series of articles. He drank, and cultivated a casual grand manner. To an accompanying hack he claimed to be writing for ‘posterity’, and when an angry wire from Frankfurt came along, had to endure his friend’s sarcastic inquiry: ‘Was that posterity?’ His observations were often acute: at a Social Democrats’ Congress, all the delegates looked German, ‘even the Lithuanians’ – Social Democracy being endemic in Germany. He lamented the fact – true to this day – that because there are no politicians in Germany, the politicians are all civil servants. The Austrians fared even worse: ‘As ghastly as a Prussian is in a moment of “merriment”, that’s how ghastly an Austrian is all his life. Degenerate boches.’ As for himself, he was ‘a Frenchman from the East’. This cultural and political edge was blunted somewhat in the Thirties, when Roth became a rather more quixotic figure, a Royalist and a Catholic, a conspiratorial Hapsburger, and the compiler of a book called Der Antichrist, a personal ‘Index’ on modern life.
Either side of 1930 came events that brought about a calamitous downturn in Roth’s life. His wife Friedl, who hadn’t taken to their rootless life-style, was diagnosed as a schizophrenic, and within a few years the Nazis were in power. The final conjunction of these two developments occurred in 1940, when Friedl Roth fell victim to the Nazis’ ‘improved care facilities’. Bizarrely and horribly, these were the years of Roth’s greatest successes, when he published his most popular books, Job and The Radetzky March; in both cases, the hero, Mendel Singer and Franz Josef Trotta, is an unwilling survivor. An editor at the Frankfurter Zeitung told Roth: ‘You must become even sadder. The sadder you are, the better you write.’ After 1933, Roth severed all links with Germany, even, or perhaps especially, with those elements which still hoped to effect change from within. He wrote for émigré publications, his books were published by German presses in Amsterdam, and he lived there, or in Paris, or the South of France, a rather eccentric, free-standing pillar of the Exilliteratur. His death in 1939 was not by his own hand, as several printed English sources have said, but was caused by a collapse on hearing of the suicide of a fellow-exile and friend, the playwright Ernst Toller.
Into the last 15 years of his life, Joseph Roth managed to cram 13 novels; bits and pieces of two or three others have been published posthumously. He said himself that he wrote day and night. His works of the mid-Twenties were Zeitromane: ‘time-novels’, confronting contemporary issues, semi-fiction and semi-observation. A less flattering term for the earliest of them is ‘newspaper novels’ (Zeitungsromane), not only because they were serialised in newspapers, but also because they had not quite freed themselves from the journalistic work he was doing at the same time. There are glorious cameos and details, but problems with structure and narrative line. They are all a part of one another, like an unsolved Rubik’s Cube; and sometimes, it seems as though, with a little re-arrangement, one might construct a handful of perfectly accomplished novels from these riddling and gesturing and incomplete books, each with its own small but still spectacular contributions on the Europe entre deux guerres. They all share the same themes and situations: soldiers coming home from the war, from obedience and comradeship to the demands of politics and love; the sickly peacetime society, the distortions of wealth and poverty, the bizarre explosions of ideology, the strikes and rebellions, the fluctuations of goods and money; a conjunction of two male characters, one steeped in the world, resolute and committed, the other, the hero, usually not. Hotel Savoy has all of these things and more. It is, however, unusual – if not unique – in Roth’s work, in being stationary; though situated on his usual westward path, all of it takes place in one of the staging-posts, at the eponymous hotel in the (unnamed) town of Lodz, ‘the Polish Manchester’. The later books describe the hero’s full trajectory from East to West, a meteorite burning out in the atmosphere of post-war Europe. Flight without End is an indicative title. On the whole, Hotel Savoy suffers by comparison. It is as though the hero, Gabriel Dan, and his resolute, revolutionary former brother-in-arms Zwonimir Pansin were waiting, along with the author, for the hotel to become a properly functioning metaphor for Western society.
Hotel Savoy may be not much of a novel, but it deserves to be read for its sense of milieu, for its curt sentences, for being an early work by an author whose every word is worth reading. In tone, it is largely neutral – it is only with Job and The Radetzky March that Roth acquires the voice of overwhelming loss and millennial regret – but it is still unmistakably his, with his wit, his curiosity, his little darts of metaphysical speculation. It anticipates his later novels both in its geography and in the character of its hero.
I have said Hotel Savoy is a static book, confined to the town of Lodz. Nevertheless it is aligned, as I believe all Roth’s novels are, on the East-West axis. Gabriel and Zwonimir are on their way home from the Eastern Front, and though they don’t get there, in a sense they will in later books. The town awaits the return from America of its millionaire son, Bloomfield; he has reached Berlin and his arrival in Lodz is preceded by rumours. The girl Stasia will be heading for Paris; it is possible that the hero will go on to New York. As for Zwonimir, the revolutionary:
He loved America. When a billet was good he said ‘America’. When a position had been well fortified he said ‘America’. Of a ‘fine’ first-lieutenant he would say ‘America’, and because I was a good shot he would say ‘America’ when I scored bullseyes.
America is where Roth’s ‘Job’, Mendel Singer, goes. The short story ‘April’ ends: ‘ “Life is very important!” I laughed. “Very important!” and I went to New York.’
The significance of the East-West axis is, I believe, that it is the axis of power, of history; to go from East to West means to go from war to peace, from Communism to Capitalism, from old to new, from sentiment to hygiene; it is the route of the Jews, of political and other refugees. One has only to think of the many passages in Roth that describe the sad songs of fugitives and emigrants as they huddle together in frontier taverns. ‘Civilisations move along meridians,’ Joseph Brodsky has written; ‘nomads (including our modern warriors, since war is an echo of the nomadic instinct) along latitudes.’ The movement in Roth’s novels is, therefore, a nomadic movement; and when it is reversed, from West to East – for instance, in ‘The Bust of the Emperor’, one of the two short stories thrown in with Hotel Savoy – it is a movement towards the past and sentiment and death. North and South, which seem to me to be the axis of happiness, barely appear in Roth. In the other short story (both are far more than makeweights), ‘Fallmereyer the Stationmaster’, one reads: ‘ “The South” meant more to the stationmaster than a mere geographical definition. “The South” was the sea, a sea of sunshine, freedom, happiness.’ ‘“South” was in another country,’ he said in The Radetzky March. The only real and extended celebration of the South in Roth’s work is in a series of articles he wrote in 1925 about his discovery of the South of France, rapt and ecstatic.
As for the characters who wander back and forth along a line of latitude – say, the Fiftieth Parallel: Kiev, Lvov, Cracow, Prague, Frankfurt, Le Havre – it often seems as though their origin, present whereabouts and next destination are all we know about them, and all we need to know. Their linear movements, their trajectories, are fully expressive of their disorder and pain. ‘If one has a great sorrow, it is a good thing to change one’s abode,’ Roth said in one of his articles. The Roth hero is an individual, not a Massenmensch; Roth is careful always to give him a name, but the names resemble one another as the heroes do: Gabriel Dan, Andreas Pum, Benjamin Lenz, Franz Tunda. They are largely undifferentiated, undescribed, anonymous, like markers. Where they are is the front line, each of them the flag in his own personal campaign; one can understand why Roth wrote a novel about Napoleon (Die Hundert Tage). They are capable, attractive, viable men, but somehow disabled or disorientated. Most of them are soldiers or former soldiers; others are civil servants, minor officials, peasants, railwaymen, aristocrats, innkeepers, Fiaker-drivers, chestnut-vendors. Roth was always drawn to the common man, and this, together with his journalist’s need for visual evidence, helps explain the illustrated-encyclopedia prevalence of uniformed or quasi-uniformed types in his writing. (Of the 13 versions of his paternity that he put into circulation, not all were high-flown and romantic.) In addition to his journalist’s eye, there was also his loyal Kaiserlich und Königlich subject’s fascination with all the versions of existence in the Dual Monarchy, a Whitmanesque love of identification and profusion. In his early work there is an element of social criticism in the presentation of variety which derives from his perception of inequality: later on, this variety is seen as part of the graceful and accommodating nature of the Empire – the flame-bearded Jews pay their respects to the Emperor; the Jäger Franz Tunda joins the Infantry with his cousin the chestnut-vendor Joseph Branco and the Jewish cabbie Manes Reisiger. Roth sees art identity between highest and lowest; he celebrates the love of the frontier for the centre.
That, however, is the late Roth, the Roth of the Thirties, after The Radetzky March (1932), the Imperial apologist, the alcoholic survivor, the lovesick diagnostician. The contrast with the Roth of the Twenties is the contrast between warm and cold, hopelessness and alienation, symbol and case-history. The matter of Austria is like a molten flow that has been poured into the empty casings of the characters. The characters are still the same, passive, undefined, almost anonymous. Hotel Savoy has: ‘One can absorb such a lot and yet remain unchanged in body, in walk, in behaviour.’ Roth’s next-to-last novel, The Emperor’s Tomb of 1938: ‘I am relatively immune – as I then discovered for the first time – to what are called great shocks.’ Hotel Savoy is full of observed people, but they have no meaning beyond themselves. In The Emperor’s Tomb, the history of a generation is created in the friendship of Tunda, Branco and Reisiger; in Tunda’s precipitate marriage in 1914 with Elizabeth Kovacs (the state of Austria-Hungary); and in her unnatural desertion of him for the artsy-crafty lesbian Jolanth Szatmary (the defection of Austria’s Slavs). If the ‘persons’ at the heart of Roth’s early books are little more than perceptive spaces – to read, say, the letter ‘by’ Franz Tunda in Flight without End is an impossible, vertiginous experience – the later characters ‘speak’ for a whole vanished organisation of states and its culture.
In a sense, the hero in all Roth’s books is Fate or, more exactly, die Fügung – the word also has the meaning of ‘compliance’, or ‘obedience’. The characters are dutiful, resigned, they make no great efforts to change or to escape what lies before them. The novels describe the effect of intolerable pressure on these average people – the obligations of love or war, the consequences of an error or a rash commitment. In The Radetzky March, Carl Joseph Trotta has ‘middling, but always adequate capacities. He possessed a neat, matter-of-fact, honest intelligence.’ But as he himself comes to realise, his capacities are hopelessly inadequate; his ‘fortitude’ is sufficient for ‘a pointless death’, nothing more. It is little different from the outcome of the other novels.
Where Roth’s heroes are meek and limited and passive, the world in which they move is correspondingly assertive, unpredictable and voracious. Roth’s favourite similes involved birds, hands and animals: ‘Her two hands tore – now one, now the other – at her hair. Her hands were like pale, fleshy, five-footed animals, feeding themselves on hair’ (Job). ‘Her telegrams reached him one a fortnight, deft little swallows, sent to call him to come to her’ (The Radetzky March). ‘The sotnias of Cossacks galloped and wheeled like winds in military formation, uniformed winds on the swift little ponies of their native steppes’ (The Radetzky March). If writing like this has a ‘programme’, it is not animism, or pathetic fallacy, but a magical instability. Roth writes as well as anyone (Wallace Stevens, say) about attractiveness: anyone who has read Weights and Measures will remember the effect on Lieutenant Eibenschütz of the tinkle of the gypsy Euphemia’s earrings; from the name Lutetia (in Confession of a Murderer) ‘there emanated a warm, subtle glamour ... a resplendent, imperious glitter.’ Often in Roth, there is an irresistible combination of gold and silver (he uses a great many colours, and almost never singly): ‘a silver clinking and rustling of spurs and arms, a pervasive smell of pomade and shaving soap, a fulminating gleam of gold buttons, silver braid, and bright-red reins of Russia leather’ (Job). ‘We had at the time no premonition of war and May, Vienna’s May, swam in the little golden cups with their silver rims. The month of May drifted across the tablecloths, the little brimful glasses of chocolate, the cream cakes in rose and green which so curiously resembled edible jewels, and Councillor Sorgsam remarked, right in the midst of May: “There will be no war, gentlemen!” ’ (The Emperor’s Tomb). Most memorable of all are the descriptions of landscapes, of little X-shaped garrison towns with a station and an hotel, in the changing seasons. Not the least aggressive and unpredictable aspect of Roth’s world is the way drastic changes will happen overnight: frozen birds fall out of the sky in winter, and in spring there are the mighty cracks of the river thawing; a man and his wife fall out of love; the hero ages. Similarly, his characters aged by a generation from one novel to the next (Right and Left to Job). This collapsing of time, one more aspect of his magical instability, is present in a clement form in the fragment ‘Erdbeeren’:
In March, when the melting icicles dripped from the roofs, we could hear the galloping approach of spring. We left the snowdrops in the woods alone. We were waiting for May. We were going to pick strawberries.
Already, the woodpeckers were drilling in the trees. It rained frequently. The rains were soft, a velvety water. They might last all day, two days, a week. Not a wind blew, the clouds didn’t budge, they hung in the sky, as fixed as constellations. It rained thoroughly and conscientiously. The roads grew soft. The swamp advanced into the woods, frogs swam among the trees. The farmers’ carts no longer creaked. It was as though they were all cushioned with rubber. The horses’ hooves were silent. People pulled off their boots, slung them over their shoulders and waded barefoot.
It cleared up overnight. One morning the rain stopped. The sun rose, as though it had just come back from holiday. We had been waiting for that day. On that day, the strawberries had to be ripe.
With Hotel Savoy, there are now eight books by Joseph Roth in print in England. He has been published here once before, in the Thirties; I can only hope twice will be enough. In terms of publishers and translators, the position is less than clear-cut; one way or another, four publishers are involved, and the translations may be new, old or, in the case of The Radetzky March, a bit of both. The best of the old seemed to me Desmond Vesey’s Confession of a Murderer, and of the new I liked David Le Vay, who is responsible for Weights and Measures, Flight without End, and Roth’s uncompleted ‘Trotsky-novel’ The Silent Prophet. The most disappointing is John Hoare, whose version of The Emperor’s Tomb contains awkwardnesses, and a few bad mistakes. Not only sense but rhetorical balance, and Heine-rhythm, are lost.
Job: The Story of a Simple Man, Chatto, 248 pp., £7.95, 1983, 0 7011 3907 2
The Emperor’s Tomb, Chatto, 168 pp., £7.95, 1984, 0 7011 2826 7
Confession of a Murderer, Chatto, 224 pp., £8.95, January 1985, 0 7011 2881
The Radetzky March, Penguin, 336 pp., £2.95, 29 March 1984, 0 240 06463
Flight without End, Dent, 230 pp., £2.95, 0 460 01359 9
Weights and Measures, Dent, 150 pp., £2.50, 0 460 013319
The Silent Prophet, Peter Owen, 220 pp., £9.95, 1976, 0 7206 0536 9