Joseph Roth: A Life In Letters

A new collection of Joseph Roth's letters, translated and edited by Michael Hofmann offers great insight

By David Herman, February 10, 2012
Author, author. Joseph Roth (right) with friend, patron and fellow writer Stefan Zweig in Ostend, Belgium, 1936

Author, author. Joseph Roth (right) with friend, patron and fellow writer Stefan Zweig in Ostend, Belgium, 1936

Michael Hofmann (Ed)
Granta, £25

'Half madman, half corpse" is how Joseph Roth described himself in 1936. He was in a terrible state: an alcoholic, in poor health, married to a chronic schizophrenic, a refugee, struggling to make a living. Three years later, he died of pneumonia, still only 44. But he had written more than a dozen novels, many short stories and thousands of articles, which established him as one of the great writers of the interwar years.

Never as famous as other German-speaking writers like Kafka and Thomas Mann, Roth disappeared without trace after his death until a handful of independent publishers and translators rediscovered him. The key figure is the poet and translator, Michael Hofmann, who has now produced this superb edition of Roth's letters, which follow his life from his late teens, on the eve of the First World War, to his death in Paris, just months before the Second.

Roth was born in Galicia, on the edges of eastern Europe, in 1894. Both parents were Jews but his father disappeared and died, insane, when Roth was 16. Soon after, what Hofmann calls Roth's "westward trajectory" began, taking him to Vienna and, after the First World War, to Berlin, where he established himself as a journalist, and then Paris. During the 1920s and early '30s he was one of the best-paid journalists in Europe. In the mid-1920s he started his career as a prolific novelist. He spent his life on the move. Perhaps his only permanent home was the German language and even that was thwarted when it became impossible to be published in Germany and then Austria.

Two devastating blows dominate the book. First, the illness then institutionalisation of his wife in the late 1920s. Then, in 1933, the rise of Hitler. From the beginning, Roth had no illusions about Nazism. He left Germany the day Hitler became Chancellor and never returned. "We are heading for a great catastrophe," he wrote to his friend and patron Stefan Zweig in February 1933, "The barbarians have taken over. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns."

What is curious is how uninterested he was in the big picture. He never attempted any kind of analysis of Nazism. On the other hand, he had a visceral loathing for it and knew that something terrible was happening to Europe. He was also distracted - by his own worsening health, his desperate battle against poverty, his need to write, and, above all, by his astonishing, almost monstrous, egomania. The day after the Reichstag fire, he quickly moves on to the really important subject: himself.

Roth died of alcoholism in 1939, his schizophrenic wife was murdered by the Nazis in 1940 and Zweig committed suicide in 1942. But his papers were rescued in Paris and later brought to New York. Now, brilliantly put together, full of illuminating editorial material, Joseph Roth's letters give us great insight into one of the outstanding writers of the 20th century and to the terrible times he lived through.

Dennis Marks and Michael Hofmann will discuss the life and writing of Joseph Roth on February 19 at 2pm at Jewish Book Week 2012, Kings Place, London N1 9AG. David Herman is the JC's chief fiction reviewer

Last updated: 2:21pm, February 10 2012