One of the most fascinating books of 2012 was Michael Hofmann’s translation of Joseph Roth’s Letters. In one of the last letters, written in 1938, Roth’s close friend, Stefan Zweig, wrote to him, asking how his new novel, The Emperor’s Tomb, was going. “Where will you be? Where can I find you?” These questions are haunting. Both men, among the greatest German-speaking Jewish writers of the 20th century, were by then in exile: Zweig in London, Roth in his beloved Paris.
Roth was in extremely poor health. Not long before, he wrote to Zweig, “Palpitations, heart pain, shocking migraines, teeth falling out.” He was in dire poverty. Alcoholism was taking its toll. It was under these conditions that he wrote The Emperor’s Tomb, his last novel. He died a few months after it was published.
One can see it as a sort of sequel to Roth’s masterpiece, The Radetzky March. The narrator is a cousin of the Trottas, whose story runs through Roth’s great novel. But as Michael Hofmann points out in his excellent introduction, the differences between the two books are more interesting than the similarities. The Radetzky March is set in the world destroyed by the First World War whereas The Emperor’s Tomb begins in 1914 and ends in 1938.
More important, what is most striking about The Radetzky March is its sense of capturing a whole world just as it is about to fall apart. As Hofmann writes, it “impresses with its orchestration, its stateliness, its pageantry, the glorious Tolstoyan fullness of its realisation.”
It is “done in oils”, as Hofmann writes elsewhere. The Emperor’s Tomb, by contrast, is more like a cartoon, angry and often fragmented. The inter-war scenes resemble a drawing by George Grosz. Characters appear and disappear, some go abroad, others are killed off. The plot twists and turns. It is unfailingly dark. The narrator’s honeymoon is one of the most desolate in literature. He returns from the Eastern Front to find Austria in crisis: shorn of its empire, its currency in free fall, food in short supply. His life of pre-war privilege, living off an inheritance, is gone forever.
What is breathtaking, however, is the power of Roth’s prose. In despair, battling with poverty and illness, he nevertheless manages to create one astonishing scene after another. The first half is a rich evocation of two worlds: Vienna on the eve of the First World War (not for nothing is the narrator called Franz Ferdinand) and a small garrison town in Galicia, one of many such border towns in Roth’s fiction. It may be early in 2013, but you are unlikely to find a better novel this year.