Joseph Roth

(1444 words)

Joseph Roth, a German-speaking Jew, was born on 2 September 1894 in the Galician village of Brody, located in the Ukraine, then the Eastern-most area of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At home in Vienna, he also lived for several years in Berlin, where he wrote journalistic pieces and chronicles of his travels for the Frankfurter Zeitung. One of many “exile writers” who fled the Nazi authorities and continued to write abroad, Roth moved to Paris in 1933. He died there on 27 May 1939, at only forty-five, of alcoholism and pneumonia. Roth had already established a name as a writer during the 1920s and early 1930s. His books were suppressed by the Nazis, but his reputation was revived by a 1956 edition of his works. Now considered a major Austrian writer, with virtually all of his writings available in recent English translations, he is best known for Radetzkymarsch [The Radetzky March, 1932], an historical “novel of decadence” that interweaves a nostalgic but not uncritical presentation of the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with the decline of the noble von Trotta family, seen through the story of a decadent protagonist. Also beloved is Roth's “Jewish novel”, Hiob [Job, 1930], which centers on the sorrows and spiritual struggles of a poor Jewish couple in Russia, who must emigrate to America, and their children. The strengths of Roth's fiction include historical perspective, well-developed settings, and a unique combination of realism and fantasy, both worldly and otherworldly. An early and outspoken opponent of the Nazi movement, Roth, who had endorsed a vague socialism as a young man, came in his late years to advocate the restoration of the Habsburg monarchy in Austria, as an alternative to joining the Third Reich, and claimed to have converted to Catholicism.

Roth, an only child, never knew his father, a grain merchant hospitalized for mental illness before he was born. He experienced his fatherless state and financial dependence on his uncle as a disgrace in the Jewish community of Brody, and his relationship with his mother was sometimes strained. Roth studied at Lemberg and Vienna until the outbreak of World War I, in which he served briefly before beginning his writing career. Roth married Friederike Reichler in 1922, but they enjoyed only a few happy years together until she had to be permanently institutionalized for schizophrenia. Roth had to leave her behind when he emigrated, and she was put to death in 1940. In Paris, he continued to write and visit friends, and he lived at times with two different women during his last years, but he struggled financially and turned increasingly to alcohol to endure his unhappy situation.

Although common threads of style and theme connect them, Roth's fictional works can be divided into three phases: his early, more political and realistic works, emphasizing characters' difficulties in re-adjusting to life after World War I; his two major novels; and his late, more fantastic, moralistic, and spiritual novels and stories, written during his exile years. His six novels of the 1920s represent the anti-Expressionist realistic movement, Neue Sachlichkeit [New Factualism]. Roth's debut novel was Spinnennetz [The Spider's Web, 1923], which tells, in detached fashion, of a former German officer, unable to cope with peacetime, who is driven to join a right-wing anti-Semitic organization, eventually becoming a political murderer. Hotel Savoy (1924) introduces the Jewish theme later developed in Job; the text emphasizes the division between rich and poor, widespread corruption and injustice, and the bleak lives of many Eastern European Jews. In Die Rebellion [Rebellion, 1924], Andreas Pum, a crippled war veteran, abused by his domineering wife, loses faith in the justice of the state when his organ grinder's license is revoked and he becomes a toilet attendant; he tries to reclaim his dignity by rebelling against God in his dying hour. Flucht ohne Ende [Flight without End, 1927] chronicles the travels of Franz Tunda, who is a prisoner of war in Siberia, then a Red Guard revolutionary, then a restless traveler. Repulsed by his brother's empty bourgeois life, he finds no viable alternative, and the novel ends with his own declaration that he is “the most superfluous person on earth”. Outsider characters are also found in Zipper und sein Vater [Zipper and his Father, 1928], a text about one brother, a World War I veteran, mentally disturbed and an amputee, and another who loses his wife to a lesbian rival and aspires to be a serious musician but ends up a vaudeville performer. Finally, Rechts und Links [Right and Left 1929] explores political activism and cynicism; it shifts focus from political analysis of two brothers to the portrayal of a minor character; the novel's weakness led to Roth's repudiation of New Factualism in 1930.

Roth's famed “Austrian novel”, The Radetzky March is the quintessential novel of the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; both nostalgic and critical, it personalizes historical events as it portrays the diverse geographical sweep of the Empire, providing insights into the various classes and ethnic groups, including Jews and Slavs, along with a noble family with Slovenian peasant origins. Central to the narrative is a painful but moving conflict between a father who personifies strict military and bureaucratic values and is acquainted with the Emperor, and a maladjusted son, a modern outsider and “grandson” character struggling to find his identity. Roth's “Jewish novel” Job signaled a clear shift away from realism in its “miraculous” conclusion: after many sorrows and losses, the pious Jew Mendel Singer, who has emigrated from Russia to America, is blessed by the sudden appearance of his long-lost son, always sickly and apparently retarded, who has become not only a healthy, successful man, but a talented musician. The novel portrays Jewish customs and daily life in the European shtetl, tracing events in a Jewish family in two hostile countries, along with Singer's spiritual odyssey, in which at one point he becomes a doubting Job.

Among Roth's major late works is the novella Stationschef Fallmerayer [Fallmerayer the Stationmaster, 1933], in which a railway accident causes an ordinary provincial railroad official to meet and fall in love with a beautiful Russian countess. Incredibly, World War I allows him to pursue a romance with her as an Austrian soldier; his dreams are dashed when she returns to her rather pathetic wounded husband. Fantasy, fate, and the life-changing effects of war also govern the life of the protagonist of Tarabas (1934), a ne'er-do-well who becomes a great general who carries his violent ways into peacetime, and ends his life in Christian pilgrimage and atonement. Also Christian in tone is Roth's fictional Napolean novel, Die Hundert Tage [The Ballad of the Hundred Days, 1935], which portrays the Emperor's fall from glory to a state of God-seeking humility; an overblown sub-plot involves a court washerwoman and her son who gladly die in his service. The suspenseful first-person tale, Beichte eines Mörders [Confessions of a Murderer, 1936], tells of the ambitious and unscrupulous illegitimate son of a prince who becomes a Tsarist spy, attacks and thinks he kills his lover and rival, and later learns that they survived. He finally wins his no-longer-attractive beloved and becomes a henpecked husband, calling his fate a “tragedy of banality”. Like Stationmaster Fallmerayer, Eibenschütz, the protagonist of Das falsche Gewicht [Weights and Measures, 1937], is a government functionary in an isolated area who is visited by exotic love. At first a scrupulous weights and measures officer and husband, he falls in love with an alluring gypsy woman who brings about his moral and professional corruption. The novel ends with his dying vision of God giving an ambivalent judgment about the accuracy of his “weights and measures”. Die Kapuzinergruft [The Emperor's Tomb, 1938] is a less successful sequel to The Radetzky March; it concludes with a disillusioned descendent of the Trotta family helplessly confronting the Nazi takeover. Fantasy and disillusionment are imaginatively wed in Die Geschichte von der 1002. Nacht [The Tale of the 1002. Nacht, 1939], an ironic tale about the disruption caused when a Persian Shah visits contemporary Vienna, and Roth's final Christian piece “Die Legende vom heiligen Trinker” [“The Legend of the Holy Drinker”, 1939], a charming tale of “miracles” and misconceptions blessing a homeless alcoholic in Paris.

In every decade since his death, critical studies, new editions, and translations of Roth have demonstrated his enduring appeal and high status as a major Austrian writer. Although The Radetzky March and Job, both of which have been made into successful films, have justifiably retained their status as Roth's major contributions, his other works have continued to attract readers, critics, and translators as well. Roth's own life story and the cultural, historical, religious and moral significance of his fiction is widely appreciated, along with his skillful writing style, suspenseful, imaginative, and engaging story-telling and creation of haunting moods and nuances of feeling.

Saur, Pamela S.. "Joseph Roth". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 04 June 2004
[, accessed 30 April 2016.]

Articles on Roth's works

  1. Radetzkymarsch [The Radetzky March]