Joseph Roth - Biography
Joseph Roth, born Moses Joseph Roth (September 2, 1894 in Brody – May 27, 1939 in Paris), was an Austrian journalist and novelist, best known for his family saga Radetzky March (1932) about the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and for his novel of Jewish life, Job (1930) as well as the seminal essay 'Juden auf Wanderschaft' (1927) translated in English as The Wandering Jews, a fragmented account about the Jewish migrations from eastern to western Europe in the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution. In the 21st century, publications in English of Radetzky March and of collections of his journalism from Berlin and Paris created a revival of interest in the author. He committed suicide through alcohol abuse in 1939.
Born to a Jewish family, Roth grew up in Brody, a small town near Lviv in East-Galicia, part of the easternmost reaches of what was then Austro-Hungarian empire, today Ukraine. Jewish culture played an important role in the life of the town. He never saw his father who disappeared before he was born but grew up with his mother and her relatives.
After high school, Joseph Roth moved to Lviv to begin his university studies in 1913 before transferring to the University of Vienna in 1914 to study philosophy and German literature. In 1916, Roth quit his university course and volunteered to serve in the Imperial Habsburg army fighting on the Eastern Front in the First World War , "though possibly only as an army journalist or censor." This experience had a major and long-lasting influence on his life. So, too, did the collapse of the Habsburg Empire in 1918, which marked the beginning of a pronounced sense of 'homelessness' that was to feature regularly in his work." My strongest experience was the War and the destruction of my fatherland, the only one I ever had, the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary."
In 1918 he returned to Vienna and wrote for left-wing papers, occasionally as red Roth ,der rote Roth. In 1920 he moved to Berlin, where he worked as a highly successful journalist for the Neue Berliner Zeitung, then from 1921 for the Berliner Börsen-Courier. In 1923 he began his association with the well-known liberal Frankfurter Zeitung, travelling widely throughout Europe and reporting from the south of France, the USSR, Albania, Poland, Italy and Germany. "He was one of the most distinguished and best-paid journalists of the period-being paid at the dream rate of one Deutschmark per line." In 1925 he spent an influential period working in France and never again resided permanently in Berlin.
Marriage and family
Roth married Friederike (Friedl) Reichler in 1922. In the late 1920s, his wife Friederike became schizophrenic, which threw Roth into a deep crisis both emotionally and financially.
In 1923 Roth's first (unfinished) novel, The Spider's Web, was serialized in an Austrian newspaper. He achieved moderate success as a writer throughout the 1920s with a series of novels exploring life in post-war Europe. Only upon publication of Job and Radetzky March did he achieve real acclaim as a novelist.
From 1930, Roth's fiction became less concerned with contemporary society, with which he had become increasingly disillusioned; during this period, his work frequently evoked a melancholic nostalgia for life in imperial Central Europe prior to 1914. He often portrayed the fate of homeless wanderers looking for a place to live, in particular Jews and former citizens of the old Austria-Hungary, who, with the downfall of the monarchy, had lost their only possible Heimat or true home. In his later works in particular, Roth appeared to wish that the monarchy could be restored in all its old glamour, although at the start of his career he had written under the codename of "Red Joseph". His longing for a more tolerant past may be partly explained as a reaction against the nationalism of the time, which finally culminated in National Socialism.
The novel Radetzky March (1932) and the story Die Büste des Kaisers (The Bust of the Emperor) (1935) are typical of this late phase. In the novel The Emperor's Tomb, Roth describes the fate of a cousin of the hero of Radetzky March, until Germany's annexation of Austria in 1938. Of his works which deal with Judaism, the novel Job is the best-known.
On January 30, 1933, the day Adolf Hitler became Reich Chancellor, Roth, a prominent liberal Jewish journalist, left Germany. He would spend most of the next decade in Paris, a city he loved. His essays written in France were exuberant with delight in the city and its culture.
Shortly after Hitler's rise to power, in February 1933, Roth wrote in a prophetic letter to his friend, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig:
"You will have realized by now that we are drifting towards great catastrophes. Apart from the private - our literary and financial existence is destroyed - it all leads to a new war. I won't bet a penny on our lives. They have succeeded in establishing a reign of barbarity. Do not fool yourself. Hell reigns."
From 1936 to 1938, Roth had a romantic relationship with Irmgard Keun. They worked together, traveling to various cities such as Paris, Wilna, Lemberg, Warsaw, Vienna, Salzburg, Brussels and Amsterdam.
Without intending to deny his Jewish origins, Roth considered his relationship to Catholicism very important. In the final years of his life, he may even have converted; translator Michael Hofmann states in the preface to the collection of essays Report from a Parisian Paradise that Roth "was said to have had two funerals, one Jewish, one Catholic."
His last years were difficult - he moved from hotel to hotel, drinking heavily, anxious about money and the future. Despite suffering from chronic alcoholism, Roth remained prolific until his premature death in Paris in 1939. His final novella, The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1939), is amongst his finest, and chronicles the attempts made by an alcoholic vagrant to regain his dignity and honour a debt. His final collapse was precipitated by hearing the news that the playwright Ernst Toller had hanged himself in New York.
Joseph Roth is interred in the Thiais cemetery to the south of Paris.
- Das Spinnennetz (The Spider's Web) (1923)
- Hotel Savoy (Hotel Savoy) (1924)
- Die Rebellion (The Rebellion) (1924)
- April. Die Geschichte einer Liebe (April: The History of a Love) (1925)
- Der blinde Spiegel (The Blind Mirror) (1925)
- Juden auf Wanderschaft (The Wandering Jews) (1927)
- Die Flucht ohne Ende (The Flight without End) (1927)
- Zipper und sein Vater (Zipper and His Father) (1928)
- Rechts und links (Right and Left) (1929)
- Der stumme Prophet (The Silent Prophet) (1929)
- Hiob (Job (novel)) (1930)
- Radetzkymarsch (Radetzky March) (1932)
- Der Antichrist (The Antichrist) (1934)
- Tarabas (1934)
- Die Büste des Kaisers (Le Buste de l'Empereur) (1934)
- Beichte eines Mörders (Confession of a Murderer) (1936)
- Das falsche Gewicht (Weights and Measures) (1937)
- Die Kapuzinergruft (The Emperor's Tomb) (1938)
- Die Legende vom heiligen Trinker (The Legend of the Holy Drinker) (1939)
- Die Geschichte von der 1002. Nacht (The String of Pearls 1939)
- Der Leviathan (The Leviathan) (1940)
- What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920-1933, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2002
- Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France, 1925-1939, trans. by Michael Hoffman, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004