More on Joseph Roth

17/02/2012 § Leave a comment

Yeah, I’m slightly obsessed, but it’s nice to see one of my favourite writers getting a bit of attention.

Michael Hofmann writes in the Guardian about his first encounter with Roth’s work:

Roth somehow resists the tendency of literature to update, to promote, to miscegenate: that conversation between the centuries envisaged by Kundera in Life Is Elsewhere, or by Jan Kott in Shakespeare, Our Contemporary, and so forth. Roth is just so resolutely and specifically gone. He reached into our modern world of newspapers, telephones, cars, advertising – and of Amazon and Franz Ferdinand, ultimately – but disdained it, fled it, went backwards. (Nitroglycerine, was his comment on it.) It would be like meeting someone in sepia, a daguerreotype.

There is not, as far as I know, any film footage of him, or any sound recordings – even though he lived until 1939. I don’t really know, and can’t quite imagine what he looked like, or sounded like (his accent?), or behaved like. The photographs are averted, or they are masks. An eager brylcreemed sylph of a boy-journalist, later seedy with avoirdupois and Sitzfleisch. Courtly; ugly; natty; short. Attractive to women. First, poor beautiful schizophrenic Friedl, then Andrea Manga Bell, a Haitian princess from Hamburg, then the very good 30s German writer, Irmgard Keun. His hair blond-ish, supposedly, then a dark smear of wax trained across the wide, wide forehead; a cavalry moustache – bristly, or soft? – later; bulbous eyes, said to have been blue, then alcoholically watery and of a bottomless sadness.

I wonder how much older he would have seemed than he was – he who claimed to have started drinking before his 10th birthday; whose experiences in the first world war – whatever they were – constituted his first taste of travel abroad; who came back in 1919 to a truncated fatherland; whose wife went mad; whose friends killed themselves or died early; who in just two decades wrote thousands of pages of fiction and thousands more of journalism. I can’t read a line of his small script, not even his signature, and have never directly seen anything that was his. “Even parrots outlive us,” he wrote once – in his case, comfortably: he died at 44. A further source of guilt for me is that I am older than he ever got to be.

Stefany Anne Goldberg at the Smart Set on Roth’s historical position, poised between the end of the Habsburg Empire and the modern world:

The tightrope Roth balanced between formality and informality was also a delicate balancing of past and present. Born in 1894 in the Galicia of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Roth was witness to the collapse of an entire world, the world of European empire that gave way to the world of modern European nation states. He was a monarchist who couldn’t believe in the promises of nationalism; a Jew in an anti-Semitic society (who later considered himself a Catholic); an Austrian whose post-war home was in Germany, a country he lived in only periodically; a German writer who worshipped France, whose city of birth turned Polish and then Ukrainian, who had no father, whose wife was insane, who lived out of three suitcases, who didn’t even own a copy of any of his books; a man of the East and the West, the past and present, but never the future. “I am never at home,” he wrote in 1933 to Félix Bertaux, “just wander around randomly, I can’t stand to be in a room.”

Michael Hofmann again at the Millions, listing all the mentions of Roth’s masterpiece Radetzkymarsch in Roth’s letters:

JR to Stefan Zweig:
“If I am to finish the novel this year, then I can’t go to Vienna. It would set me back weeks. I’ve been stuck of late anyway. Maybe it will flower again next week.”

JR to Blanche Gidon (French translator):
“I have always been grateful to you for going to such trouble over my book. I never doubted that you took on the translation for no selfish motive. However, I cannot avoid saying to you that your translation is a bad translation, and — in spite of my debt to you for going to so much trouble over the book, and in spite of the friendship I feel for you — it remains a bad translation. Do you want me to tell you it is good, against my own convictions, when I am convinced of the opposite? — Maybe I am a boche. But, be it out of politeness or friendship or anything else, you can’t expect me to say something that doesn’t accord with my convictions.”

JR to Carl Seelig:
“My book, which I finished in Rapperswil, I no longer have any feeling for. I am writing a new one.”



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