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.”



Philip Hensher on Joseph Roth

13/02/2012 § Leave a comment

There’s a lovely review of Joseph Roth’s Letters (recently published in English and translated by the brilliant Michael Hofmann) at the Spectator:

It is sometimes difficult, enjoying the sophisticated, detached gaze of the best of the novels, to remember the extraordinarily difficult circumstances in which most of them were written. Roth saw immediately the threat of Hitler — he is mentioned by name in his very first novel, The Spider’s Web in 1923, before the Beer Hall putsch took place. Roth, as a Jew and a congenitally critical spirit, would always have a career of awkwardness and dissent. In the years of his active writing, 1923 to his death in 1939, his life was wrecked by the lack of support from newspapers, principally the Frankfurter Zeitung, political oppression —The Radetzky March was finished, as Michael Hofmann observes, just in time to be burnt in the Bebelplatz — and personal difficulties.

And on Stefan Zweig:

The relationship with Zweig is summed up by a brutal anecdote that Hofmann brings to our attention. Zweig ordered a pair of trousers for Roth, since he only had one pair, unfit for the sort of restaurants Zweig liked. Roth insisted that they be cut in an Austrian cavalry style, making them immensely expensive. The next day, Roth, sitting in a bar in Ostend with his cronies, ordered a vividly coloured liqueur, which he proceeded to pour all over his jacket. He was ‘punishing Stefan Zweig’, he explained, and he was going to embarrass him by turning up for dinner in a stained and stinking jacket: ‘Millionaires are like that! They take us to the tailor and buy us a new pair of trousers, but they forget to buy us a jacket to go with them.’

(Incidentally if you haven’t read Michael Hofmann’s somewhat robust views on Zweig in the LRB you really should.)

Roth’s letters are the first book for ages I’m actually going to buy new and in hardback.

The little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn’t work

03/01/2012 § Leave a comment

‘Sometimes the things that look the hardest have the simplest answers,’ Nina Power writes towards the end of her chapbook, One Dimensional Woman. She then hands over to Toni Morrison speaking to Time magazine in 1989. On single-parent households: ‘Two parents can’t raise a child any more than one. You need a whole community … The little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for white people or for black people. Why we are hanging onto it I don’t know.’ On ‘unwed teenage pregnancies’: ‘Nature wants it done then, when the body can handle it, not after 40, when the income can … The question is not morality, the question is money. That’s what we’re upset about.’ On how to break the ‘cycle of poverty’, given that ‘you can’t just hand out money’: ‘Why not? Everybody [else] gets everything handed to them … I mean what people take for granted among the middle and upper classes, which is nepotism, the old-boy network. That’s the shared bounty of class.’

And this, surely, is only the start. It’s obvious – now Power-Morrison has said it – that any politics worth having has to start with the nuclear family: its impossibility, its wastefulness, its historical contingency. Children are the messages a family, a society, a culture, a civilisation, sends into the future, and yet every day there comes more evidence that child-rearing as currently practised among the people with all the choices doesn’t seem to be working out. They overeat, our little messages, they starve themselves, they adore themselves when they’re not indulging in self-harm. They don’t want to study medicine or train as teachers when they can just be ‘in the media’. And this obviousness starts little fires sparking backwards across the decades. There’s Selma James and the strange marginalisation of her ideas, not to mention the way the whole family-in-a-house imago goes unchallenged, even by feminists, lesbian and gay couples, and single-parent campaigners, let alone in government, advertising, the popular media etc.

This has not always been the case. A critique of the tight-knit nuclear family as a breeding-ground of consumerism, neurosis, misery in general, was central to feminism in the 1970s. This is Adrienne Rich on ‘the institution of motherhood’ in Of Woman Born (1976): ‘It creates the dangerous schism between “public” and “private” life; it calcifies human choices and potentialities. It has alienated women from our bodies by incarcerating us in them.’ ‘There is much to suggest,’ she wrote, ‘that the male mind has always been haunted by the force of the idea of dependence on a woman for life itself, the son’s constant effort to assimilate, compensate for, or deny the fact.’

Jenny Turner in the LRB. Read it; it’s one of the best pieces on feminism I’ve read in some time.

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