For good reason, history is riddled with strict dichotomies: axis or ally, collaboration or resistance, Right or Left, and so on. However rightfully so, the discipline can be a little allergic to nuance. And understandably, historical figures whose alignments can’t be neatly drawn pose a challenge to conventional notions of the period in question. The revisionist approach, a bottomless can of worms, can be fun, but doesn’t make the contradictions any easier to untangle.
Mid-20th century Europe is particularly nebulous, especially with regard to public figures whose legacies are still being worked out. Journalists, for example, are as much “artifacts” of their time, in their own right, as they are catalogers of those artifacts. How, then, do they fit into a historical context?
Several years ago while living in Central-Eastern Europe, a Polish-American friend of mine told me to read The Radetzky March, a family saga set in Austro-Hungary on the eve of WWI. Published in 1932, it is the novel for which author/journalist Joseph Roth is best known, and it was, as promised, completely edifying. With W.W. Norton’s recent release of Joseph Roth: a Life in Letters by Michael Hoffman, the German poet and critic who has spent much of his career translating Roth’s works into English, Roth’s particular brand of historical paradox is now less of a puzzle.
Born to Jewish parents in 1894, in Galicia (the far east region of the Habsburg empire), he attended school in Ukraine and Vienna before serving a short term on the Eastern Front of the Austro-Hungarian army. In 1918, he began writing for left-wing publications in Vienna, but soon moved to Berlin for more sought-after journalism connections, like the Frankfurter Zeitung. There, he became one of the highest paid journalists of the day (at a rate of one Deutsche Mark per line). As early as 1923, he wrote about Hitler’s predatory opportunism in the crippled Weimar German political scene following WWI. When the country fell to fascism in 1933, Roth moved his home-base to Paris and never re-entered German territory. Hoffman waxes nostalgic over Roth’s forgone voices and tones, which resulted from Roth’s constant reinventions of himself as he wandered the continent in exile until his death in 1939. The majority of the letters span this post-Radetzky March period.
Under Hitler’s mounting Third Reich, the policies of Anschluss (Nazi Germany’s occupation and 1938 annexation of Austria) wreaked total havoc on the German-language book trade. Writing jobs evaporated. Publishing houses and newspapers throughout the region were toppled either by force of the economy or state mandate.
As publishing networks shrunk, Roth’s relationships with the few publishers still giving him work started to buckle. At the mercy of editors as hard-up as he was, his spirited hustle turned to desperation. Taken together, Hoffman’s biographical passages, expert arrangement of Roth’s correspondence, and crisp footnotes yield a full arc of synchronised decay — the social fabric of Europe, Roth’s career, and his worldview all in unison.
Like many of his contemporaries, he lived mostly advance-to-advance. With each new contract, he would regenerate slightly but backslide with twisted gusto. It’s an exhausting cycle, all the more so for its petty and material triggers. He expresses financial matters in terms of “words” and “lines” commissioned. A thousand words for a hotel bill; some lines for his wife’s medicine — Roth was nothing if not fastidious in providing for his dependents.
He refuses money from a cousin for a new set of teeth, fearing she would then “own a part of him,” but doesn’t hesitate to beg his peers, like esteemed Austrian author Stefan Zweig, for handouts and loans. True to form, his appeals to largesse are shrill and presumptuous. Hoffman writes, “something in him couldn’t abide and didn’t understand hierarchies.” And in the name of pride, his finances were usually in shambles.
At one point, Roth councils Zweig on the art of alienating people, bringing his company-loving misery to new heights (or depths). Taking this cue, Zweig addresses a letter to Roth, “Dear Unfriend,” flinging the hostility back in his face. Still, there is humility in the candor of his self-pity, however sieved through gritted teeth. His plight in list-form — “debts, ghosts, privation, and writing, talking, smiling, no suit, no shirt, no boots, hungry open mouths, and scroungers to stuff them, and ghosts, ghosts, wall-to-wall ghosts” — is a funny example.
The views expressed in the letters, then-punishable by law, now amount to a time-capsule of retroactive protest, an insight into the psychology of repressed wartime individualism. He writes about the issues of the day at a jaded distance (maybe he’s safer there), and a studied dispassion toward German politics that borders on apathy, or worse, anti-Semitism. However, the erosion of his national, religious, and ideological affiliations makes it hard to blame him. In an earlier book, Report from a Parisian Paradise, Hoffman wrote that Roth “was said to have had two funerals: one Jewish, one Catholic.” Not that he wasn’t a misanthropic grouch anxious to bite the hand that fed him, and putting aside his overlooked fortune in having evaded Nazi persecution, he went through adulthood completely at war with his own identity.
The letter recipients include editors, family members, and distant acquaintances. Even at his self-assured best (a rarity), Roth always seems to be on the verge of social suicide, or, failing that, defeatism, with no shortage of vitriol to sustain him through the burning of bridge after bridge. For his historical perspective to have remained intact in the wreckage is a testament to why literature and primary historical documents serve each other well in a case like this. Commingling disciplines, Hoffman’s project is an essential historiographical work. Roth couldn’t have predicted his letters — all 500 of them — would be posthumously stitched into a biographical narrative, and thank god for that, or he might have toned it down.
In Roth’s reconstituted vision of things, dignity is superficial; tragedy, a commonplace reality and politics a distraction from real societal change. Relativists with strong stomachs may take heart in his inverted value system, which is undeniably seductive, if circular in logic. The occasional tender moment — usually channeled through homesicknesses, moral righteousness, or romantic levity — is never fully redemptive enough to quiet his furious mind. But the book’s ironically upbeat conclusion suggests that, try as he did to repel the world’s affections, he didn’t try quite hard enough.