Friday, 22 September 2017
Thursday, 21 September 2017
A great writer, but an unlucky man, if I ever met one. Joseph Roth never saw his father, Nahum, who went mad before he knew he had a son, and reacted to his over proud and over protective mother, Miriam, to the extent that he sometimes claimed to have her pickled womb somewhere. Unlucky with his wife... poor bewitching Friedl Reichler, who after six years of a restless, oppressive, and pampered marriage disappeared into schizophrenia, and left him to make arrangements for her, and pay for them, and wallow in the guilt and panic that remained. Unlucky with the lovers and companions of his last years —the Jewish actress Sibyl Rares, the exotic half-Cuban beauty Andrea Manga Bell, the novelist Irmgard Keun, his rival in cleverness and dipsomania—and often misunderstood by his very best friends, due to Roth's protean, or polygonal character, contriving to present a different aspect of himself to everyone he knew.
But as I read him, and reread him, and compare translations in the many languages Roth's been translated from his original German, I am often reminded of a couple of lines of Goethe's Faust—Malcolm Lowry used them as one of the epigraphs for Under the Volcano—"wer immer strebend sich bemüht, den können wir erlösen," roughly, whoever strenously endeavours, him can we rescue. No more strenuous trier before the Lord than Joseph Roth.
A sad, sad genius...
(The New Yorker, 2004)
It goes on breaking. The sleigh arrives to take Demant to the duel: “The bells jingled bravely, the brown horses raised their cropped tails and dropped big, round, yellow steaming turds on the snow.” The sun rises; roosters crow; birds chirp. The world is beautiful. Indeed, Demant’s luck changes. At the duelling ground, he discovers that his myopia has vanished. He can see again! He is thrilled, and forgets that he is in the middle of a duel: “A voice counted ‘One!’ . . . Why, I’m not nearsighted, he thought, I’ll never need glasses again. From a medical standpoint, it was inexplicable. [He] decided to check with ophthalmologists. At the very instant that the name of a certain specialist flashed through his mind, the voice counted, ‘Two!’ ” He raises his pistol and, on the count of three, accurately shoots Tattenbach, who also shoots him, and they both die on the spot.
Thus, a third of the way through his novel, Roth kills off its most admirable character, in a scene of comedy as well as tears. The crime, supposedly, is the Army’s, but behind the Army stands a larger principle. You marry a beautiful woman, and she hates you; you kill a scoundrel, and he kills you back; life is sweet, and you can’t have it. For this tragic evenhandedness, Roth has been compared to Tolstoy. For his dark comedy, he might also be compared to his contemporary Franz Kafka. In Kafka’s words, “There is infinite hope—but not for us.”
With the writings of Kafka and Robert Musil, Roth’s novels constitute Austria-Hungary’s finest contribution to early-twentieth-century fiction, yet his career was such as to make you wonder that he managed to produce novels at all, let alone sixteen of them in sixteen years. For most of his adult life, Roth was a hardworking journalist, travelling back and forth between Berlin and Paris, his two home bases, but also reporting from Russia, Poland, Albania, Italy, and southern France. He didn’t have a home; he lived in hotels. His novel-writing was done at café tables, between newspaper deadlines, amid the bloody events—strikes, riots, assassinations—that marked Europe’s passage from the First World War to the Second, and which seemed more remarkable than anything a novelist could imagine. His early books bespeak their comfortless birth, but his middle ones don’t. They are solid structures, full of psychological penetration and tragic force. The Radetzky March, his masterpiece, was the culmination of this middle phase. Shortly after it came out, he was forced into exile by the Third Reich. In the years that followed, he lived mainly in Paris, where, while he went on writing, he also swiftly drank himself to death. He died in 1939 and was soon forgotten.
Roth was a man of many friends, mostly writers—the celebrated biographer and memoirist Stefan Zweig, the playwright Ernst Toller, the novelist Ernst Weiss—and his work was rescued by a friend. After the war, the journalist Hermann Kesten, a longtime colleague of his, gathered together what he could find of Roth’s writings and, in 1956, brought them out in three volumes. With this publication, the Roth revival began, but slowly. For one thing, much of his work was missing from Kesten’s collection. Because Roth was always on the move, he had no files, no boxes of books in the attic. Meanwhile, the Third Reich had done its best to wipe out any trace of his career. (In 1940, when the Germans invaded the Netherlands, they destroyed the entire stock of his last published novel, which had just come off the presses of his Dutch publisher.) Over the years, as people scanned old newspapers and opened old cartons, more and more of Roth’s work came to light, and Kesten’s collection had to be re-edited, first in four volumes, then in six.
The translation of Roth proceeded even more haltingly. In his lifetime, only six of his novels appeared in English, and after his death there was no strong push to translate the rest of them. Those people who knew about him sometimes wondered why this dark-minded Jew, fully modern in his view of history as a nightmare, showed none of the stylistic experimentation that, according to the mid-century consensus, was the natural outcome of such a view, and the defining trait of the early modernist novel. He didn’t write like Joyce, so let him wait. By the nineteen-seventies and eighties, however, the job of getting Roth out in English had started up again. In the nineties, it was carried forward by two editors, Neil Belton, at Granta, in London, and Robert Weil, at Norton, in New York, both of them devoted Roth fans. Equally crucial in this rescue operation was one translator, the poet Michael Hofmann. In the past fifteen years, Hofmann has translated, beautifully, nine books by Roth. Furthermore, his brief introductions to those volumes are the best available commentary on the writer. Many of Roth’s explicators are puzzled by him, and not just because he had a nineteenth-century style and a twentieth-century vision. In the manner of today’s critics, they want to know if his politics agree with theirs, and they can’t decide whether he was a good Jew or a bad Jew, a leftist or a right-winger. They also don’t understand why his work was so uneven. Hofmann is untroubled by such questions. He takes Roth whole. The novels, he says, “comfort and console one another,” “diverge and cohere.” He writes about them with confident love and no special pleading.
Thanks to these people, all the novels are now in print in English. As the new translations have come out, Roth has been the subject of long, meaty review-essays. There have been Roth conferences. (This spring, there will be two more, in Prague and in Vienna, sponsored by the Prague Writers’ Festival.) There is now an academic industry of sorts. Still, Roth has received only scant attention, relative to his achievement. There is no biography of him in English. (An American, David Bronsen, wrote a biography, but it was published only in German, in 1974.) Indeed, there are only three books in English on Roth’s work. Even more striking, to me, is how seldom he is spoken of. In the past few years, I have made a point of asking literary people what they know about him. Most have not read him; many say, “Who?” I didn’t know his name until three years ago, when a friend put a copy of The Radetzky March into my hand.
When Roth was born, in 1894, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, presided over by the aging Franz Joseph, consisted of all or part of what we now call Austria, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia, Croatia, Poland, Ukraine, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Italy. Ethnically, this was a huge ragbag, and separatist movements were already under way, but to many citizens of the empire its heterogeneity was its glory. According to the so-called “Austrian Idea,” Austria-Hungary was not so much multinational as supranational—a sort of Platonic form, subsuming in harmony and stability the lesser realities of race and nation. Among the most ardent subscribers to this belief were the empire’s two million Jews. Because they could claim no nation within the crown lands, they feared nationalism—they felt, rightly, that it would fall hard on them—and so they were loyal subjects of the Emperor. Roth shared their view. He changed his politics a number of times in his life, but he never forsook his ideal of European unity or his hatred of nationalism.
He grew up in Brody, a small, mostly Jewish town in Galicia, at the easternmost edge of the empire, six miles from the Russian border. Shortly before his birth, his father, Nachum, who was a grain buyer for a Hamburg export firm, had some sort of psychiatric episode while travelling on a train in Germany. Nachum was eventually taken to a “wonder rabbi,” or healer, in Poland, and he lived with this man for the rest of his life. Roth’s mother moved back into her parents’ house, and there she raised Joseph, her only child, with maddening overprotectiveness. He grew up very Jewish—the family was Orthodox, and the schools he attended were Jewish, or mostly—but the beginnings of assimilation were there. He spoke German at home and at school, and his teachers, faithful subjects of Austria-Hungary, gave him a solid classical education, with emphasis on German literature.
He left home at the age of nineteen, and soon landed at the University of Vienna, an institution that he came to regard with mixed feelings. (In one novel, he describes its august entrance as “the fortress wall of the national students’ association”—he means proto-Nazis—“from which every few weeks Jews or Czechs were flung down.”) What dazzled him was the city itself, the center of a pan-European culture, which he aspired to join—a task that would not be easy. Already before the First World War, Ostjuden, or Jews from the East, were pouring into the Western capitals, and, with their soiled bundles and their numerous children, they were regarded, basically, as immigrant scum. Roth was one of them. Over the next few years, he rid himself of his Galician accent. He dropped his first name, Moses. He affected a monocle, a cane. He said his father was an Austrian railway official, or an arms manufacturer, or a Polish count. Later, in his book The Wandering Jews, on the Ostjuden, he described with scorn the attempts of Western Europe’s assimilated Jews to conceal their Eastern origins, but he did the same.
His education came to an end with the First World War, which he spent as a private in a desk job. (He later claimed that he was a lieutenant, and a prisoner of war in Russia.) After the armistice, he went to work as a journalist, first in Vienna, then in Berlin, where he wrote feuilletons, or think pieces, for a number of newspapers, and in this genre he found his first voice: a wised-up, bitter voice, perfect for describing the Weimar Republic. A year ago, Norton published a selection of these essays, What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920-1933, translated by Michael Hofmann. In them, Roth addresses some great events, but mostly he pokes his face into ordinary things—department stores, police stations, bars—and, in the manner of Roland Barthes in his Mythologies pieces, which also originated as journalism, he meditates on what they symbolize. His conclusion is that, whatever the sins of the prewar empires—he doesn’t ignore their sins, for he was now a socialist—what has replaced them is something worse: a wrecked, valueless world, caught between bogus political rhetoric on the one hand and, on the other, a fatuous illusionism, a dream world retailed by billboards and cinema, which, in his shorthand, he calls “America.”
At the same time that he was producing these essays, Roth was writing his early novels. They are as dark as the journalism, but more disturbing, because in them he seems to be writing about himself, with hatred as well as with grief. He had always been fatherless; now, with the fall of Austria-Hungary at the end of the war, he was stateless. All his novels of the nineteen-twenties are Heimkehrerromane, stories of soldiers returning from the war, and what these men find is that there is no home for them to return to. They would have been better off if they had died. For some of them, Roth has compassion; he analyzes the religious awe in which they once held the state, and their brutal disabusement. For others, he has no pity, and he catalogues the lies they are now free to tell about themselves, and the ease with which they pledge themselves to the new gods, commercialism (“America”) and nationalism (Germany).
One of the remarkable things about Roth’s journalism is its political foresight, and this is even more striking in the early novels. He was the first person to inscribe the name of Adolf Hitler in European fiction, and that was in 1923, ten years before Hitler took over Germany. But what is interesting about his portrait of the Nazi brand of anti-Semitism is that he didn’t live to see its outcome. His portraits of Jews therefore lack the pious edgelessness of most post-Holocaust writing. In one of his novels of the nineteen-twenties—the best one, Right and Left—which opens in a little German town, he says that in this place most jokes begin, “There was once a Jew on a train,” but on the same page he narrows his eyes at Jews who ignore such jokes. In an essay of 1929, he speculates comically on why God took a special interest in the Jews: “There were so many others that were nice, malleable, and well trained: happy, balanced Greeks, adventurous Phoenicians, artful Egyptians, Assyrians with strange imaginations, northern tribes with beautiful, blond-haired, as it were, ethical primitiveness and refreshing forest smells. But none of the above! The weakest and far from loveliest of peoples was given the most dreadful curse and most dreadful blessing”—to be God’s chosen people. As for German nationalism, he regarded it, at least in the twenties, mainly as a stink up the nose, a matter of lies and nature hikes and losers trying to gain power. He was frightened of it, but he also thought it was ridiculous.
If Roth had continued in this vein, he would be known to us today as a gifted minor writer, the literary equivalent of George Grosz. But in 1925 his newspaper sent him to France, and there he found a happiness he had never known before. In part, this was simply because the French were less anti-Semitic than the Germans. But also it seemed to him that in this country—which, unlike his, had not lost the war—European culture, a version of the Austrian Idea, was still going forward, and that he could be part of it. “Here everyone smiles at me,” he wrote to his editor. “I love all the women. . . . The cattlemen with whom I eat breakfast are more aristocratic and refined than our cabinet ministers, patriotism is justified here, nationalism is a demonstration of a European conscience.” He relaxed, and began thinking not just about the postwar calamity but about history itself, and the human condition. As can be seen in Norton’s recently issued Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France, 1925-1939, again translated by Hofmann, his prose now mounted to an altogether new level: stately but concrete, expansive but unwasteful. In a 1925 essay about Nîmes, he describes an evening he spent in the city’s ancient arena, where a cinema had been installed. Here he is, sitting in a building created by the Roman emperors, watching a movie created by Cecil B. de Mille. To compound the joke, the film is “The Ten Commandments.” This is the sort of situation from which, in his Berlin period, he wrung brilliant, cackling ironies. But here he just says he stopped watching the movie and looked up at the sky, at the shooting stars:
Some are large, red, and lumpy. They slowly wipe across the sky, as though they were strolling, and leave a thin, bloody trail. Others again are small, swift, and silver. They fly like bullets. Others glow like little running suns and brighten the horizon considerably for some time. Sometimes it’s as though the heaven opened and showed us a glimpse of red-gold lining. Then the split quickly closes, and the majesty is once more hidden for good.Though God may confide his thoughts to De Mille, he withholds them from Roth, and Roth doesn’t complain. He just arranges the elements of the vision—majesty, terror (bullets, blood), beauty, enigma—in a shining constellation. He is moving out of satire, into tragedy.
Steinhof Sanatorium, in Vienna, where she remained for the rest of her life, with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
“Roth, you must become much sadder,” an editor once said to him. “The sadder you are, the better you write.” It was while Friedl was going mad that Roth became a great writer. Her illness broke something in him, and, following a pattern that we can observe in many writers who go from good to great, he threw away the sophistication he had so strenuously acquired in his twenties and returned to the past. His prior novels had been set in his own time, the years after the First World War. Now he went back to the prewar years. Most of his earlier novels had featured city life; now, again and again, he placed his story in a provincial town on the frontier between Galicia and Russia. The town is heavily Jewish, though it also has an Army garrison, at whose sabre-clanking officers the Jewish merchants gaze with incomprehension, and vice versa. There is a count, in a castle. There is a border tavern, where Jewish middlemen, for a high price, arrange for Russian deserters to escape to the Americas. The local schnapps is a hundred-and-eighty proof, guaranteed to stun your brain in seconds. The officers drink it from morning to night, and gamble and whore. Occasionally, they get to shoot somebody—strikers, agitators—but they are longing for bigger action: war. All around the town, there is a gray, sucking swamp, in which, day and night, frogs croak ominously. Roth’s classmates later said that this place was Brody, point for point, but it has been transformed. It is now a symbol, of a world coming to an end.
Job (1930), the first of Roth’s two middle-period novels, is set in a version of this town, in the Jewish quarter. In large measure, it is a novelization of the report he made on the diaspora of the Ostjuden in The Wandering Jews. That book was both scarifying and funny. Job is more so, because it is told from the inside, as the story of Mendel Singer, a poor man (a children’s Torah teacher) who, after watching his world collapse around him—his son joins the Russian Army, his daughter is sleeping with a Cossack—is forced to emigrate to America, where he loses hope altogether, and curses God. Much of the language of the novel is like that of a fairy tale, and in the end Mendel is saved by a fairy-tale reversal of fortune. Roth later said that he couldn’t have written this ending if he hadn’t been drunk at the time, but in fact it is perfect, as Job is perfect, and small: a novel as lyric poem. The book was Roth’s first big hit. It was translated into English a year later; it was made a Book-of-the-Month Club selection; it was turned into a Hollywood movie. Marlene Dietrich always said it was her favorite novel.
The success of Job emboldened Roth, and he now broached a larger subject, the fall of Austria-Hungary. He laid plans for a sweeping, nineteenth-century-style historical novel, The Radetzky March. He took special pains over it, more than for anything else he ever wrote. He put his other deadlines on hold, which was hard for him, because, with Friedl’s medical bills, he needed ready cash. He even did research. He had huge hopes for this book.
Like all of Roth’s novels, The Radetzky March has a terrific opening. We are in the middle of the Battle of Solferino (1859), with the Austrians fighting to retain their Italian territories. The Emperor, Franz Joseph, appears on the front lines, and raises a field glass to his eye. This is a foolish action; it makes him a perfect target for any half-decent enemy marksman. A young lieutenant, realizing what is going to happen, jumps forward, throws himself on top of the Emperor, and takes the expected bullet in his own collarbone. For this he is promoted, decorated, and ennobled. Formerly Joseph Trotta, a peasant boy from Sipolje, in Silesia, he becomes Captain Baron Joseph von Trotta und Sipolje, with a lacquered helmet that radiates “black sunshine.”
The remainder of the novel flows from that event. It follows the Trottas through three generations, as they become further and further removed from their land and from their emotions, which are replaced by duty to the state. Joseph Trotta’s son, Franz, becomes a district commissioner in Moravia, and a perfect, robotic bureaucrat. Franz raises his own son, Carl Joseph, to be a soldier, and they both hope that Carl Joseph will be a hero, like his grandfather. At the opening of Chapter 2, we see the boy, now fifteen years old, home on vacation from his military school. Outside his window, the local regimental band is playing The Radetzky March, which Johann Strauss the elder composed in 1848, in honor of Field Marshal Joseph Radetzky’s victories in northern Italy, and which then spread through Austria-Hungary, as the theme song of the empire. (Roth called it “the ‘Marseillaise’ of conservatism.”) Every Sunday, in Carl Joseph’s town, the band, at its concert, starts with this piece, and the townsfolk listen with emotion:
The rugged drums rolled, the sweet flutes piped, and the lovely cymbals shattered. The faces of all the spectators lit up with pleasant and pensive smiles, and the blood tingled in their legs. Though standing, they thought they were already marching. The younger girls held their breath and opened their lips. The more mature men hung their heads and recalled their maneuvers. The elderly ladies sat in the neighboring park, their small gray heads trembling. And it was summer.Winter is coming, though. Austria-Hungary is old; the march is a hymn to its former triumphs. And the people listening to it are old: trembling, remembering. The young are there, too—nature keeps turning them out—but they are entering a world that will betray them. That, basically, is the story of Carl Joseph. He has been raised to revere the empire:
He felt slightly related to the Hapsburgs, whose might his father represented and defended here and for whom he himself would some day go off to war and death. He knew the names of all the members of the Imperial Royal House. He loved them all . . . more than anyone else the Kaiser, who was kind and great, sublime and just, infinitely remote and very close, and particularly fond of the officers in the army. It would be best to die for him amid military music, easiest with “The Radetzky March.”Standing there, listening to the march, the cadet imagines this glorious death:
The swift bullets whistled in cadence around Carl Joseph’s ears, his naked saber flashed, and, his heart and head brimming with the lovely briskness of the march, he sank into the drumming intoxication of the music, and his blood oozed out in a thin dark-red trickle upon the glistening gold of the trumpets, the deep black of the drums, and the victorious silver of the cymbals.At the end of the book, as the First World War begins, he will get his wish, but not in the way he imagines. Tramping along a muddy road, amid shrieking widows and burning barns, he stops to fetch some water for his thirsty men, and in the middle of that small, decent, unmartial action he takes a bullet in the head, and dies for his Emperor. Soon afterward, the Emperor dies, then the empire.
Yet all the while, beauty goes on smiling at us. Comedy, too. Roth never actually understood why Austria-Hungary had to fall, and so there are no real guilty parties in The Radetzky March, not even the Emperor. Franz Joseph appears repeatedly in the latter part of the book, and he is just a very old man. If Shakespeare had done a Tithonus, Michael Hofmann has said, the result would have been like this. The monarch, Roth writes, “saw the sun going down on his empire, but he said nothing.” Actually, he doesn’t care much anymore. When he is on a state visit in Galicia, a delegation of Jews comes to welcome him, and pronounce the blessing that all Jews are taught to say for the Emperor. “Thou shalt not live to see the end of the world!” the Jewish patriarch proclaims, meaning that the empire will last forever. “I know,” Franz Joseph says to himself, meaning that he will die soon—before his empire, he hopes. But mostly he just wishes these Jews would hurry up with their ceremony, so that he can get to the parade ground and see the maneuvers. This is the one thing he still loves: pomp, uniforms, bugles. He thinks what a shame it is that he can’t receive any more honors. “King of Jerusalem,” he muses. “That was the highest rank that God could award a majesty.” And he’s already King of Jerusalem. “Too bad,” he thinks. His nose drips, and his attendants stand around watching the drip, waiting for it to fall into his mustache. Majestic and mediocre, tragic and funny, he is the book’s primary symbol of Austria-Hungary.
Each of the book’s main characters is equally complex—a constellation, as in the sky over Nîmes. After Demant’s death, Carl Joseph is forced to pay a condolence call on the doctor’s wife. He hates her, because she caused Demant’s death, and he hates her more because he unwittingly helped her do so. Frau Demant steps into the parlor, weeps briefly into her handkerchief, and then sits down with Carl Joseph on the sofa: “Her left hand began gently and conscientiously smoothing the silk braid along the sofa’s edge. Her fingers moved along the narrow, glossy path leading from her to Lieutenant Trotta, to and fro, regular and gradual.” She is trying to seduce him. Carl Joseph hurriedly lights a cigarette. She demands one, too. “There was something exuberant and vicious about the way she took the first puff, the way her lips rounded into a small red ring from which the dainty blue cloud emerged.” The small red ring (sex), the dainty blue cloud (her dead husband): Carl Joseph’s mind reels, and Roth’s prose follows it, into a kind of phantasmagoria. The twilight deepens, and Frau Demant’s black gown dissolves in it: “Now she was dressed in the twilight itself. Her white face floated, naked, exposed, on the dark surface of the evening. . . . The lieutenant could see her teeth shimmering.” If Franz Joseph is Roth’s image of the empire, Frau Demant is his image of the world, lovely and ruinous. Carl Joseph barely gets out of that parlor alive. After such scenes, one almost has to put the book down.
In most of Roth’s novels, people are ostensibly destroyed by their relation to the state. This scenario is a leftover from his socialism of the twenties. By the time of The Radetzky March, however, it has been absorbed into his new, elegiac cast of mind, with the result that the soul-destroying state is also beautiful. Franz Joseph is not the only one who likes military maneuvers. So does Roth. His description of Vienna’s annual Corpus Christi procession, with its parade of all the armies of the far-flung empire, is one of the great set pieces in the book:
The blood-red fezzes on the heads of the . . . Bosnians burned in the sun like tiny bonfires lit by Islam in honor of His Apostolic Majesty. In black lacquered carriages sat the gold-decked knights of the Golden Fleece and the black-clad red-cheeked municipal counselors. After them, sweeping like the majestic tempests that rein in their passion near the Kaiser, came the horsehair busbies of the bodyguard infantry. Finally, heralded by the blare of the beating to arms, came the Imperial and Royal anthem of the earthly but nevertheless Apostolic Army cherubs—“God preserve him, God protect him”—over the standing crowd, the marching soldiers, the gently trotting chargers, and the soundlessly rolling vehicles. It floated over all heads, a sky of melody, a baldachin of black-and-yellow notes.Basically, it seems that when the state is good—when it unites peoples, as in the Corpus Christi parade, and thus exemplifies the Austrian Idea—it is good. And when it is bad—when it kills Dr. Demant and Carl Joseph, or when it just commits the sin of coming to an end—it is bad. Roth’s politics were not well worked out, and that fact underlies the one serious flaw of The Radetzky March. Lacking an explanation for the empire’s fall, Roth comes up with a notion of “fate,” and he bangs that drum portentously and repeatedly. I am almost glad the book has a fault. Roth extracted The Radetzky March from his very innards. This rather desperate, corny fate business reminds us of that fact, and counterbalances the crushing beauty of the rest of the book.
Roth must have been pleased with The Radetzky March: he could now look forward to a second career, on a new level. Then, within months of the book’s publication, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. Roth was in Berlin at the time; he packed his bags and was on the train to Paris the same day. His books were burned in the streets of Berlin; soon they were officially banned. He lost his German publishers, his newspaper outlets; he lost his market, the German-reading public. He barely had an income anymore. For the next six years, he lived in and out of Paris, in a state of fury and despair. He began mixing with Legitimists, who were plotting to return Austria to Hapsburg rule. Such a restoration, it seemed to him, was the only thing that could prevent Hitler from invading Austria. In 1938, he undertook a mad journey to Vienna, in the hope of persuading the Chancellor to yield to the Hapsburgs. (He got only as far as the city’s chief of police, who told him to go back to France immediately. The Anschluss occurred three days later.) He declared himself a Catholic, and went to Mass; at other times he said he was an exemplary Jew. Michael Hofmann thinks that in Roth’s mind Catholicism equalled Judaism, in the sense that both crossed frontiers and thus fostered a transnational, European culture, the thing that Hitler stood poised to destroy, and that Roth so treasured.
He continued to write, not well, for the most part. In his late books, he sounds the “fate” theme tediously; he harangues us—on violence, on nationalism. He repeats himself, or loses his thread. In this, we can read not just his desperation but his advanced alcoholism. By the late nineteen-thirties, Hofmann reports, Roth would roll out of bed in his hotel room and descend immediately to the bar, where he drank and wrote and received his friends, mostly other émigrés, until he went to bed again. He fell down while crossing the street. He couldn’t eat anymore—maybe one biscuit between two shots, a friend said. Reading his books, you can almost tell, from page to page, where he is in the day: whether he has just woken up, with a hangover, or whether he has applied the hair of the dog (even in the weakest of his last books, there are great passages), or whether it is now nighttime and he no longer knows what he’s doing. For a few months in 1936 and 1937, something changed—I don’t know what—and he wrote one more superb, well-controlled novel, The Tale of the 1002nd Night. (This is the novel whose entire print run the Germans destroyed in 1940.) Like The Radetzky March, it is a portrait of the dying Austria-Hungary, but comic this time, rather than tragic. It is his funniest book. Even so, the hero blows his brains out at the end.
In one of Roth’s late novels, The Emperor’s Tomb, a character says that Austria-Hungary was never a political state; it was a religion. James Wood, in an excellent essay on Roth, says yes, that’s how Roth saw it, and he made it profound by showing that the state disappoints as God does, “by being indescribable, by being too much.” I would put it a little differently. For Roth, the state is a myth, which, like other myths (Christianity, Judaism, the Austrian Idea), is an organizer of experience, a net of stories and images in which we catch our lives, and understand them. When such a myth fails, nothing is left: no meaning, no emotion, even. Disasters in Roth’s books tend to occur quietly, modestly. In The Emperor’s Tomb, the street lights long for morning, so that they can be extinguished.
He might have escaped. He received invitations—one from Eleanor Roosevelt, to serve on an aid committee; one from PEN, to attend a writers’ congress. These people were trying to get him out of Europe. He didn’t go. Many others did, and prospered. Roth’s friends tended not to prosper. Stefan Zweig ended up in Brazil, where, in 1942, he died in a double suicide with his wife. Ernst Weiss stayed in Paris, and killed himself on the day the Nazis marched into the city, in 1940. Ernst Toller escaped to New York, where, in 1939, he hanged himself in his hotel room. When Roth got the news about Toller, he was in the bar, as usual. He slumped in his chair. An ambulance was called, and he was taken to a hospital, where he died four days later, of pneumonia and delirium tremens. He was forty-four years old. The following year, as part of the Third Reich’s eugenics program, Friedl was exterminated.