Among the 457 letters in Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, there is not one love letter. This may not surprise fans of the writer — author of The Radetzky March, The Emperor’s Tomb, and Job, among others — who may know Joseph Roth as a vagabond and misanthrope whose occupation as a journalist had him traveling from one European country to the next, living in rented rooms, wearing threadbare clothes, without a bank account, mostly alone, too miserable for romance, the consummate Wandering Jew. But even Roth the World War I soldier left no love letters, no tender requests to, perhaps, a girl he left behind in the crumbling Hapsburg Empire, asking for solace or maybe a photo. Nor did he write any romantic epistles to the lovers with whom he found companionship and comfort in his final years. There are a handful letters from Roth’s pre-war younger days, but they are all written to his cousins in Lemberg. They are letters of encouragement, advice, pontifications, the kind of letters one writes in youth that are more an affirmation of one’s self-understanding: “I am a sworn enemy to etiquette,” he wrote to his cousin Resia (which, in any case, was not true) and “…just like in Goethe’s Faust, which, alas and alack, you haven’t read.” “Who ever would have guessed it: all of nineteen!” he wrote to his younger cousin Paula when he was 22. “But then nineteen years are like a piece of fluff on the scales of eternity. And it’s in eternity that we live. From eternity, in eternity, for eternity. Yes, for eternity as well.”
- Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, translated by Michael Hoffman. 512 pages. W.W. Norton & Company. $39.95.
There are no love letters — or any letters at all — to his wife Friedl Reichler, from whom Roth was often separated for long stretches between travels. There was a time when Roth had Friedl in tow, a lifeline to the world outside the mobile office of his hotel rooms, to the world outside his mind. But even when, in 1929, Friedl’s unhappiness turned to insanity — when she was eventually shipped back to her parents, and then, finally, committed to an asylum (where she would be “euthanized” by the Nazis in 1940), leaving Roth desperately, achingly free — he only wrote letters to his in-laws, hurried inquiries about Friedl’s health, about whether his payments to doctors had been received. The letters were cordial and encouraging but brief, to the effect of: I’m hoping the book will be sold soon, I’m trying to get more money, please don’t take Friedl’s aggression personally, not sure when I can visit but soon. The last 10 years of Roth’s life were dominated by work, alcohol, and the guilt-ridden struggle to keep Friedl financially — if not emotionally — provided for.
Almost none of Joseph’s Roth’s surviving letters are what one might expect, or hope, to find in a book subtitled “A Life in Letters.” As editor and translator Michael Hofmann aptly notes in his introduction, there are no letters written by Joseph Roth to his parents. Roth never knew his father, who lost his mind before Roth was born and died in Russia when Roth was 16. There are no letters to his mother, whom Roth barely saw, but he never fails, in his correspondences, to inquire after other people’s mothers (and other people’s wives, too). There are no letters written to those who, according to Hofmann, were perhaps Roth’s closest friends — even after Europe became a continent of exiles in 1933 and a letter from a friend would be a critical comfort.
The letters of Joseph Roth are at once intimate and distant, impersonal and revelatory, candid and somehow incomplete. Most of them are written with a characteristic Joseph Roth formality, but this makes for striking contrast with the furious passion of the content. There is rarely self-censorship with Roth, and yet the blunt frankness often feels more like a show than honesty. “Sorry, forgive the know-it-all tone, the superiority, and anything else that bothers you here. Listen, if you do listen, to the absolute honesty of my words,” he wrote to fellow writer Hans Natonek in 1932. As Hofmann discovered in translation, Roth rarely used the familiar Du (in the original German), and when he did it was for, as Hofmann puts it, “near-strangers,” fellow soldiers with whom he had briefly served in the Austrian army, and only then because it was dictated by custom. Even when Roth was informal, it was because the rules of formality called for it. For instance, his letters to friend, patron, and fellow writer Stefan Zweig, with whom he had a friendship that spanned over a decade in multiple countries, and to whom the majority of his later letters in A Life in Letters are addressed, begin with “Dear Esteemed Mr. Zweig” and sometimes “Dear and Esteemed Mr. Zweig” and once as “Dear highly esteemed Stefan Zweig.” This formality was adhered to even when Roth was asking Zweig for money or expressing his fears (“I am terribly sad…my wife was my only channel to the world outside, the social part of myself. My own glumness scares me”). Soon after they first met, Roth begins a letter to Zweig with, “I must yield to your wish that I not address you as “Mr.” if you think it impedes the friendliness of our communications. That it honors me, I need not say,” addressing the letter to the “esteemed Stefan Zweig.” No doubt, Stefan Zweig was esteemed; not only was he older and far wealthier than Roth, but he was also one of the most famous European writers of his day. Nonetheless, Zweig’s admiration for Roth was obvious in Zweig’s lasting patronage and friendship, which continued faithfully — despite Roth’s famous and ever-increasing cynicism — until Roth’s suicide at the age of 44 in 1939.
Prior to 1929, the majority of Roth’s correspondences were with his protégé Bernard von Brentano and boss Benno Reifenberg, men with whom Roth had both personal and professional relationships. While the tone of these letters is familiar, the professional aspect of his relationships to them never disappeared. In fact, he seems to use his correspondence with these men as an arena for the perpetual battle between Roth and World. With the younger Brentano, who replaced Roth (with the latter’s help) as Berlin correspondent at the Frankfurter Zeitung, Roth uses a patronizingly paternal and self-obsessed tone not unlike the one he used with his little cousins. He is alternately critical and supportive of Brentano, never without a word of advice. A sympathy letter Roth wrote to Brentano in 1927 is telling:
Dear friend, the news of your father’s death just reached me…. I never got to meet him, but even so I mourn his passing. I imagine he was one of those characters that no longer exist in Germany, a person with the aura of the Counter-Reformation, and the Holy Roman Empire….
I mourn his death of course not least for you, my friend, because you still needed him, and it would have been only fair if he had lived to see your literary fledgling….
Don’t take it amiss if I tell you that such moments are necessary and even fruitful. They attach us to the beyond, it’s a little like going to church, which of course we don’t do…. Write to me through Miss Weber — but only if you want to….
And in a 1929 letter to Pierre Bertaux (the son of critic Félix Bertaux, another friend cum associate), Roth writes of Brentano, “He is one of the three or four people I would happily murder, with no more compunction than putting out a cigarette.”
The tension between personal and professional is most profound in his letters to Benno Reifenberg, Roth’s boss and editor at the Frankfurter Zeitung, where Roth was a star journalist. There is a warmth in Roth’s letters to Reifenberg — Roth is always sure to give his best to Reifenberg’s wife and son — and Roth is comfortable sharing his sorrow with Reifenberg as well as his pleasure. Note one of his first letters to Reifenberg from Paris, where Roth served as correspondent for the FZ in 1925, doubtless the happiest year of his life.
I feel driven to inform you personally that Paris is the capital of the world and that you must come here….
(Ironically, Reifenberg would come to Paris, and eventually become Paris correspondent himself for the FZ.)
I owe it to you that I was able to come to France, and I shall never thank you enough…. My wife is staying here for the moment, she’s unwell…. Please write to her.
But the letters never escape the characteristically strained relationship between difficult writer and amiably aloof editor. Roth is forever plaguing Reifenberg with requests for more money, or for praise, or for confirmation of the publication of his work, or simply for confirmation of Roth’s existence in a return letter. Reifenberg continued to be patient and helpful, but it was never quite satisfying for Roth.
The fact that these people, like Zweig, continued their relationship with Roth, bearing the constant criticisms which came attired sometimes in white gloves, sometimes in vitriol, is both a testament to their devotion and to their position in Roth’s life as intimates he could keep at arm’s length. Reading his letters, one gets a sense that there was power in Joseph Roth. He had a way of making people feel utterly esteemed or utterly worthless, depending on his mood or on their behavior toward him on any given day. Perhaps Roth used “honesty” as much to distance himself from the world as to bring himself into it. It’s almost as if Roth wrote letters to express his deepest torments to the people for whom it would matter the least. Over and over, Roth begged his colleagues for correspondence, was desolate when none came, yet never stopped trying to prove to others how much relationships were an imposition upon his solitude. “Never have I cared less about people,” he wrote to Zweig in 1930. “Never did they seem more intrusive and less inclined to leave me alone. And they can’t have given much for what happened to me.”
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.”
Forever homeless, Roth was nostalgic for a life that he never really knew, and that never even really existed. But this was beside the point. The old world of Joseph Roth was a world of order and sense, of standards, of stability. “If only the traditional forms still applied!” he wrote once to Brentano. “But the new informality in Germany kills everything. I can’t participate.” This sensible old world, or the old world as it existed in his longing, is what Roth — an artist naturally disposed to internal chaos living in a chaotic world, where barbarians had taken over and a Hell reigned on Earth — craved. The characters in the 13 novels Joseph Roth pushed out of his brain in less than 20 years all grapple with some version of this theme — how to return to a place and time that exists only in the imagination. How to feel at home.
Why read a book of letters written by a writer of books? Letters are the opposite of a book. A book is careful, constructed, thoughtful; letters are messy and immediate and can be insultingly thoughtless. It is the combination of all these things that makes the letters of Joseph Roth so moving — and disturbing — to read, especially as a companion to his novels. There is a melancholy to Roth’s novels, but the melancholy is tempered with an immense joy. There was nothing tempered in Joseph Roth’s letters, and there was no joy, not in his letters nor, it seems, in his life, save his early days in Paris. “I have become an old man,” he wrote at the age of 36, “and have gotten used to the absence of joy. In my own life, that is.” Sometimes Roth’s letters read like sketches for future novels, an excising of his own worst psychoses, psychoses that he wouldn’t dare inflict upon his closest friends and family, the people who depended most on his better qualities — his generosity, his sensitivity — or on the fictional characters he created in his novels, the characters that recur in his books like old friends. Perhaps Roth saved up all his joy for his characters. Or maybe he lived joyously through them.
Giving up on the possibility of finding a home in the world, Roth devoted his life to escaping his own internal homelessness through two means — alcohol and writing — and it is never clear which killed him first. Ironically, he would die in the only country that ever gave him pleasure, France, a country where the exuberant ease he so admired was as foreign to him as the German stuffiness he hated.
Emily Dickinson once noted that letters reminded her of immortality because they are the mind alone without corporeal friend. In the case of Joseph Roth, the letters he wrote are the documentation of a mind alone without corporeal friend in a breathless race toward death. It’s like what Roth wrote to his cousin long ago: “It’s in eternity that we live. From eternity, in eternity, for eternity. Yes, for eternity as well.” One gets a glimpse of the man who has come to be a literary spokesperson for nostalgia, but in Joseph Roth’s letters, nostalgia’s darker side is revealed. It is a nostalgia that has no room for a life lived today, nostalgia as a timeless, placeless dream that can never be, a dream without room for the dreamer.
• 18 January 2012