A wearer of masks: Joseph Roth in Paris as a young man. Image: Leo Baeck Institute / Bridgeman Images

Joseph Roth and the assimilation game

The Austrian writer’s path through the world was thwarted by prejudice as much as by his own failings
October 6, 2022
Endless Flight: The Life of Joseph Roth
Keiron Pim (RRP: £25)
Buy on Bookshop.org
Buy on Bookshop.org
Prospect receives commission when you buy a book using this page. Thank you for supporting us.

Joseph Roth was a complicated man. A boy from a Galician shtetl who belied his origins; a Viennese gentleman who despised westernised Jewish values; an avowed Catholic who revered Talmudic learning. Dismayed by modernity and aghast at others’ blindness to the Nazis, Roth was a relic of a past age alive to present dangers. Most at home in -hotels and bars, he was a stalwart friend and a leech on all who loved him; chivalrous and solicitous, he also hoarded pocket knives and harboured vicious grudges. Roth paid the bills for his wife’s asylum care but failed to visit her, and all his closest relationships followed a terrible cycle of rupture and repair.

In his writing, though, Roth was transcendent. As Keiron Pim puts it in his new biography, Endless Flight, Roth was able to “peer into souls and see the world with sunlit clarity where others squint through fog.” Fêted by editors, lauded by contemporaries, Roth was a groundbreaking journalist who now ranks as a world-class novelist. During his lifetime, though, success and security forever eluded him. His finest novel, The Radetzky March, was completed in 1932, just in time to be burned and then banned by the Nazis. Afterwards his books struggled to find readers. He died in Parisian exile, in the Necker Hospital for the poor, at the age of 44. Even in death, fate robbed him of comfort: it was May 1939, after his beloved Austria was lost to the Anschluss but before the war he longed for had been declared on Hitler’s Germany.

Roth is a compelling subject for a biography, then, but also a tricky one. A life of so many threads—how to weave them? A man of so many parts—sublimely light and ferociously dark—how to give each their due weight? Roth’s times, too, were momentous. His youth was cut off abruptly by the First World War and his adulthood blighted, first by the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then by rise of the Third Reich. Bound to a life of almost permanent wandering, he  forged a path that was thwarted by prejudice and by history, as much as by his own failings. How to keep all of that in perspective?

Roth was a man of invention—a useful trait for a novelist, a slippery one for his biographer. A self-confessed “expert at hide-and-seek”, he lied and denied and elaborated: claiming different birthplaces at different times, exaggerating his war service and rank in the cavalry, growing moustaches to rival the Kaiser’s. A Maskenspieler, a wearer of masks out of assimilationist necessity—how else was a Galician Jew to get a foothold beyond the shtetl?—Roth came to enjoy the game, and then to rely on it. Claims and counterclaims litter his letters and interviews, his conversations with friends and lovers. To make sense of his life and legacy is to wrestle with contradictions.

Pim’s masterstroke is to view Roth foremost as a writer. If we are to find the man, it is through his work; only there will we see the people and places and events significant enough to leave their imprint. Pim is scrupulous in his research and fair in his assessments, but he goes beyond observing such biographer’s duties. Returning always to the words on the page, he follows the threads of Roth’s writing to expose the intricacies of his patterning.

Born Moses Joseph in 1894, in Brody—now a city in Ukraine, then a Polish-speaking provincial town in Austria-Hungary—Roth grew up in a house behind a tailor’s shop. He knew little of his father, who abandoned the family early; his boyhood was spent under the dual influence of his Yiddish-speaking grandfather and German-speaking mother. Jechiel was a cloth merchant and a scholar, grey bearded and Orthodox; Maria, by contrast, set her hopes for her son on German Bildung. Her Moses would not go to cheder but to Gymnasium; he would have no bar mitzvah, either, choosing instead to be confirmed.

Moses excelled in his studies, particularly in German. Polish and Yiddish could only take him as far as Krakow and young Roth had his sights set westwards. But his arrival in Vienna in 1914 contained a double shock: the outbreak of war, and the realisation that the capital, though beautiful, was a cold place for a Moses from Galicia. “To be a Jew,” writes Pim, “was to stand at odds with the world; but to be an assimilated Jew was to stand at odds with oneself.”

Roth called the resulting pain “assimilitis”. Pim notes that “he came of age in one of the most antisemitic periods in modern European history”, and elaborates on the disillusion and turn to Zionism that characterised so many Jewish lives. Of Roth’s peers, he says: “most were Jewish, and few were entirely comfortable with this”—few would have been given room to be. Pim finds the same discomfort recurring throughout Roth’s early writing. The Spider’s Web (1923), Hotel Savoy (1924), Flight Without End (1927) and Zipper and his Father (1928) were all Heimkehrerromane, their protagonists, like Roth, returning soldiers from the First World War. Roth describes such men as coming “in shoals, like certain fish at certain times of year… a great homesickness emanates from them, a longing which drives them onward, the overwhelming memory of home.”

In The White Cities, a series of essays about France started in 1925, Roth began to explore dislocation and exile in non-fiction too. “It’s the mark of a narrow world that it mistrusts the undefined”, he wrote. “It’s the mark of a wider one that it permits me to be.” In the sunlit cities of the Midi, Pim finds Roth granted brief respite from symptoms of assimilitis. The novels Roth was writing at this time, though, are set in Europe’s dark heart: peopled by lowlifes, the violent and the power-hungry. In the fallout from the first war, Roth, says Pim, was “grimly compelled to write about the dangerous characters he could see emerging all around him”.

article body image

A stalwart friend: Roth (right) with the novelist Stefan Zweig in Ostend, 1936. Image: Imagno / Getty Images

These early books were serialised in the newspapers for which Roth also wrote articles, establishing the brutal work rate that would continue to his death. Still only in his twenties, he was already a master of the feuilleton and commanding assignments to satisfy his wandering urges, journeying out as far as the Baku oilfields and repeatedly to France. By now living in Berlin, Roth saw the Weimar years giving way to a far more dangerous age.

He had become a danger to himself, too. Drinking—of course—but also testing his friends and colleagues to the limit. When provoked, Roth was apt to hurl insults. “He was a gifted, principled and implacable hater” says his translator, Michael Hofmann. Pim notes, too, that when he was angered by Jewish friends and colleagues, these insults could be viciously antisemitic. It’s hard to know what to make of this. He’d long dropped the name Moses, holding on only to the Joseph, a Habsburg moniker to match his moustache. But all the same, he felt entitled to damn a Berlin colleague as a Kurfürstendamm Jude, a term that smacks of show or inauthenticity. Perhaps this was another symptom of his assimilitis: a sharp irritation with those he saw as conforming to obvious type. Pim offers little in the way of special pleading, instead acknowledging the difficulty. “Roth’s pronouncements on Jews are so contradictory,” he writes, and “the only consistency discernible is that he is almost uniformly rude about western, ‘assimilated’ Jews”.

Roth’s next two books were his greatest. Job (1930) is the life story of Mendel Singer, from his -origins in a Tsarist Russian village to old age in New York City. A tale of faith lost and restored, it is a masterful evocation of time and place. It is startling, too, as a portrait of a small man facing the trials of his age: Old World pogroms and crippling poverty; New World strangeness and possibility. “As Roth’s dreams of assimilation evaporated,” writes Pim, “he gestured amends through his fiction to those compatriots he’d left behind in his flight from the east.”

The Radetzky March (1932) traces three generations of the Slovene Trotta family: grandfather Joseph, son Franz and grandson Carl. The book opens on the battlefield, at Solferino, with the grandfather taking a French bullet for his imperial majesty Franz Joseph. From this high point, the family declines, ever so slowly, ever so inevitably, along with the ageing emperor. “The story plays out in a succession of shadowy rooms—in homes, garrisons, brothels and bars—at the empire’s edge, where the Viennese sun barely reaches.” Franz becomes a civil servant, a desk man; Carl, the grandson, a soldier. But Carl is terrible and indecisive, his blunders leading to catastrophe.

In their unflinching examination of human frailty, both novels are Roth through and through. They are also notable for their compassion. These mature stories reveal a new humour and a new fondness for his protagonists. Job ends with a reconciliation nothing short of miraculous, The Radetzky March with the emperor in his dotage, inspecting his troops, the young soldiers too kind to look at the snot hanging from his nose.

The further Pim delves, the richer the picture becomes; the women in Roth’s life are a case in point. His early marriage to Friedl Reichler was disastrous for both, but far more so for her since she ended up in an asylum. All Roth’s romantic entanglements displayed extremes of care and control, relationships puzzled over in his later fiction. Roth was fortunate to be loved by some remarkable people, the artist and journalist Andrea Manga Bell and novelist Irmgard Keun among them. In truth, these women deserve a book of their own, but this biography comes a good second in giving each her due.

Endless Flight also details his friendships with two key writers. Soma Morgenstern, a Galician who knew Roth’s masks too well to be fooled; and Stefan Zweig, a fabulously wealthy and well-connected Viennese native. Both men supported Roth with fellowship and finance. By 1937, all three were in trouble. When they met for the last time in Vienna, among the many things they debated was Freud’s final work Moses and Monotheism, which he was writing at the time. Roth was scathing, having heard Freud would claim Moses was not a Hebrew but an Egyptian; Zweig protested. “Freud once confessed to me,” said Zweig, “how sad he was that he had to take the Jews’ greatest figure from them at a time when they were so cruelly persecuted.” Roth burst into gales of laughter. “For a long time,” wrote Morgenstern, “we laughed in fraternal solitude against the world which can hardly fathom how laughable it is if a man imagines he can take Moses away from the Jews.” I close with this image: Roth defiant in laughter with his
fellow exiles.