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Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters.

Translated and edited by Michael Hofmann. New York: Norton, 2012. 551 pp.

This is an important and necessary publication. It is more than 70 years since Roth died in Paris in 1939, destitute and in despair, and now more than 40 years since his friend Hermann Kesten published in West Germany the correspondence which Hofmann's uses for most of the 457 letters translated here. This is Hofmann's tenth translation from Joseph Roth, and it represents a culmination of the project he began in 1988 to bring Roth's oeuvre to the English-speaking world. Why, then, the growing interest in Roth's life and work in both Europe and North America in the last two decades?

The answers to this question are extremely complex. During his short lifetime, Roth was best known as a journalist, a writer of beautifully crafted and perceptive feuilletons for the Frankfurter Zeitung. His fiction did not have any real success until Job: The Story of a Simple Man in 1930, and his magnum opus--the long novel The Radetzky March--was published in the autumn of 1932, only a few months before Hitler's dictatorship abruptly ended Roth's literary career in Germany (a country he hated, but in whose language he wrote with the greatest wit and clarity). Roth, by now an incurable alcoholic, spent the remaining six years of his life writing short novels against the clock, living in hotels in Paris (with occasional stays in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Austria and a lecture tour in Poland) as Europe--and his life, too--fell apart. Roth had already seen future horrors when he wrote to Zweig in October 1930, short after the Nazis' first big electoral success: "Who isn't disgusted by politics? ... Europe is killing itself, and in a peculiarly slow and horrible way, because it is a corpse already." Some of Roth's later works, like The legend of Holy Drinker, appeared posthumously, others never appeared at all--as Hofmann notes, the edition of The Leviathan was destroyed when the Nazis occupied Amsterdam (its publisher, Emanuel Querido, was later deported and murdered). Roth's work might have disappeared without trace during the catastrophe of the 1940s; indeed, his manuscripts and papers only survived through the foresight and courage of one of the unsung hero(in)es in this book, Roth's French translator Blanche Gidon, who successfully hid them during the Occupation. Gidon gave them after the war to Roth's cousin Fred Grubel, who donated them to the Leo Baeck Institute in New York.)

The fact that Roth's works are widely read today--when those of similar exiled Central European writers such as Feuchtwanger, or Zweig himself, are not--is closely connected with three of the basic features of his writing which are far more apparent to us today than they were to contemporaries. First, there is Roth's mastery of clear and concise language. Revealingly, when Zweig sends him the proofs of a novella, Roth criticizes his friend's prolixity: "I would make cuts. ... Style and metaphor are a little careless. ... There are some rather worn adjectives." Second, there is the question of genre. Roth's novels seem in their accessibility to be works of light fiction, they have plots and simple, sometimes formulaic characters. Roth had indeed no time for complex, modernist Fiction, as his comments in these letters show: "A novel is not the place for abstractions. Leave that to Thomas Mann." What Roth does in his fiction is to take earlier narrative forms such as the pious Hasidic tale or the popular Slav fables of his native Galicia, as well as the elegant contes of Flaubert and Maupassant, and then use them as models for fiction that explores characteristically modern experiences--exile, transience, living on the margins, cultural decay. Lastly, Roth possesses an intense, highly individual voice. Zweig--like Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal before him--belonged to a metropolitan, bourgeois elite. Roth, by contrast, came from the impoverished Western Ukraine; as Dennis Marks writes in his recent essay on Roth, he was "an Austrian of Jewish extraction from a predominantly Polish region." Roth's work often evokes this vanished world, but in a critical, modern way, fully aware in his lifetime that it faced destruction: "We are headed for a new war. ... Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns." as Roth warns Zweig in February 1988.

A Life in Letters is divided into four chronological sections like a biography, with an introduction to each. They are necessarily unequal, given that we know so little about Roth's earlier life--there are only 11 pages of letters for the first 26 years of his life. The letters only become frequent in the later 1920s, and they tail off after 1937, when the friendship between Roth and Zweig cools and Roth becomes too ill to write regularly. They provide a moving commentary on the desperate conditions under which works like The Radetzky March, Confession of a Murderer and Weights and Measures were written. Hofmann translates them superbly, but a minor criticism must be made of the way he intrudes his own opinions into the editorial annotations to them. It is not helpful to be told that Musil was an "intellectualist," George a "cultish" poet, and Zweig "obtuse." It is for the readers to decide their opinion on these authors, not for Hofmann to do it for them.

At the end of these letters, there is a sense of tragic inevitability to Roth's life. Alcohol gave him his feu sacre, he could not have written without intoxication. All the clarity with which he wrote to Zweig in 1935 was ultimately of no help to him: "I am ... cashing in the last 20 years of my life with alcohol, in order to gain a week or two. Admittedly, to keep the metaphor going, there will come a time when the bailiffs turn up unexpectedly and too early. That, more or less, is the situation."

Malcolm Spencer

University of Birmingham, UK
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Author:Hofmann, Michael; Spencer, Malcolm
Publication:Shofar
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
Words:972
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