Posted on | February 25, 2012 | Comments Off
The final message from the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth in Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters is short and desperate. “Dear friend,” he writes to his French translator, Blanche Gidon, “my eyes are in grave danger. May I count on you to find a moment to advise me in the course of the afternoon. I am very fearful. Please.” The brevity is out of character; the desperation is not. There is scarcely a letter of his that doesn’t include some sort of plea — for money, for work, for forgiveness.
To date, no full English-language biography of Roth has been written, and this collection of his letters, translated and edited by Michael Hofmann, makes for a strange surrogate. Best known for “The Radetzky March,” his 1932 multigenerational chronicle of European decline, Roth was one of the early 20th century’s loudest and most cantankerous witnesses. He was born into a Jewish family in Galicia in the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and left for Lvov (now Lviv, in Ukraine) and then Vienna, for his studies. His career as a journalist, most regularly for Frankfurter Zeitung, sent him wandering across Europe to report on the shifting continental mood — with Paris, more often than not, his magnetic north. Along the way, and in the company of ungodly quantities of schnapps, he established himself as one of the finest novelists of his day. [More here.]
Of course it’s impossible to capture the full flavor of the letters in a short essay, but luckily, the New Yorker’s Book Bench blog ran an excerpt of the correspondence between Roth and Stefan Zweig, his friend and rival who supported Roth (much to Roth’s resentment) in the later years of his life.