Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, Translated and edited by Michael Hofmann
Least humbly yours – missives from a great (but starving) artist
Sunday 19 February 2012
'You were perfectly right: I've lost my head, I can't do sums, I am beset with astronomic debts, and I commit one deception after another."
So wrote Joseph Roth to his friend, patron of sorts and fellow writer Stefan Zweig, from a German hotel in 1930. It is a good summation of what it means to lead a professional writer's life: hard work, stress and endless worries about money. And for Roth, who was writing while the world was poised on the brink of a second world war, you can add to those woes a peripatetic lifestyle, and forever looking for a safer place to stay.
Roth used to sign himself "old" at the end of his letters, but at the time of the above letter to Zweig, he's only 36. He died in 1939, at the age of 44. Born to Jewish parents in Galicia, but with a father he never met and who would later go insane, Roth went on to attend the University of Vienna, and then saw action during the First World War. He began his writing in journalism, for left-wing magazines and then establishment newspapers, and published his first novels, The Spider's Web and Flight Without End in the Twenties. Increasingly disillusioned with German society and its literature (Thomas Mann he despised, but he was kinder about Herman Hesse), he decamped to Paris to join such expats as Hemingway and Joyce. But he rarely mixed with other writers. Very quickly, money troubles took hold, his wife developed serious mental problems, and an excessive workload took its toll.
A biography might have ironed out Roth's relentless complaints about a lack of cash, but it would rob us of his voice. This volume of letters shows the man with all of his flaws and in a quite pitiless light: his endless self-dramatising, his constant begging, his criticism of everyone around him, including his long-suffering translator Blanche Gidon. We also see the conflict between the private and the public. To one friend he declares: "my grief leaks out of private things into the public realm and that makes it easier to bear". His "susceptibility", as his translator notes, to public events is "terrible, almost tragic". To Zweig, Roth maintains that "I cannot historicise myself. But nor can I continue to convert this intrusion of private grief into my 'true' literary life into literature. It's killing me ...." If ever a writer wrote about what he lived, it was Roth. He would travel purely in order to have new experiences that he could transmute into literature.
Roth's friendship with Zweig is probably the most important of his life. Zweig was his polar opposite: wealthy, friendly and well-connected. His best-known work is probably Letter From an Unknown Woman, which was made into a successful Hollywood film with Joan Fontaine. Zweig was always the bigger name, and Roth was in the humble position of supplicant to a "patron", but that didn't stop him critiquing Zweig's work fearlessly. They argued about Germany, about their positions in the world as Jews, and about what the future held for them; Roth always the more clear-eyed and pessimistic.
Michael Hofmann describes a picture of both men in which Roth looks like "an old boxer or wrestler", and these letters maintain that pugilistic tone. Roth had to fight for everything, one feels, and the fight eventually wore him out. This volume shows the struggle of the writer's life as it really is, devoid of the romance of the artist-in-a-garret stereotype. Roth's artistic duty was always to the truth; his remarkable letters are no different.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 David Sedaris: What I learnt from Fitbit about the world around me
- 2 Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb
- 3 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
- 4 Cee Lo Green: 'It's only rape if the victim is conscious'
- 5 Katie Hopkins in tears over weight gain challenge: ‘I hate fat people for making me do this’
Jessica Chastain demands Scarlett Johansson-fronted Marvel superhero movie
Nicki Minaj suffers wardrobe malfunction during MTV VMAs performance with Ariana Grande and Jessie J
Star Wars Episode 7: Game of Thrones actor Miltos Yerolemou joins cast
New Netflix releases: Films and TV shows coming in September 2014
Best movies on Netflix UK and US: 32 films that will end your endless scrolling
Rotherham child sex abuse scandal: Labour Home Office to be probed over what Tony Blair's government knew - and when
What do immigrants really think of Britain? Polish immigrant's Reddit post goes viral
Ashya King: Parents of five-year-old boy refused permission to visit him in hospital and denied bail at Spanish court
With Douglas Carswell joining Ukip, my party has taken another giant step forward
When elitism grips the top of British society to this extent, there is only one answer: abolish private schools
Ashya King: 'Cruel NHS has not given us the treatment we need', says father of five-year-old with brain tumour who fled to Spain