Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, Translated and edited by Michael Hofmann

Least humbly yours – missives from a great (but starving) artist

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The Independent Culture

'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.