The man who was born Moses Joseph Roth in the town of Brody in Galicia in 1894 and died of liver failure in Paris in 1939 wrote - in the course of his restless, troubled life - a handful of great novels, of which the greatest is The Radetzky March, some fine short stories, and a mass of inspired journalism. He was very particular that he should be described as a journalist rather than a reporter since true journalists were in possession of powers of invention denied to mere fact-finders. Roth, as both these books demonstrate, disdained the factual, especially in regard to his own past. He awarded himself a distinguished military career that never existed and fantasised on an everyday basis about even the most trivial matters.
Michael Hofmann, who has done more than anyone to bring Roth's work to the attention of English-speaking readers, praises the purity of his German and his rare ability to write beautifully on subjects that lesser writers would take at face value. He had an angelic gift for transcending reality as he wrote away in hotel rooms, in railway carriages, in restaurants and bars. He lived in Vienna, in Berlin, in Frankfurt, in Lemberg (now Lviv), in Moscow, but most importantly in Paris, the nearest thing to a spiritual home he ever found.
He was paid highly for his occasional writings until he severed his links with the editors who employed him. He was constantly in debt, due partly to the cost of hospital treatment for his sick wife Friedl, but also because of his seemingly limitless capacity for the alcohol that both sustained and destroyed him.
Roth's peripatetic existence is hard to pin down in a conventional biography, and his character is at all times contradictory. Hofmann's selection of the letters Roth sent to Benno Reifenberg of the Frankfurter Zeitung, to Bernard von Brentano, to the translator Felix Bertaux and to the novelist and biographer Stefan Zweig, offers a portrait that is funny, touching, distressing and sometimes loathsome. Roth's correspondence with Zweig is unfailingly interesting.
Roth, an adept scrounger, heaps praise on Zweig's latest publication while criticising the "esteemed master's" grammatical and syntactical errors. Zweig's generosity helped Roth survive what would otherwise have been desolate periods during the 1930s. Zweig's money was always there for him - on tap, so to speak, for wine or cognac or whatever else he cared to drink. Yet Roth somehow contrives to sound superior to the gentleman who admires his talent so much that he will try to rescue him with any means at his disposal.
The lasting irony is that Roth, the fatherless Jewish peasant from Galicia, was more politically aware than the sophisticated Zweig, with his wealthy Viennese background. Roth got out of Germany in 1933, sensing that Nazism was on the rise, but the idealistic Zweig, with his belief in man's essential dignity, stayed on in Berlin until it became impossible to remain. Roth's permanent state of homelessness is reflected and dramatised in his fiction.
As Dennis Marks notes in his thoughtful monograph, The Radetzky March could have been one of those sagas tracing a family's fortunes over several generations, but it isn't. It is an enduring masterwork by virtue of encompassing the lives of the unimportant who were happy with their lot as long as the Dual Monarchy of Austria and Hungary was allowed to flourish. Roth's birthplace was part of that once mighty empire, and his most original novel is an elegy, often comic, for its loss.
Marks is probably right when he calls Roth a "self-hating Jew". Yet I think the self-hatred goes deeper than that. Hofmann comments on Roth's ability to be dedicatedly rude to the point of cruelty to those who upset him, like the kindly Reifenberg. Roth probably enjoyed the enigmatic role he allotted himself as a Jewish Catholic and a monarchist who despised nationalism, but he didn't enjoy what lay behind the façade. The bottle has comforted and briefly glorified men and women who despise themselves since the first beer was brewed.
Roth's last book is concerned with the final hours of a "holy drinker". Only he would have conceived of combining those words. There can be no doubt that Roth was, and is, a self-destructive genius, the majestic chronicler of the anguish of exile.
Paul Bailey's novel 'Chapman's Odyssey' is published by Bloomsbury