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A Good Man Who Outlived His Country

The short, overwhelmingly sad life of Joseph Roth.

By From the April 2012 issue

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Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters
Translated and Edited by Michael Hofmann
(Norton, 552 pages, $39.95)

History, like earthquakes, has a way of surprising us with unexpected aftershocks. Last July, nearly a century after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy, Archduke Otto von Hapsburg (1912–2011), the son of the last Emperor, was interred in the crypt of his ancestors at Vienna's ancient Capuchin Church. Blue blood aside, Archduke Otto, though exiled from Austria as a child when the monarchy ended in 1918, was a man of considerable distinction in his own right. An accomplished scholar, an outspoken anti-fascist and anti-communist, and a European visionary—whom I had the privilege of meeting along with two of his charming daughters—he also served for decades as a member, and sometime President, of the European Parliament, elected from the Bavarian side of the Austro-German border…so near yet so far from his homeland.

Archduke Otto's death at 98, after such a long, distinguished life, most of it spent in honorable exile, triggered a delayed, almost seismic outpouring of grief and reverence in Austria. I would like to believe that it also summoned up the shade of a certain Austrian novelist, a tormented, quixotic son of that tormented, quixotic old empire—and, in his time, an ardent supporter of Otto von Hapsburg. But more about that novelist in a moment.

The funeral ceremonies for Archduke Otto included a massive state funeral procession and requiem mass at St. Stephan's Cathedral. Besides distinguished foreign delegations and assorted relatives from other European royal houses, thousands of ordinary Austrians (and descendants of subjects from Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Galicia, Bohemia, Lombardy, and many another former Hapsburg domain) swelled the winding cortege. As well as the dignitaries and the formal military honor guard, there were dozens of formations of veterans, student societies, civic and religious organizations, and period-uniformed units of volunteers marching behind the banners of long-gone Kaiserlich-Königlich (Imperial-and-Royal) regiments that had fought under the Double Eagle on battlefields the length and breadth of Europe during the 642 years between Rudolf von Hapsburg's setting up shop in Vienna in 1276 and the abdication of Otto's father, Kaiser Karl, in 1918.

But the culmination of all these colorful obsequies was a starkly simple ritual—the same last ceremony that had accompanied members of the Imperial family to their tombs across the centuries of Hapsburg rule and one that, now that Otto von Hapsburg has been laid to rest, will never occur again:

At the portal of the Capuchin Church, a member of the funeral procession strikes the closed door with his staff. Behind the door a monk asks who seeks entry. The functionary replies: "Otto von Hapsburg" and proceeds to recite the latter's long list of imperial, royal, grand ducal and other hereditary titles. From behind the door, the monk answers, "We know him not." Again, the functionary strikes the door with his staff , this time listing Otto von Hapsburg's many personal achievements, public positions, and honors. And, again, the monk replies, "We know him not." For a third time, the door is struck and the monk asks who seeks entry. The answer is much shorter this time: "Otto, a poor dead sinner." "As such," the monk responds, "he may enter." The door opens and the last Imperial heir is laid to rest, like his ancestors, not as one of the mighty of the earth but as a simple child of God.

In 1916, when 86-year-old Kaiser Franz Joseph—Otto's great uncle—died after a reign of nearly six decades, the same simple ceremony took place. One of the witnesses was the above-mentioned novelist, a young ethnic Jew (but observant Catholic) from Galicia, part of Poland then ruled by the Hapsburgs: "At the time that Emperor Franz Joseph died," he would recall in a letter written to a colleague nine years later, "I was already a 'revolutionary,' but I shed tears for him. I was a one-year volunteer in a Vienna regiment, a so-called elite unit, that stood by the Kapuzinergruft as a guard of honor, and I tell you, I was crying . An epoch was buried." In a later letter to another correspondent he would declare that: "The most powerful experience of my life was the war and the end of my fatherland, the only one I ever had: the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary."

THE WEEPING HONOR GUARD'S NAME was Joseph Roth and, like thousands of other talented, ambitious provincials from every corner of the Empire—many of them, like Roth, Jewish—he had been drawn to Vienna, which was then a world-class center of living rather than past art, intellect, philosophy, and science, seeking an education and a career. While relatively few English language readers are familiar with his work today, before his premature death in 1939 at age 44, he would distinguish himself as one of the foremost European journalists and feuilletonists of the inter-war years. Journalists are still with us, but the feuilleton is now pretty much a lost art. As defined by Merriam-Webster's it is "a short literary composition often having a familiar tone and reminiscent content." Writing good feuilletons requires wide-ranging interests, the ability to amuse as well as to inform, and a way of making the reader feel he is part of a conversation with the writer, not merely the recipient of an impersonal dispatch. Roth was a master of the form, which also explains why—unlike so many good reporters—he was capable of writing novels of genuine merit rather than topical potboilers exploiting current events.

His masterpiece, The Radetzky March, is to Austria-Hungary what Giuseppe Di Lampedusa's The Leopard is to Risorgimento Italy, what Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace is to Napoleonic-era Russia, and what Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind is to the Civil War–era American South: a tour-de-force of a time and place that analyzes the causes and effects of great events by filtering them through the everyday experiences of a skillfully drawn and engagingly presented cast of servants and masters, kings and commoners, whores and heroines—in Roth's case, always with a delightfully Viennese mix of superficial cynicism and underlying affection.

In conception, execution, and in the depth of sympathetic understanding behind all of its jibes, jokes, and sarcasms, The Radetzky March is a great novel with a timeless, universal appeal. Knowing this makes the short, overwhelmingly sad life of its creator compelling reading in its own right, and editor/translator Michael Hofmann provides just the right amount of linking commentary and annotation to give each of the 457 letters in this collection of Roth's peripatetic correspondence context and continuity. If too many of the letters are concerned with shop talk and Roth's increasingly desperate circumstances after first Germany and then Austria fall to the Nazis, they also contain frequent sparks of his humor and incisive intellect. In the midst of a thinly disguised begging letter to one of his publishing friends written in 1931, he deftly dispatches two literary duds and praises one worthy in a few sentences:

Hauser's article was an unbearable show of fresh youthfulness and civilizational insolence. Style was false too, not just putrid. Sieburg: dazzlingly masked gaucheness. Picard's graphology as ever an honest sermon, pen in hand, a sweet, great man.

What a lot of firepower to pack into 37 hastily scrawled words!

Roth died penniless in a bleak Parisian hospital ward. The authorities wrote pneumonia on his death certificate but friends who visited him saw a wasted wreck, wracked with delirium tremens and strapped to his bed. All the more reason to respect and marvel at the thousands of pages of first-class journalism and occasionally brilliant fiction—novels like The Radetzky March, The Emperor's Tomb, The Tale of the 1002nd Night, and Job (the saga of a modern wandering Jew).

As editor Michael Hofmann points out, even at his most abject or quixotic, there is something heroic about "this grievously disappointed and multiply broken man [who] somehow continued to align himself toward the true and the beautiful in his articles, and the beautiful and true in his books; [who] long past having anything himself…went on helping others—a tailor, a charwoman, a doctor, a fellow veteran stuck in Switzerland…even as he seemed to lapse into unreality…"?

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About the Author

Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan and writes frequently on politics, history, gastronomy, and the arts.