Joseph Roth: The Sublime Novelist of Habsburg Nostalgia and Jewish Pessimism

September 8, 2022 | David Mikics
About the author:

While he remains little known in the English-speaking world, those who have read the work of Joseph Roth almost invariably believe him to be one of the great European writers—and one of the great Jewish writers—of the 20th century. Born and raised in the heart of Jewish Eastern Europe in the now-Ukrainian, then-Austrian city of Brody, Roth spent the better part of his life in the Vienna of Sigmund Freud and Theodor Herzl. His homeland remained Habsburg Austria-Hungary until his death in 1939—some twenty years after that country disappeared. David Mikics discusses Roth’s life, and the stories he told:

In 1930 Roth wrote Job, the story of an East European Jew named Mendel Singer, whose little son is both lame and unable to speak. Heartbreakingly, Mendel abandons his son when he moves to America. . . . Job was a commercial success, though Roth didn’t make much money from it. Marlene Dietrich said it was her favorite novel. It even became a Hollywood movie, though the studio turned Mendel into a Tirolean peasant and the novel’s wonder rabbi into a Franciscan monk. (“Mendel Singer Gets Baptized” was one reviewer’s headline.)

Two years after Job, on the cusp of the Nazis’ victory in Germany, Roth published his magnum opus The Radetzky March, [which] evokes the comfort supplied by time-honored order and propriety. But Roth also invokes the abyss of loneliness and self-doubt concealed by the old-fashioned code of honor. The endless passage of years, the falling apart of empires, and the death of fathers and sons all imply a fathomless melancholia. Alcohol is a well of oblivion, a tempting means of escape.

In particular, Roth was deeply pessimistic about the Jewish future. In March 1933 he wrote to [his close friend and fellow Viennese writer] Stefan Zweig that in 50 years’ time the Jews would no longer exist. He reminded Zweig that they were both fundamentally European, and nonreligious: “We come from ‘Emancipation’ . . . rather more than we come out of Egypt.”

Accordingly, Roth could be sympathetic to Zionism at times. “Zionism is the only way out: patriotism, okay, but for one’s own land.” But as far as the fate of the Jews was concerned, he inclined toward hopelessness. In June 1932 Roth wrote to Zweig, “They mean to burn our books, and us along with them.”

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