Toward the close of Keiron Pim’s new biography Endless Flight: The Life of Joseph Roth, we’re told to imagine the great, complex Austrian writer in Saint-Sulpice, which he may or may not have visited. Its Delacroix murals, we’re told, “must have moved Roth’s soul.” But no, they mustn’t. Perhaps Roth thought very little of Delacroix or not at all. Undue speculation plagues the biography genre in general and this volume in particular.
Pim’s otherwise fine biography of the novelist is thus blemished. Not satisfied with what can be verified, Pim embellishes rather too freely. I suspect that he is often right in his speculations, but it is far too Freud-like, as opposed to Freudian, to infer that Roth longed sexually “for a comforting mother figure to replace the one he rejected” simply because his novels on occasion portray female breasts. Next, Pim imagines Roth confessing to a “paternal priest.” This must, he writes, “have had psychological value” regardless of whether Roth really believed in the Catholic God: “Who could doubt that he sought forgiveness, or that he needed a father?” More modern psychology than Freudian talk therapy, this sort of thing is called “mind-reading.” And yet, Endless Flight may be forgiven such flaws because it is, shamefully late, the first ever English-language Roth biography.
Born in 1894 in the Galician town of Brody, Roth wrote some of the sharpest, though futile, early polemics against Adolf Hitler and a string of novels set in Austria-Hungary’s dual monarchy, including the imperishable Radetzky March (1932). Roth’s translator Michael Hoffman, whom Pim is rather over-reliant on, called him a “mythomaniac.” He lied habitually, creating and recreating his persona to fit his own and others’ prejudices. Ashamed of his provincial Jewish roots, he claimed that he had received Catholic baptism, hinted that his father had been a Polish nobleman, cultivated a High German accent, and comported himself like a Viennese dandy — even sporting a monocle. His assimilation included picking up antisemitic tendencies, lacing his correspondence with real vitriol. Pim notes, moreover, that Benjamin Lenz in Roth’s The Spider’s Web (1923) is “a Nazi fantasy made flesh.” But other times Roth presented himself as a proud eastern Jew.
Pim spends much necessary time sorting through Roth’s self-mythologizing. Roth falsely claimed, for instance, that he had nearly perished from his mother’s neglect. And he told people that he had been a lieutenant in the imperial army — he hadn’t — and that he had engineered a brave escape from a Russian POW camp. In fact, he served as a lowly letter censor and propagandist for the military press. Roth’s feuilletons, vividly reporting on Weimar-era Berlin, likewise eschewed strict truthfulness. For the most part, Pim is suitably firm but forgiving when he corrects Roth’s lies, though it is slightly euphemistic of him to say that Roth, when he embellishes his reports, “deals in facts of the poetic and psychological.” No matter. Roth’s remarkable talent for compressed, insightful phrases makes it easy to overlook such trivialities.
Endlessly on the move, living out of suitcases in hotels, Roth changed his political principles like others change their shirts. He went from supporting the dual monarchy to being a republican socialist before he eventually settled on Catholic conservatism. He began by opposing World War I on pacifist grounds but soon volunteered to fight in it. He was, however, constant in his hatred of nationalism. That hatred had sources both moral and exigent.
Roth was intellectually equipped in the face of Nazism. It is a cliche to call Roth “prophetic,” but there really is no other word for it. It is true that he still remained naively optimistic in March 1920, when he wrote that Germany’s new generations would embrace “no reactionary politics … blind obedience and bloodlust,” but he soon changed his mind. The protagonist of The Spider’s Web (1923), Theodor Lohse, returns from the war, finding to his horror that his family sees him as a burden, not a hero. Published before the Beer Hall Putsch, it is the first novel to mention Hitler by name. “The tombs of world history are yawning open in Munich,” he wrote on Hitler’s trial, “and all the corpses one thought interred are stepping out.” Echoing Heinrich Heine, he said in the summer of 1932: “They will burn our books and mean us.”
On Jan. 30, 1933, the day Hitler became chancellor, Roth went into exile in Paris. France completely infatuated him. To his mind, France embodied the enlightened European ideal — its national spirit negated ethnonationalism. That view, of course, rested on a narrow interpretation of French history — eliding the reactionary nationalism of Maurice Barres or Charles Maurras. Pim, who sketches Weimar Germany well, is somewhat less thorough on interwar France. By the mid-1920s, he says, French antisemitism was mainly “residual,” which is only half-true.
Despairing of liberal democracy in the face of fascism, Roth moved toward outright reactionary politics. He fraternized with Catholic Habsburg legitimists in Parisian bars, lamenting technological progress, criticizing democracy, and writing misogynistic trash. Only a monarchist coup in Austria, he believed, could stop the country from welcoming Nazism. He even traveled to Vienna in a quixotic attempt to engineer said coup. His plan was to convince Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg to side with the legitimists. If he succeeded, he would inform Otto von Habsburg, the pretender to the throne, who was to be smuggled into the country in a coffin. The plan went nowhere, of course.
By the 1930s, Roth had come to blame Jewish socialists for Hitler’s rise. “It’s the Jews,” he said, “who have introduced Socialism and catastrophe into European culture.” “The Jews have unleashed the plebs,” he complained. I suppose it is understandable that Pim only touches lightly on interwar Austria’s political situation — one can’t cover everything — but he should have noted the folly of Roth’s thinking. Far from saving the republic, Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, by crushing the Left, removed its strongest pillar against Nazism. From that moment on, the Austrofascist regime could only slow the Nazi wave, not prevent its triumph.
Roth’s final years engender in me this terrible sense of waste. Drinking incessantly and smoking up to 80 cigarettes a day, he lived as if to verify the existence of the Freudian death drive. He had begun deteriorating physically and mentally in the early 1930s, before he had even reached 40. His eyesight failed, his teeth rotted, he lost his hair, his liver bulged visibly, and his feet swelled so much that he struggled to walk. Alcohol had become his master. His friends offered to pay for rehabilitation, but he refused. He seems to have concluded that no one could rescue him from himself. But he kept begging his friends for money. When they obliged, he would insult them merely to prove, or so he said, that their generosity in no way made him beholden. His paranoia, hitherto latent, pressed in on him. He carried penknives for security wherever he went.
Rationalizing his behavior, Roth told himself and others that he could never have written his novels without booze. He even bragged to his friend Soma Morgenstern that he could point out several particularly fine passages that “I owe to a good Calvados.” Morgenstern replied that he, too, could identify the passages Roth had written while inebriated because they were characterized by intrusively sadistic portrayals of violence. Though still capable of brilliant bursts, Roth never matched the level of Radetzky March (1932). Further works faltered. Roth himself collapsed in 1939, stuttering, “I must get out of here,” when he heard the news of the playwright Ernst Toller’s suicide.
Genius is both its own burden and excuse.
Gustav Jönsson is a Swedish freelance writer based in the United Kingdom.