On the Fiftieth Parallel - Michael Hofmann in 1987 in LRB:
‘When Joseph Roth was asked once to write about his earliest memory, he described how as a baby he had seen his mother strip his cradle and hand it over to a strange woman, who ‘holds it to her chest, as though it were some trifling object of negligible dimensions, speaks for a long time, smiles, showing her long yellow teeth, goes to the door and leaves the house. I feel sad, unspeakably sad and helpless. I “know” that I have lost something irrecoverable.’ This is an outrageous story: but one may admire it for that, for its mischievous invention, and for its limited awareness of such gestures and proportions as a baby might truly have observed. It brings to mind what Roth said about his revered Heine: ‘Maybe he did make up the odd fact, but then he saw things the way they ought to be. His eye was more than visual apparatus and optic nerve.’ Roth, too, was endowed with an eye like that: it specialised in seeing things that had vanished off the face of the earth.’
‘The cradle-robber also took his youth, for Roth looked and felt old practically all his life: ‘like a thousand-year-old man returning from Beyond,’ he once said. Last but not least, the cradle episode prefigures his relationships with women: in his life and in his books, their behaviour is unpredictable and hurtful, and when it isn’t, his apprehension, pessimism and guilt soon make it so. The cradle is an emblem of the losses and hungers, personal and historical, magical and institutional, at the heart of Roth’s writing.
Joseph Roth was born Moses Joseph Roth, in 1894, in the small town of Brody, north-east of Lvov, in what was then Austria-Hungary, and is now the Ukrainian Socialist Republic of the USSR. He grew up with his mother, supported by his uncles, and in 1913 went to Vienna to study German. Initially a pacifist, he joined up in 1916 and served on the Eastern Front, mainly, it seems, in a literary capacity, writing for army newspapers and censoring mail. Although most of his subsequent writing would have it otherwise, he was neither an officer nor a prisoner-of-war. He did, however, have a complicated time getting back through the various small wars that erupted after the Great War, and he wasn’t back in Vienna until December 1918. He found work on Viennese newspapers of a socialist hue, and began to specialise in feuilletons – personal, impressionistic, belletristic articles.’
‘Either side of 1930 came events that brought about a calamitous downturn in Roth’s life. His wife Friedl, who hadn’t taken to their rootless life-style, was diagnosed as a schizophrenic, and within a few years the Nazis were in power. The final conjunction of these two developments occurred in 1940, when Friedl Roth fell victim to the Nazis’ ‘improved care facilities’. Bizarrely and horribly, these were the years of Roth’s greatest successes, when he published his most popular books, Job and The Radetzky March; in both cases, the hero, Mendel Singer and Franz Josef Trotta, is an unwilling survivor. An editor at the Frankfurter Zeitung told Roth: ‘You must become even sadder. The sadder you are, the better you write.’ After 1933, Roth severed all links with Germany, even, or perhaps especially, with those elements which still hoped to effect change from within. He wrote for émigré publications, his books were published by German presses in Amsterdam, and he lived there, or in Paris, or the South of France, a rather eccentric, free-standing pillar of the Exilliteratur. His death in 1939 was not by his own hand, as several printed English sources have said, but was caused by a collapse on hearing of the suicide of a fellow-exile and friend, the playwright Ernst Toller.’
‘Hotel Savoy may be not much of a novel, but it deserves to be read for its sense of milieu, for its curt sentences, for being an early work by an author whose every word is worth reading. In tone, it is largely neutral – it is only with Job and The Radetzky March that Roth acquires the voice of overwhelming loss and millennial regret – but it is still unmistakably his, with his wit, his curiosity, his little darts of metaphysical speculation. It anticipates his later novels both in its geography and in the character of its hero.’
‘As for the characters who wander back and forth along a line of latitude – say, the Fiftieth Parallel: Kiev, Lvov, Cracow, Prague, Frankfurt, Le Havre – it often seems as though their origin, present whereabouts and next destination are all we know about them, and all we need to know. Their linear movements, their trajectories, are fully expressive of their disorder and pain. ‘If one has a great sorrow, it is a good thing to change one’s abode,’ Roth said in one of his articles. The Roth hero is an individual, not a Massenmensch; Roth is careful always to give him a name, but the names resemble one another as the heroes do: Gabriel Dan, Andreas Pum, Benjamin Lenz, Franz Tunda. They are largely undifferentiated, undescribed, anonymous, like markers. Where they are is the front line, each of them the flag in his own personal campaign; one can understand why Roth wrote a novel about Napoleon (Die Hundert Tage). They are capable, attractive, viable men, but somehow disabled or disorientated. Most of them are soldiers or former soldiers; others are civil servants, minor officials, peasants, railwaymen, aristocrats, innkeepers, Fiaker-drivers, chestnut-vendors. Roth was always drawn to the common man, and this, together with his journalist’s need for visual evidence, helps explain the illustrated-encyclopedia prevalence of uniformed or quasi-uniformed types in his writing. (Of the 13 versions of his paternity that he put into circulation, not all were high-flown and romantic.) In addition to his journalist’s eye, there was also his loyal Kaiserlich und Königlich subject’s fascination with all the versions of existence in the Dual Monarchy, a Whitmanesque love of identification and profusion. In his early work there is an element of social criticism in the presentation of variety which derives from his perception of inequality: later on, this variety is seen as part of the graceful and accommodating nature of the Empire – the flame-bearded Jews pay their respects to the Emperor; the Jäger Franz Tunda joins the Infantry with his cousin the chestnut-vendor Joseph Branco and the Jewish cabbie Manes Reisiger. Roth sees art identity between highest and lowest; he celebrates the love of the frontier for the centre.’
‘In a sense, the hero in all Roth’s books is Fate or, more exactly, die Fügung – the word also has the meaning of ‘compliance’, or ‘obedience’. The characters are dutiful, resigned, they make no great efforts to change or to escape what lies before them. The novels describe the effect of intolerable pressure on these average people – the obligations of love or war, the consequences of an error or a rash commitment. In The Radetzky March, Carl Joseph Trotta has ‘middling, but always adequate capacities. He possessed a neat, matter-of-fact, honest intelligence.’ But as he himself comes to realise, his capacities are hopelessly inadequate; his ‘fortitude’ is sufficient for ‘a pointless death’, nothing more. It is little different from the outcome of the other novels.’
‘Roth writes as well as anyone (Wallace Stevens, say) about attractiveness: anyone who has read Weights and Measureswill remember the effect on Lieutenant Eibenschütz of the tinkle of the gypsy Euphemia’s earrings; from the name Lutetia (in Confession of a Murderer) ‘there emanated a warm, subtle glamour ... a resplendent, imperious glitter.’ Often in Roth, there is an irresistible combination of gold and silver (he uses a great many colours, and almost never singly): ‘a silver clinking and rustling of spurs and arms, a pervasive smell of pomade and shaving soap, a fulminating gleam of gold buttons, silver braid, and bright-red reins of Russia leather’ (Job). ‘We had at the time no premonition of war and May, Vienna’s May, swam in the little golden cups with their silver rims. The month of May drifted across the tablecloths, the little brimful glasses of chocolate, the cream cakes in rose and green which so curiously resembled edible jewels, and Councillor Sorgsam remarked, right in the midst of May: “There will be no war, gentlemen!” ’ (The Emperor’s Tomb).’
Read the article here.
‘Each of them the flag in his own personal campaign.’ That’s an adequate description of the Joseph Roth-character and of many of our contemporaries.
And the advice given to Roth by this editor of the Frankfurter Zeitung might not be a good advice for all authors, aspiring or not, but for some it’s the best advice they can get.
And ‘the Fiftieth Parallel: Kiev, Lvov, Cracow, Prague, Frankfurt, Le Havre’ is still worth wandering.