Book Review

Endless, Right? Endless? Write

Spare a thought, reader, for the feuilleton, that genre, largely lost now outside The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” department, that briefly amalgamates the reporter’s objective description with the poet’s insouciant impressionism. Or, better, for its specialist practitioner, driven by the daily paper’s publication schedule to observe and interpret, to craft these too-disposable prose poems with hardly time to breathe between one keenly noted and deftly displaced situation and the next. Endless flight—from scene to scene, neighborhood to neighborhood, café to bar to police station to typewriter—distinguishes this ink-stained laborer from his (typically) ancestor, the Baudelairean flâneur. The feuilletonist’s plight is not, or is not only, the referent of Keiron Pim’s title, Endless Flight,[1] but it is central to Pim’s narrative as we watch Moses Josef Graber, born in the Galician backwater, Brody (now in Ukraine), in 1894, transform himself into Joseph Roth, prolific journalist and novelistic chronicler of the Habsburg Empire’s decline and dissolution.

Pim begins his chronicle of Roth’s life with an all too timely digression on place names and their relationship to power struggles. As Timothy Snyder and other historians have chronicled, the Eastern edge of Central Europe has been bitterly contested as regimes have fought over territories from the Baltic to the Balkans.[2] As we have all had to learn in the last year, the name Ukraine derives from the Russian phrase u kraina, meaning “borderland.” Pim points to the example of the city where Roth began his higher education:


A grand Ukrainian city just east of midway between Prague and Kyiv has become a shorthand for the mutability of place and identity in eastern Europe. Prior to 1991 it spent half a century as Lvov, within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine. Before that, it was the Polish city of Lwów for three decades—some Poles today maintain it is only on loan to their neighbours—and for a few months in 1918 it was the capital of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic. On a modern map it’s called Lviv, but if you look at one from the early 1900s you’ll find it called Lemberg, lying in Galicia at the eastern edge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (At that time, its Yiddish-speaking population called it Lemberik.)


While its name was not subject to such change over the decades, Roth’s hometown of Brody was subject to the same tides of shifting national identity. And those tides washed in particular ways over the town’s sizable Jewish population. Roth grew up in a setting to which he would often return in his fiction, a step away from the stereotypical shtetl, but a community still characterized by its closedness, its distinctiveness against the backdrop of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy. It was from this Galician Jewish community and identity that Roth first flew, seeking both an education and a new, more cosmopolitan, identity first in Lviv/Lemberg and then in Vienna.

Pim traces Roth’s movements both horizontally (across the map) and vertically (through class strata) as Roth reinvented himself in his teens, leaving behind his mother, his Jewishness, and his first name. That self-reinvention was Roth’s first exercise in fiction. Roth offered various untrue professions for his father, experiences for his younger self, and backgrounds more befitting the young man he presented himself as. He assumed as fully as possible the identity of the mainstream, secular, intellectual Austro-Hungarian citizen, his symbolic father the aging emperor Franz Joseph, his fatherland (a term he would often use) the Habsburg Empire. When war broke out in 1914, Roth at first declared himself a pacifist. In 1916, though, he enlisted to fight for that fatherland. He experienced combat, though he would, over the years, embellish his experience until his accounts bore little relation with the actuality. Military service offered a new means of reinvention, the army uniform a way of dressing the part of an echt Austrian, his combat experience a slip of evidence that he was a true son of the fatherland. Roth would use these to get hold of an Austrian passport after the war (instead of the Polish or Ukrainian one his birthplace would have determined).

As the war ended, Roth was demobilized and bereft. The emperor was dead, the empire fracturing as new, and newly virulent, nationalism spawned borders and the inevitable border squabbles. He joined the thousands of former soldiers in Vienna, Prague, and towns and villages throughout the former empire’s lands. Pim’s account shows how, unstrung and unsettled, Roth wandered, drank, and wrote. His habit of living in hotels, one that would continue through most of his life, took hold at this time, as did his drinking. “Alcohol,” Pim writes, “filled critical gaps in his armoury: it granted a shy, sensitive young man self-confidence and a fleeting resilience. Then its effects wore off, until the next drink.” Most important for Roth’s future career, he threw himself into writing. During the war, Roth had written (but mostly not published) poems and sketches. Now, he began publishing pieces, often unsigned, in the antiwar paper Der Abend (The Evening) and a pacifist Vienna journal, Der Friede (Peace), describing the veterans he encountered on the streets. He wrote and published short stories as well. While Roth would later claim that he had fallen into journalism out of poverty and desperation, in fact he sought out opportunities to write for money. He succeeded in obtaining a position as a staff writer when Benno Karpeles, of Der Friede, took over Der Neue Tag (The New Day). Between April 1919, when he began to write for the paper, and April 1920, Roth contributed around 140 articles, a pace of close to one every other day.

Of that vast quantity of reportage, much took the form of the feuilleton, the bite-size bit of urban experience (Pim rightly describes it as “inherently metropolitan”) from which an able practitioner could suggestively extrapolate, a form, as Pim writes, “that could capture the intense flux and disorienting strangeness of modern city life.” For Roth, this was the perfect way to crystallize the nature of the ex-solder’s experience in the fragments of a defeated empire. In Der Neue Tag in 1919 and 1920, Roth crafted the combination of careful, objective observation and the slanted or striking presentation of observed scenes and individuals that would come to characterize his fiction:


A man returned from the war in the form of a hinge—invalid with shattered spine—moves almost inexplicably through Kärntner Strasse, selling newspapers. A dog sits on his back.

A clever, well-trained dog, riding on his own master, and making sure he doesn’t lose a single paper . . .

Once there were sheepdogs who watched herds of sheep, and guard-dogs that guarded houses. Today there are mandogs who watch invalids, mandogs the logical consequence of submissive men . . .


Crucially, in the compulsive writing of this period, Roth also reinvented himself. Roth trawled the cafés and back streets of Vienna for striking scenes and rendered them in such a way as to elicit from them wryly political comments. In one piece, children blowing soap bubbles invite critique of statesmen’s vapid rhetoric, while in another the new Austrian republic is shown as cobbled from “miserable old Habsburg planks.” Throughout this work, Roth developed a distinctive persona, a Viennese sophisticate composed in part of the influence of writers like Karl Kraus and Alfred Polgar, in part of a performed ease with the city and its neighborhoods, and in part of “Austrianisms,” bits of slang and turns of phrase that marked this writer as urban, modern, and Western, defiantly not a Jew from the sticks in the back of the beyond (the self that haunted Roth and, later, fed his fiction). He dressed and acted the part off the page as well as on it, performing the worldly wise and world-weary observer in sharp suits and over endless drinks in the Café Herrenhof.

In that café, in 1919, Roth met Friederike (Friedl) Reichler. Though she was engaged to someone else at the time, their relationship quickly deepened. Thus began a tension that would characterize much of Roth’s life for the rest of his life, that between the restlessness Pim’s title suggests and the security (and gravity) of marriage. For Friedl soon began to pressure Roth to marry her, and Roth responded both by doing so and then by disappearing on reporting trips, whether to haunt the bars and red-light districts of Paris, Berlin, Prague, or Vienna (depending on where the couple lived at the time, as Roth took on work for different papers and from different bureaus) or off to other cities, towns, and hinterlands. The itinerary for one trip, a four-month tour of the Soviet Union in 1926, is exhausting just to read about:


He spent a week walking through Chuvash villages. He explored Minsk and Belarus, and journeyed through the Caucasus mountain paths on muleback and bumpy carts. He got soaked in a Stalingrad hotel room when a downpour collapsed the ceiling, and found his entrance to a hotel in Samara barred by an irate goat. He cruised down the long, wide Volga on a mail steamer crammed with people from every ethnicity and stratum within Soviet society, and looked out across the flat river plain at primitive villages of huts and domed churches, then to soft hills and the distant steppe.


And all the while he worried about Friedl, whom he had left alone. His diary entries wonder why he has not heard from her, recount his letters and telegrams, record his sense of loneliness and isolation. The experience permanently altered Roth’s political commitments (while his early career had garnered him the nickname Der rote Joseph [Red Joseph], his novels would go on to dwell nostalgically on the imperial past, dramatizing skepticism about contemporary socialist or communist solutions). But it only temporarily reminded him of Friedl’s virtues and the happiness of home. No sooner did he unpack from one trip (both literally and, in the volume of published pieces, figuratively) than he was agitating and preparing to be on the move again. For Roth, this tension was productive. The sense of dislocation and distance from others generated whole volumes of prose, whether in newspaper pieces or the drafts of novels that he threw himself into. For Friedl, however, it exacerbated underlying mental illness. Early in the couple’s marriage, she began to suffer from what would later be diagnosed as schizophrenia. Living in constant turmoil as she moved with Roth from city to city, hotel to hotel, only once, early on, settling in a Berlin apartment of their own, and in continual anxiety over their finances and Roth’s affairs, she fell into despondency and delusion. By the late 1920s, she was often institutionalized, and the costs of her treatment drove Roth to write himself to exhaustion, paying the bills with articles and feuilletons while working on novels whose sales he hoped would finally bring security.

Keiron Pim comes to this story of a writer’s desperate and energetic reinvention through his previous book, Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock‘n’Roll Underworld. There, Pim assiduously traced the movements of an elusive figure in the art, music, and crime scenes of London in the 1950s and 1960s. He brings to Roth’s story the detective’s scrupulous search for clues, skills sharpened in his pursuit of Litvinoff, and also a deep understanding of the history of European Jewry developed through his work on an anthology of medieval Hebrew poetry. Pim’s previous work and his writerly dispositions entail both strengths and weaknesses. He ably sketches the complex world through which Roth moved, one in which new nations were born out of the destruction of empires, a world of constant and profound change in which anti-Semitism persisted as a disturbing continuity. At the same time, his sketches sometimes fall into strange rhetorical choices. Writing of Lviv as a “palimpsestic city” (fair enough), Pim shifts inexplicably into the second person:


The present here is a membrane pressed upon by a heavy past: you feel its weight without knowing its details. If you sit, to gather yourself after arriving, in the broad space before an opera house lit by sunshine that gilds its stone lions and columns, you sense that such a fine setting in an old city must have served as a focal point for its tumultuous history. Who congregated here, what transpired?


Cliché diction exacerbates the unwelcome effect: “The city was not much to look at, but it made you feel alive”; “The city was heading somewhere fast, but who knew where.” Pim’s insistence on a single etiology for Roth’s preoccupations (typical of the genre of biography) sometimes narrows the focus too much. Roth’s sense of dislocation, his awareness that his inescapable Jewish identity set him on the margins of the society whose center he aspired to, clearly informed his character, but Pim’s occasional myopia blurs the importance of his subject’s complex historical understanding, his openness to literary influences, and his shifting political convictions. These two weaknesses sometimes combine to yield especially irritating passages:


The divisions within the self created by a hyphenated identity fracture further if you uproot from your homeland and try to assimilate into another. You feel peripheral to both, as if standing in a doorway between two crowded rooms, a double outsider. . . . You can look at France as if from Germany, at Galicia as a Viennese, at the Jews as a Catholic, at the socialists as a conservative; and for each vice versa. But you cannot stop looking within yourself too: you examine each fragment of your identity from its opposite perspective and find it incomplete, and your presentation as a member of that tribe unconvincing, even fraudulent.


The problem is not that Pim’s point here is inaccurate, but that it is limited and, delivered in this particular manner, reductive.

Just as important, Pim often treats Roth’s novels as transcripts of the writer’s autotherapy. Summarizing the plots of the early novels (Hotel Savoy in 1924, Flight Without End in 1927, Job in 1930), Pim identifies characters with Roth and figures from his youth and reads settings and situations in terms of Roth’s Galician roots and his struggles to escape and/or to come to terms with them. It is certainly true that Roth, like most fiction writers, develops his work’s themes from the complex givens of his own life. Familiar sites and individuals inform their fiction’s scenes. However, to see Franz Tunda, the protagonist of Flight Without End, merely as “a new fictional avatar by which to articulate [Roth’s] existential position” is to flatten and oversimplify the relationship between author and character. Though Pim quotes Jon Hughes arguing that the narrators of Flight Without End and Zipper and His Father (1928), even though they sign themselves “Joseph Roth,” are “not to be equated with the author,” he often allows himself to make just such a conflation. The effect is to diminish an important and valuable insight (about the frequent appearance in the novels of Roth’s own anti- Semitism, for example), so that the possibility of a reading that fruitfully complicates the author/character relationship through a consideration of narrative form instead yields a conclusion like this one (from Pim’s discussion of the 1923 novel The Spider’s Web):


Lenz is a vivid projection of Roth’s self-loathing. He is the first of Roth’s furtive Jewish go-betweens who’ll commit treachery for an envelope of banknotes. He is also Roth’s first avatar—like later manifestations such as Nikolai Brandeis in Right and Left and Count Chojnicki in The Radetzky March, he peers into souls, and sees the world with sunlit clarity where others squint through fog.


Fortunately, Pim’s treatment of the last novel mentioned here goes well beyond such reductive identifications. Pim recognizes the centrality of what he calls “Roth’s greatest work,” the multi-generational saga of the von Trotta family, and he treats the novel both at greater length and with greater complexity than the other novels. In The Radetzky March (1932), as in his earlier fiction, Roth treats the relationships among fathers and sons. Here, too, he repeats his deployment of anti-Semitic caricature and narrates a protagonist’s reliance on alcohol. But Pim emphasizes in this discussion not Roth’s rewriting of himself but, instead, his expansion of themes to take up the question of how to construct a meaningful life in a dead society. Abandoning his early worship of Emperor Franz Joseph, Roth sets the emperor as a metonym for broad social decay; the emperor’s preference for fiction over fact, his failure to recall the name of the young soldier who saved him at Solferino, his increasing dementia and physical decline all crystallize weaknesses and decadence that Roth also finds throughout the Austrian world. The cruelty of individuals and the fatal adherence to meaningless customs are finely dramatized: who can forget the awfulness of the episode in which Carl Joseph von Trotta makes a condolence visit to the sergeant whose wife had died having Carl Joseph’s illegitimate child and is given, as he leaves, a package that turns out to be his love letters to the man’s dead wife, all stage managed by Carl Joseph’s father? Or the pathetic duel into which Max Demant, Carl Joseph’s young Jewish best friend, is ineluctably drawn by rigid social convention? They are also made to suggest deep truths about Austria-Hungary. More than that, the narrative exposes an emerging mythos already dangerous in 1932. After a youth characterized by unearned privilege and undeserved rescue from one situation after another, Carl Joseph finally finds peace in his life among peasants in a town similar to Roth’s native Brody. Having left the army and the upper-class community around Chojnicki, a cynical Polish count, Carl Joseph recovers bodily strength and emotional resilience. The episode is at once a move familiar in Roth’s work (the prodigal’s return to ancestral roots) and a flirtation with the “land and blood” nationalism consolidating German-speaking Europe amid the rise of National Socialism. When he returns Carl Joseph to the army at the outbreak of the First World War, Roth snatches from his protagonist this brief moment of peace, sending him into a firestorm of bullets as he imagines the Radetzky March (elsewhere referred to as the “Marseillaise of reaction”) and a miserable and unheroic death. Roth closes the novel’s frame, bookending Carl Joseph’s grandfather’s overblown and ultimately falsified heroism at Solferino with the pathos of this meaningless advance, and, in doing so, he also reveals the fatal consequences of the Heimat’s false promises. Though the Anschluss is still a few years in the future, Roth’s retrospective glance and his hard-won understanding of the German nationalism he had explored as a journalist prepares him to foresee disastrous consequences. As goes Carl Joseph von Trotta, so, he sees, will go a generation of European men.

To the extent that Roth is known to English-language readers these days, he is known as the author of The Radetzky March. On the one hand, that is indeed his richest and most powerful novel. On the other hand, this is unfortunate; the novel’s prominence overshadows other compelling work. To his credit, Pim recognizes both of these truths. He has useful things to say not only about The Radetzky March, but also about the other fiction (less about some of the shorter work that is, to my mind, actually stronger than some of the novels), and his treatment of Roth’s journalism is especially strong. Indeed, one of the best aspects of this biography is the thought that Pim gives to the feuilleton and to its importance in the life of this tireless, endlessly flying, practitioner.


[1] ENDLESS FLIGHT: The Life of Joseph Roth, by Keiron Pim. Granta Books. $35.00.

[2] See Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (New York, 2010).