Michael Hoffman makes the observation that Roth “in those days was like an open knife, a mixture of prophet, revolutionary, and sociopath”. The bluntness he exhibits with his friends shows an honesty that often wanders into just being a jerk. Major topics recurring throughout these letters include
• the uncertainty of his newspaper job and his feeling of not being appreciated (not to mention the constant lack of money),
• the deterioration of German life on all fronts, although he doesn’t always feel he belongs in France,
• his assignment in Moscow,
• the care and sickness of his wife, and
• political and social movements (the percentage of names he mentions that end up becoming exiles is depressing).
There are even mentions at this early stage of his life of his rapidly deteriorating liver (although his claim about its demise is premature). There are several references to his writing, but many of these books I haven’t read yet (so I’ll file these away for when I get to them). OK, now to some quotes.
From letter 21, to Benno Reifenberg (boss and friend), in which he shows he can be as hard on the France as he is on Germany. There’s also the toll of taking care of his wife (August 1925):
I have seen a bullfight for the first time in my life. If you’ve never seen anything like that, then you can have no conception of the gruesomeness of it. I know of no French writer who has written about—much less against—these Provençal bullfights. Not Daudet, not Mistral either, to the best of my knowledge. I think they’d be ashamed, and they’re scared. They’re happy to write about the wind, the sky, the people, the riders, the women. Tell me why a great writer isn’t duty bound to accuse his country instead of praising it. They all write as though they wanted their personal monument.
[Writing from Marseille]There are 700 vessels in the port. I’ve half a mind to suddenly take one of them. My wife cries every day, if it weren’t for her, I’d be long gone. It’s the first time I’ve had a feeling for the presence of my wife. It’s only in a port that you know you’re married.
Inevitably, the Germans and the French are going to intermarry. They are both desperately short of what the other have.
From letter 22, to Benno Reifenberg (August 1925):
Fast is the only way I can write well. The Germans write even literary books scientifically. Their feeling is scientific. That’s why the write slowly. The slow working of someone like Flaubert is based on completely different grounds: laziness, namely. You must remember from your schooldays that it’s possible to slog away all day with the greatest laziness inside you.
From letter 23, again to Benno Reifenberg (September 1925):
At the time Emperor Franz Joseph died, 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.
From letter 25, to Bernard von Brentano (friend and protégé—December 1925):
You say something about some woman or other you claim to be in love with. This condition is known to be delusory, and ends in bed, just as pink elephants go away when you have a drink. Just call a spade a spade and I’ll understand you better. If you want to sleep with her, don’t come telling me you’re in love with her. I might have believed it from Clemens Bentano [Romantic poet that was Bernard’s ancestor], but not from Bernard. That’s “literature”—i.e., unworthy of a writer. You must never take a woman as seriously as, say, mounting debts. Only the latter can make us lose a night’s sleep. I am sufficiently old-fashioned as to hold marriage—not that I overestimate that either—in higher regard than “love.” In marriage, coition isn’t the be-all and end-all, rather it’s a whole string of intercourse, which may as much take the form of looks and conversations, as that of so-called physical union. I appreciate thatit’s upsetting not to have one’s way with a woman. But a fat man put on a diet by his doctore is much more upset, and with far more substantial reason.
From letter 27, to Bernard von Brentano:
I am becoming dangerous to ordinary decent people because of my knowledge of them. It makes for an atrocious life. It precludes all of love and most of friendship. My mistrust kills all warmth, as bleach kills most germs. I no longer understand the forms of human intercourse. A harmless conversation chokes me. I am incapable of speaking an innocent word.
From letter 34, to Benno Reifenberg (April 1926), where he spells out his professional situation while providing his political outlook:
You can’t write feuilletons with half a mind or one hand tied behind your back. And it’s wrong to write feuilletons on the side. It’s a bad underestimation of the whole profession. The feuilleton is just as important to the paper as its politics—and to the reader it’s even more important. The modern newspaper is made of everything else in it before it’s made of politics. The modern newspaper needs a reporter more than it needs a leader writer. I am not an encore, not a pudding, I am the main dish. Why won’t people stop kidding themselves that a fancy-pants article on the situation in Locarno will grip readers and win subscribers. If Mr. Sieburg is to write mainly feuilletons, then I don’t see why I shouldn’t equally well have remained your Paris correspondent. … But the firm persists in thinking of Roth as a sort of trivial chatterbox that a great newspaper can just about run to. Wrong. I don’t write “witty glosses.” I paint the portrait of the age. That ought to be the job of the great newspaper. I’m a journalist, not a reporter; I’m an author, not a leader writer. …
Spain is journalistically uninteresting. Italy is interesting, Fascism less so. I take a different position on Fascism than the newspaper. I don’t like it, but I know that one Hindenburg is worse than ten Mussolinis. We in Germany should watch our Reichswehr, our Mr. Gessler, our generals, our famous compensation program to landowners. We don’t have the right to attack a Fascist dictatorship while we ourselves are living in a far worse, secret dictatorship, complete with Fememorde[“an antrhopoligical label from the Dark ages for these political killings that appear in a list of shameful manifestation in the Weimar Republic”], paramilitary marches, murderous judges, and hangmen attorneys. My conscience would never allow me, as an oppressed German, to tell the world about oppression in Italy. It would be a rather facile bravery to report behind Mussolini’s back, and keep my head down in my homeland, and go on subsidizing the thugs of the Black Reichswehr with my taxes. …
There is so much going on in Russia, one doesn’t have to write about the Communist terror. The presence of so much new life springing up from the ruins will give me a lot of unpolitical material.
From letter 36 (June 1926):
I am carrying none of the ideological baggage of the sort that most literary visitors to Russia have carried with them in the last few years. Unlike them, as a consequence of my birth and my knowledge of the country, I am immunized to what goes by “Russian mysticism” or “the great Russian soul,” and the like. I am too well aware—as western Europeans are apt to forget—that the Russians were not invented by Dostoyevsky. I am quite unsentimental about the country, and about the Soviet project.
From letter 37 (August 1926)—sadly Roth is right, there is a new world about to be born although it’s clear he doesn’t know how terrifying it will be:
There’s no doubt that a new world is being born in Russia. For all my skepticism, I am happy to be able to witness it. It’s not possible to live without having been here, it’s as if you had stayed at home during the war.
From letter 38 (September 1926), funny to read after his complaint and claim in letter 36:
I feel as though I’ve been gone from Europe for six months. I’ve experienced so much here, and all of it strange to me. … It’s a boon I’ve come to Russia. I should never have gotten to know myself otherwise. … The issue here is not politics, the issue is culture, religion, metaphysics, spirituality.
From letter 39, to Benno Reifenberg (October 1926), working on a self-description :
Everything we say about it [Russia] is mistaken. I read Lenin and Victor Hugo alternately, political authors both, chance purchases, cheap, secondhand editions. … Lenin is a great dialectical brain, Victor Hugo a great dialectical heart, and he writes a better style.
From letter 42, to Benno Reifenberg (April 1927):
I am slow, thorough, full of fear that I might see something wrong, my so-called style is based on nothing but an exact understanding of the facts—I write badly without that—like Sieburg in the Easter issue. I don’t have “ideas,” only understanding. I am incapable of vacuous writing.