Monday, January 23, 2012

Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters: 1933

From Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, translated and edited by Michael Hofmann.

I’m including too many excerpts from this year but it seems to mark a clear change in Roth, or perhaps an acceleration in his downward spiral tied to his despair. He was perceptive on the dangers Nazism posed for Germany and Europe. Roth shows how sadly humorous it can be when someone who’s own life is a mess can accurately identify the discord in others. In his despair, he comments “We all overestimated the world: even me, an absolute pessimist.”

From Michael Hofmann’s introduction to the section covering the letters from 1933 to 1939:
“On the morning of 30 January 1933, the day Hitler was appointed chancellor, Joseph Roth boarded the Berlin-Paris train, and never set foot in Germany again.” (page 229)

“Eventually there is nothing that Roth will not write; a letter, in his hands, is an instrument of necessary terror. The extremity of his situation justifies it. Anything less is the waste of a stamp.” (page 230)

“Soma Morgenstern describes his friend in these terms:
As he took a sip of cognac to recover from his coughing laugh, I studied him closely. The changes to face and form staggered me. He was not quite forty-three years old, and—my heart won’t forgive me for saying so: he looked like a sixty-year-old alcoholic. His face, once so animated and alert, with its prominent cheekbones, and short jutting chin, was now puffy and slack, the nose purple, the corners of his blue eyes rheumy and bloody, his head looking as if someone has started plucking it and given up part way, the mouth completely covered covered by heavy, dark red, Slovak-style drooping mustaches. But when summoned to the telephone, he slowly hobbled away with the aid of a stick, his thin legs in narrow old-fashioned pants, his sagging little paunch at odds with his birdlike bones, the east Galician Jew made the impression of a distinguished, if somewhat decayed, Austrian aristocrat—in other words, exactly the impression he had striven all his lfe to give, with every fiber ofhis body and soul, by means both legitimate and illegitimate.
This understands—as it is important to understand—the balance between tragedy and dignity in Roth, sadness and success. (pages 232-233)

Letter excerpts:
Letter 176 to Stefan Zweig (18 January 1933):

Be on your guard. You may be smart, but your humanity blinds you to others’ wickedness. You live on goodness and faith. Whereas I have been known to make sometimes startlingly accurate observations about evil.

Letter 178 to Félix Bertaux (9 February 1933):

I’m tired of all these things, because of the goings-on in Germany I’m incapable of settling the least personal matter, and I feel completely downtrodden.

Letter 182 to Stefan Zweig (February 1933):

It will have become clear to you now that we are heading for a great catastrophe. Quite apart from our personal situations—out literary and material existence has been wrecked—we are headed for a new war. I wouldn’t give a heller for our prospects. The barbarians have taken over. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns.

Letter 193 to Stefan Zweig (26 March 1933):

You understand, the difference between 1933 and 1914 is roughly that between a sick animal like Goering, and Wilhelm II, who at least kept vestiges of humanity. Obviously, fools perpetrate folly, and beasts commit bestiality, and madmen commit mad acts: all of them suicidal. But it is not all obvious that our equally sick and confused surroundings discern stupidity, bestiality, and madness. That’s the difference.

Letter 206 to Stefan Zweig (20 July 1933), indicative of Roth’s style of living (out of a suitcase):

Dear esteemed friend, would you happen to have a copy of my novel Zipper and His Father? Or can you manage to get hold of one? If so, then please send it to A. Corticelli… . He wants to publish it, and will pay me for it. It’s shocking, I have no copies of any of my books.

Letter 218 to Stefan Zweig (9 October 1933):

In this world it’s a matter of absolute indifference—unfortunately—what is written about us or by us. There’s a handful who know, and they know everything. All the others are blind or dear. Haven’t you go that yet? The word has died, men bark like dogs. The word has no importance any more, none in the current state of things.

The November 7, 1933 letter to Stefan Zweig (#223) shows a judgmental Roth trying to help his friend Zweig understand the new dynamics in German political life:

It used to be that you were happy to deny that you were Arnold Zweig. What you’re doing today, with the least association with Germany, is denying that you’re Stefan Zweig. (A reader of yours came up with that.) You have so much to lose: not just your personal dignity, but your literary—and world-renowned—bearing. To thousands who think of Germany the way I do, not you, you were a prop, a pillar of faith. In the war you stood at the side of Roman Rolland. And now, now that things are at a worse pass than they ever were then, you’re writing anxious little letters to the Insel [Zweig’s publisher]. … Everything is the fault of your shilly-shallying. All the badness. All the ambiguity. All the stupid newpaper comments on you. You are in danger of losing your moral credit vis-à-vis the world, and not winning anything in the Third Reich either. Put practically. And in moral terms: you’re repudiating your personal principles of 30 years. And why? For whom? For a business partner. … It’s the hour of decision, not just in the sense that it’s time to take the side of mankind against Germany, but also in that it’s time to tell every friend the truth.
[From the postscript, written the next day] I’ve just read over the letter I wrote you yesterday. Lest you be in any doubt: I did not write it while intoxicated. .. I am, further, quite clear about the fact that it constitutes an act of crass presumption to approach you with rules for conduct. I apologize. I have probably made a mess of my own life. But I still think I can see the life of one dear to me perfectly.

Part of Stefan Zweig’s response, from Letter 224 (November 1933):

[W]hat I am concerned about is getting control of my own work again and not (my nerves wouldn’t be up to it) having to go to court over it. But it couldn’t be done violently, the way you imagine it. Why won’t you give someone you’ve known for many years a few weeks’ grace, and not shout “Treason!” right away where you don’t understand something (as with Thomas Mann too, a highly principled man, who as an Aryan has no need to share the fate of Jews). You can’t rub out the seventy million Germans with your outcry, and I’m afraid the Jews abroad are in for more disappointment, it’s quite possible that a pact may be concluded over their heads, diplomacy is capable of any sort of datardliness, and politics of the wildest leaps, we will have to bear a lot of disappointment in the time to come: how crazy to rage against each other now!

When someone says they are just kidding, you know they aren’t. And when Roth says it isn’t personal in Letter 230 (30 November 1933), you know it is. But he’s only getting warmed up at that point:

He’s a plebian (just like his wife, whom I met once. She looks huge, but only sitting down. A stumpy-legged plebian.) (You know my intentions with all this stuff are not personal.) …
Wherever they oppress us, in Russia, Italy, Germany, is a TOILET. It stinks there. It’s not true to say that Communism has “transformed an entire continent.” Like fuck it has. It spawned Fascism and Nazism and hatred for intellectual freedom. Whoever endorses Russia has eo ipso endorsed the Thrid Reich.

Letter 232 to Stefan Zweig (22 December 1933)—Roth never lacked in self-awareness, just restraint:

I got to Amsterdam by borrowing 100 francs. I sat in the American Hotel for 3 days, without eating anything. My. Querido [his new publisher] was, for the first time in his life, confined to bed.—Little tricks of the devil, things I’m pretty much used to by now. In the end I was able to secure 1,000 fancs from Mr. Landshoff. Then I began to drink. I had a supper invitation from Mr. de Lange, for which I turned up completely drunk. Now, Mr. de Lange is a mighty drinker, and he wasn’t sober either. But something happened that I thought would never happen to me. For the first time in my life I experienced a complete blackout. My recollection of the evening is absolutely nonexistent. It’s possible I’ve wrecked my chances with de Lange. You know, he’s a sort of Junker type really. He knows from somewhere that writers drink, but in his imagination or experience it doesn’t stretch to their actually being drunk. He can only have had a very approximate sense of me [before the meeting]. I was a “literary name” to him, little more. He was very nice, but I’m afraid I’ve messed up my chances. For the first time I felt a real sense of weakness. My dear friend, it’s possible that my “self-destructive instinct” put in a major appearance; even though, in physiological terms it’s easy enough to explain how a man can get very drunk if he hasn’t had anything to eat. I’m still rather shocked at myself. For the first time. … Maybe it’s a sign for me to stop. But believe me: however much I believe that my muse is the muse of separation, I know perfectly clearly that she is driving me to suicide. … I can’t historicize myself. But nor can I continue to convert this intrusion of private grief into my “true,” unliterary life into literature. It’s killing me. And believe me, never did an alcoholic “enjoy” his alcohol less than I did. Does an epileptic enjoy his fits? Does a madman enjoy his episodes?

From Letter 235 to René Schickele (end of 1933 or early 1934), a comment that reflects part of The Radetzky March, and more. Hofmann notes this letter includes Roth’s “tremendous tirade against all ethical relativism.” A taste:

”Mess spirit” I took to be the splendid training of young officers (at least in Austria) to respond to an insult with an insult back, and to prefer death to disgrace. That is a clear human quality. … You may forgive and you may love. You are even instructed to do so. But you may not move the absolute line between good and evil because it suits you. A vile act is a vile act—there’s no more to be said about it.

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