Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters: 1934 - 1935

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

Once again I provide too many excerpts, but I'm finding Roth a fascinating figure. The uprising by the Social Democrats in Austria (12 February 1934) and the resulting Dollfuss dictatorship discourages Roth in a manner more than he had been in previous years. Politics, as well as world events, poisons many letters in this section. The émigrés have to walk a tightrope in their behavior since every action is put under a microscope. Roth references “the shriveled arena that’s all we’re still allowed to address in our language” (Letter 308), a “wonderful and terrible phrase for the German readership of these writers in exile—on average, 5 percent of the previous editions.” (Michael Hofmann’s note). As Roth demonstrates, his personal life reflects the political landscape of the day: “Don’t be upset if my letters are full of impatience and even irritations. It so happens I live and write in a continual state of confusion.” (Letter 332)

Hofmann notes after a letter from Roth to Stefan Zweig that “Zweig and Roth were both (rightly) of the view that Zweig was not a tenth the writer that Roth was. Zweig—to do him credit—was quite open about it… . In JR it takes the rather tortuous form of combining (as here) excessive praise of the whole with copious criticisms of details to appease his—unappeasable—literary conscience. … It seems to me that Roth—always needy, always manipulative—plays Zweig like a big fish he’s not quite sure he wants.”

Hofmann highlights Roth’s engagement in a “systematic mystification regarding his birth”, in one case saying he was born in Szvaby in order to sound more German rather than admitting he was born in Brody, a miserable place associate with Jews. In other instances he lies about his birthplace to support whatever claim he wants to make at the time. His father is also heavily mythologized.

Roth has many obsequious passages or letters in this section (although it’s similar to other timeframes, too)—begging forgiveness for real or perceived slights, constant groveling for money from friends, sycophantic thanks to other writers for their positive comments, etc.. These passages become painful to read, especially since they come so often in his correspondence. From his descriptions of his life, or at least how he paints it (and I have no reason to doubt it was bad or that it weighed heavily on his mind), it’s easy to see his inspiration for The Legend of the Holy Drinker. I read my short description of that novella again and see Roth writing an allegorical and mythologized biography.

Roth is unforgiving on others’ perceived mistakes on sensitive topics, yet he is constantly begging forgiveness for his real offenses or slights, painting them as mistakes (in translation, perception, etc.). His temperament, dependent and fawning, is almost unbearable yet at the same time he shows he is willing to help those he views as worse off than him. Roth proves to be a very complex, flawed, gifted, and troubled man.

Excerpts from the letters:

Roth states in Letter 236 (12 January 1936) to Klaus Mann, “There is, so to speak, a politics of the literary emigration.” He makes the issue clearer in a subsequent letter. From Letter 238 to Klaus Mann (16 January 1934) and the editorial board of the Sammlung (an exile magazine):
[B]ut for me and many others, standing outside, there is a straightforward equation between [Ernst] Jünger and Goebbels. If out of woolly-mindedness or boneheadedness or stupidity he [Jünger] has supported or prepared the ground for the bestial ideology of National Socialism—and apart from that remained a decent human being—it’s completely ridiculous, in an émigré journal, a journal of his direct or indirect victims, to give him six pages of space, even if it finally comes down against him.

From letter 270 to Stefan Zweig (14 June 1934)—I wonder how much he’s influenced by the American cinema treatment of his book Job (released as Sins of Man, which I’ll review soon):

Film is not just a contemporary phenomenon. It may make people happy, but the devil sometimes does that. I am unalterably persuaded that the devil shows himself, so to speak, in living shadow play. The shoadow that speaks and acts is what Satan is. The cinema marks the beginning of the twentieth century. It ushers in the end of the world. Please don’t underestimate that. Telephone, radio, aeroplane, are nothing in comparison to it: the separation of the shadow from the man. It’s a turning point in human history, more significant that the Russian Revolution with its so-called liberation of the “proletariat.” (If only it had freed people instead! But of course it couldn’t do that.)

Letter 271 to Stefan Zweig (22 June 1934)—a sample of the self-effacement and debasement he often presented in his letters:

It might not be easy for you—or pleasant—to hear all the acts of folly I perpetrated since you left Paris—all under the pressure of repulsive experiences. I know how difficult it is even for a great understanding to cope with a small derangement. But I still beg you to continue to think of me as a sensible person subject to occasional fits of madness but broadly in control, and as a conscientious friend who only writes like this in hours of clarity. I have debased and humiliated myself. I have borrowed money from the most impossible places, despising and cursing myself as I did so. And it was all because never in my life have I had anything like a secure financial base, never a bank account or savings. Nothing, nothing, just advances—expenditures, expenditure, advances, and until the Third Reich, I had publishers. … I feel obliged to come before you quite naked, my dear friend. Whatever you do, you cannot judge me more harshly than I do myself. I abuse you too, with the desperate selfishness of someone putting the life of his friend in danger by clinging to him like a drowning man clinging to his rescuer. … I have drunk nothing while writing this to you. I am stone-cold sober.
Letter 280 to Stefan Zweig (13 July 1934) puts Roth’s sometime petulant temperment on full display. After whining about how he has been wronged by others (and begging for money), we see the “I’ll hold my breath until I turn blue” Roth:
And you have no right to distrust my insight as if it were with some grocer’s. Oh, what do I care! Just tell me you don’t like getting letters from me. I know the process. Gooancz doesn’t want to antagonize Heinemann [both publishers]. The Anarchist could be a success! They don’t want to step on each other’s toes. Solidarity! You withdraw your offer and call a man of honor a cheat. Not with me you don’t!

I DON’T WANT YOU going through my affairs with a publisher. Believe me or don’t believe me. See for yourself! And while you’re going through my affairs, just set aside for a while your preconceptions regarding my character [if anyone knew Roth’s character without preconceptions it waw Zweig]. Don’t you worry, I’m as clever as your Huebsches, your Gollanczes, your Henemanns and your Landauers!

I was just lazy, and easily decived. I’ve had it anyway. In my will I will write down the names of all those I mistrust. (I’ll send you a copy) None of my tormentors will take any pleasure in my end. … It won’t be any good for anyone if I die. … Write to me straightaway, and tell me you wash your hands of me. Go with God. I am very fond of you. I embrace you.

Stefan Zweig, in Letter 284 (later in July 1934) offers advice he knows will be ignored. After scolding Roth for mucking up negotiations, he tries to reason with him and asks him (yet again) to sober up, not just physically but also in his outlook:

I’ve been imploring you for years, adjust to the reality that as a German Jewish author nowadays you’ll only be lucky enough in certain exceptional circumstances to earn money, and that the writer’s life is historically a pretty unprofitable one. Don’t try to force an income for yourself that’s impossible, that’ll only get you into warped contracts, tangles, and these unceasing difficulties!
Michael Hofmann’s note to Letter 290, to Stefan Zweig (20 July 1934):
Roth tends to have it in for Czechs and Hungarians most of all—see his later outburst against Budapest… because he blames them for the breakup of the Dual Monarchy. Villains in his books are very often Hungarians.

Letter 309 to Klaus Mann (6 October 1934):

Fifth, you make comparisons [of Russia] with Germany. Don’t make comparisons with Germany. Only hell is comparable. Everything, everything evil in the world, becomes noble by comparison with Germany. Germany is accursed, you have to learn to get out of the habit of comparing anything at all to this German shit.

(For Amateur Reader) From Letter 315 to Carl Seelig (11 November 1934), about writing The Hundred Days, which Roth tended to call “a historical novel”:

I’ve found in the material a way of expressing myself directly. And I’m in the worst pickle: I despise the low modes of the historical novelist, and become lyrical, in the way of the novelist. It’s difficult, but it tempts me, perhaps in the same way it seemed tempting once to write a Salammbô.

Letter 319 to Blanche Gidon (27 December 1934), presaging The Legend of the Holy Drinker again:

There are miracles in my life, poor little miracles, but miracles just the same—only fair for a poor little believer like myself.

Letter 326 to Stefan Zweig (15 February 1935) on his living situation and his state of mind:

I’ve moved, after various complications, without Huebsch’s money it would have been impossible. You were quite right, I’m not cut out for apartment life. It’s the last time I’m going to let myself be drawn into foolish experiments lite that. … I’ll start the second part [of his novel] over again. I have the courage of desperation. (I have only the courage of desperation.) … I need to know that I will certainly be able to stay alive for another 3-4 weeks, to be able to write. This horrible book—I wish I’d never embarked on that wretched story—must be brought to an end quickly. And I’m so slow! And on top of my slowness, there’s my crippling fear, slowing me down.

Letter 329 to Blanche Gidon (27 February 1935) encapsulates where he lays political blame:

I have the right to speak frankly about the Jews—who have introduced Socialism and catastrophe into European culture, “novarum rerum cupidissimi”[Roth uses the same expression in his essay The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind]: that’s the Jews for you. They are the real cradle of Hitler and the reign of the janitors.

Letter 333 from Stefan Zweig (March 1935) tries once again to accept the reality of the market, this time in Austria, for writers in a world burdened by the constant tension of war and fiscal depression:

One thing, Roth, don’t name figures to anyone but me. You have no idea on what tiny amounts people get by here, and how much resentment it causes when (to them) fantastic amounts are referred to deprecatingly. The newspapers pay 20 schillings for a feuilleton, and people come to blows over royalties.

Roth expresses his frustration on finishing The Hundred Days in Letter 338 to René Schickele:

I am horribly busy and even weighed down with my stupid book. This is the first and last time I’ll ever tackle anything “historical.” Devil take it—in fact, I think it was the Antichrist in person who got me into it. It’s improper to want to form existing, historical events all over again—and it’s disrespectful too. There is something godless about it—only I can’t quite say what.

Letter 342 to Blanche Gidon (17 June 1935) highlights the turmoil in his personal life, a concise comment on the situation for émigré writers. He ends reaffirming his stance of no compromises in outlook to Germany:

I have a ghastly thing going on in Vienna, over my wife. I have taken steps to start to divorce her, which is horribly difficult, like everything in that area. … It’s like a hornet’s nest, this agitation among the “émigrés,” these letters, this noise, this tittle-tattle. … And I mean to do all I can to remain just as unyielding as hitherto, and to fight those others who want to “understand everything,” basically because they’re cowards, JUST COWARDS, with their “profound humanity.” In fact, it’s profound cowardice.

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