The doomed world of interwar Europe comes to burning life in the anguished correspondence of the peripatetic Austrian novelist/journalist.
Roth (1894–1939) was one of the best-known, highest-paid journalists writing in German during the 1920s and ’30s. He was also a superb novelist, a terrible drunk, an implacable enemy and an impossible friend, qualities that all leap off the pages of this collection. Perfectly translated by poet Hofmann (who should have left the footnotes to someone with a more systematic mind), Roth’s manic letters chronicle a life led from café table to hotel room to train station, scribbling articles for the Frankfurter Zeitung in between the series of novels that made his reputation. The pace was unsustainable, as were Roth’s finances. He was forever borrowing against advances and begging for money from better-heeled friends like the long-suffering Stefan Zweig, a more successful author who had—they both knew—less talent than Roth. It remains a mystery how the disorderly Roth found time to toss off these letters of coruscating brilliance, featuring trenchant, prescient analyses of the Nazi threat at a time when most of his fellow Jewish intellectuals were hoping it would blow over in a few years. A staunch Austrian monarchist who despised communists almost as much as fascists, Roth cut all ties with Germany immediately after the Nazis took power and scathingly criticized anyone, especially anyone Jewish, who tried to compromise with the regime. His correspondence in later years is almost unbearable to read, as he sunk deeper into alcoholism and despair, but his zest for language and his total commitment to literature glow through even the most crazed rantings. It’s easy to understand his agony when we read via his letters of an entire humane, cosmopolitan culture being murdered, as Jewish and antifascist writers saw their publications banned, their royalties confiscated and their lives threatened.
A quintessential depiction of one man’s view from the brink of the abyss.