Endless Flight: The Life of Joseph Roth by Keiron Pim - review by Samantha Ellis

Samantha Ellis

Legend of the Unholy Drinker

Endless Flight: The Life of Joseph Roth


Granta Books 544pp £25

In 1938, Joseph Roth sat across the street watching the demolition of the Paris hotel he called home. He drank, he smoked and he wrote a short, sharp, lyrical piece describing how, ‘because the hotel is shattered and the years I lived in it have gone, it seems bigger’. On the last remaining wall he could still see the blue and gold wallpaper of what had been his room. After it had been torn down, he drank and joked with ‘the destroyers’, until the significance of the moment hit him: ‘You lose one home after another … terror flutters up, and it doesn’t even frighten me any more. And that’s the most desolate thing of all.’ This is pure Roth, nostalgia vying with irony, gallows humour saving him from despair. Writing was for him a form of survival: ‘I can only understand the world when I’m writing, and the moment I put down my pen, I’m lost.’

Roth loved hotels. He called himself a Hotelpatriot. In hotels, one could ‘strip off an old life’. Throughout Keiron Pim’s thrilling biography, the first in English, we see Roth in ‘endless flight’, constantly shedding those old lives. Pim, whose previous biography, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, probed another Jewish shapeshifter, David Litvinoff, thinks Roth used ‘contradiction as a way of throwing people off the scent, of winning himself a moment’s more freedom.’ Roth, who was born in 1894 in a town called Brody that was then part of Austro-Hungary and is now in Ukraine, denied and obscured his origins. But he also wrote about Brody with great tenderness and precision. Pim believes that Roth internalised the intense anti-Semitism of his time and that, as a self-hater, he could never feel at home. But he also argues that Roth craved discomfort, restlessness and the perspective gained from living on the edge. Certainly, he once left a hotel because ‘if I stayed longer I would be unworthy of the great blessing of being a stranger’.

Roth escaped Brody at eighteen, leaving behind his possessive mother, who had brought him up alone after his father had gone mad on a train and moved in with a Hasidic ‘wonder rabbi’. First in Lviv, then in Vienna, Roth was free to study and become a journalist. He roamed widely, asking piercing questions, writing in cafes, wearing dapper trousers, speaking super-correct German, sending friends yellow roses, travelling first class and reinventing himself as the Catholic son of a count.

Then came the war. Roth claimed he volunteered for service and won medals, but a friend said he knew that at least one of these came from a junk shop. What is true is that the end of the Austro-
Hungarian Empire was a trauma he never recovered from, which he would replay obsessively on the page, most compellingly in The Radetzky March. Roth knew that the peace would not last. As early as 1924 he wrote, like a rumpled Cassandra, ‘
The tombs of world history are yawning open … and all the corpses … are stepping out. A grotesque dream is forming – and all Germany accepts this miracle with indifference.’ By then he was in Berlin, married to Friedl Reichler, producing reams of journalism and three novels in a single year. He was the first novelist to mention Hitler, in his slapdash but astonishingly prescient debut, The Spider’s Web.

Roth often suffers by comparison with his friend Stefan Zweig. That droll, urbane writer whose nostalgia inspired Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel – a film Pim describes as bathing in a ‘gently dilapidated, pastel-toned Mitteleuropean world’ – is easier to love than the fraught, difficult Roth. But for Pim, Roth is a double espresso while Zweig is a ‘half-decent mocha, served lukewarm’. While Zweig had, as Roth put it in the most backhanded of compliments, ‘the grace to be able to avert [his] eye from darknesses’, Roth could never look away.

This did not make him easy company. He ruefully wrote, ‘I peel the skins off people and things to see their hidden secrets’, believing that this tendency ‘preclude[d] all of love’. So when Friedl became unwell, he blamed himself. They left Germany for Paris the day Hindenburg became German president. Roth was ‘besotted’ by the city, the cafes in which he drank calvados until the room swayed, the beauty of the Seine (and the women). He found French cattle drovers more cultivated than German politicians. But Friedl started cleaning obsessively, hearing ghosts in the pipes, wandering corridors naked, threatening suicide and experiencing paralysis, hallucinations and headaches. Pim admits that Roth’s attempts to mould and control his wife, his infidelity and his failure to give her financial security or a home did not help. But he also speculates that Roth refused to accept that Friedl was suffering from schizophrenia because he hoped that if he turned out to be the cause of her condition, it might prove curable.

After Friedl was hospitalised in Vienna, Roth numbed his guilt with alcohol, volatile women and work. He urged Bernard von Brentano, his writing protégé, to ‘Work harder! Three pieces a week. Practise that manner that’s eye-catching and load-bearing at the same time.’ And he escaped into the past, writing about picking forbidden strawberries in the forests of Ukraine and being caught by a forester, who tipped out his basket and trampled the fruit into the ground, unwittingly planting the seeds from which more strawberries would grow. It was as if he had opened a portal. Soon he was writing what would become one of his best-loved novels, Job, set in a stunningly evoked shtetl, in which a ‘simple man’ is tested by misfortune. For those who love Roth’s more bitter, mercurial prose, this novel can seem a perplexing return to sentiment and faith. But Pim makes a case for Job, pointing out that its closing miracle does not come from God but from medical science, and also that its hero celebrates, rather fabulously, by going to a hotel.

Job was a runaway hit. Roth’s next novel was The Radetzky March. Widely acknowledged as his masterpiece, despite the fact that, as Pim memorably observes, ‘the plot weaves like a homebound drunkard’, it should have been an even bigger success. But then Hitler took over. The Nazis put Roth on their very first list of prohibited writers; his books were burned and banned and he could no longer write for German papers. ‘The barbarians have taken over,’ he wrote. ‘Hell reigns.’ He was also struggling for money, not least to pay for Friedl’s care. He became paranoid and belligerent, carrying knives, besieging Zweig with demands for money and haranguing him for not speaking out against the Nazis, and even attacking Zionists (because he believed Jews should wander). By then so ill that he vomited at the start of each day, he began drinking himself to death. He urged Friedl’s parents to save themselves by leaving Austria and take responsibility for her care.

He didn’t lose his sense of humour. When he heard that Freud was writing a book arguing that Moses was not Jewish, he laughed so hard that he nearly fell off his chair. He made a crazed, failed trip to Vienna to try to thwart the Anschluss by restoring the Habsburg monarchy. And he wrote The Tale of the 1002nd Night, a gorgeous, feverish novel about the Persian shah visiting Vienna and unleashing chaos. This was followed by The Legend of the Holy Drinker, which is full of miracles – though most miraculous of all is that he wrote it in such turmoil.

In his last newspaper article, Roth began by sarcastically assuring his readers that a famous oak tree still stood in Buchenwald and that no inmates of the concentration camp had been tied to it and shot. No, this horror had been reserved for ‘the other oak trees, of which there is no shortage in this forest’. Soon after writing it, in May 1939, he collapsed in shock at the news of the suicide of his fellow Jewish writer Ernst Toller and died painfully and angrily in hospital. He had told so many tales that no one knew how to say goodbye to him. His funeral was a mess, presided over by a priest, with his Jewish friends fuming and his monarchist and communist friends at loggerheads beside the grave.

Pim assures us that his grave is often visited now. Jewish visitors leave stones as a mark of respect and occasionally someone leaves a bottle of wine. Pim’s detective work, untangling Roth’s tortured (sometimes maddening) contradictions, is enormously impressive, and his analysis of Roth’s work is incisive and sometimes revelatory. But what really drives this biography is Pim’s deep sympathy for Roth, which he sustains without ever glamorising or sentimentalising his subject or overstating the many ways in which Roth’s life and work are, as he writes, ‘uncannily topical’ given the 21st century’s ‘resurgent bloodshed, displacement of refugees, populist demagoguery [and] aggressive ethnonationalists agitating against rickety supranational projects’. Of the fact that Roth’s hometown, Brody, came under attack as the book was being prepared for print, he writes in a footnote simply that ‘Descriptions of buildings and population figures may … be out of date’.

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