Joseph Roth’s letters reveal a man stuck between the past and the present

Stefany Anne Golberg in The Smart Set:

ID_PI_GOLBE_ROTH_AP_001Among the 457 letters in Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, there is not one love letter. This may not surprise fans of the writer — author of The Radetzky March, The Emperor’s Tomb, and Job, among others — who may know Joseph Roth as a vagabond and misanthrope whose occupation as a journalist had him traveling from one European country to the next, living in rented rooms, wearing threadbare clothes, without a bank account, mostly alone, too miserable for romance, the consummate Wandering Jew. But even Roth the World War I soldier left no love letters, no tender requests to, perhaps, a girl he left behind in the crumbling Hapsburg Empire, asking for solace or maybe a photo. Nor did he write any romantic epistles to the lovers with whom he found companionship and comfort in his final years. There are a handful letters from Roth's pre-war younger days, but they are all written to his cousins in Lemberg. They are letters of encouragement, advice, pontifications, the kind of letters one writes in youth that are more an affirmation of one’s self-understanding: “I am a sworn enemy to etiquette,” he wrote to his cousin Resia (which, in any case, was not true) and “…just like in Goethe’s Faust, which, alas and alack, you haven’t read.” “Who ever would have guessed it: all of nineteen!” he wrote to his younger cousin Paula when he was 22. “But then nineteen years are like a piece of fluff on the scales of eternity. And it’s in eternity that we live. From eternity, in eternity, for eternity. Yes, for eternity as well.”

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