the confessional beckoned


Who is the greatest novelist called Roth? Philip and Henry both have their claims, but the one who will still be read in centuries to come is not an American but a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Joseph Roth. The name – pronounced ‘rote’ in German – means ‘red’, and that is appropriate, for Roth was a lifelong socialist. But he was also an ardent monarchist, long after the demise of the House of Habsburg. Roth’s life was a losing struggle with authority, money and drink. But he wrote like a recording angel, setting down his recollections of ‘the world of yesterday’, as his friend Stefan Zweig called the Vienna of the haute bourgeoisie: a world that embraced the remotest regions of the realm. For Roth, a native of Galicia, the old emperor was a sacral father-substitute and his empire ‘a kind of relic’. His greatest novel, The Radetzky March, is an elegy to this paradise lost. The facts of Roth’s life are by no means straightforward, for he reinvented himself in later life in order to lend plausibility to his monarchist leanings. In one 1932 letter to the author of a flattering review, for instance, he claims that in the First World War he was commissioned as a lieutenant in a prestigious regiment and was decorated for valour three times. To those on the Left whom he wished to impress, he boasted that he had been taken prisoner by the Russians and escaped, changing sides after the Revolution and fighting for the Red Army.

more from Daniel Johnson at Literary Review here.