A March to the Grave: Joseph Roth and the End of the Austro-Hungarian Empire


Roger Boylan reviews Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters (edited by Michael Hoffman), in the Boston Review:

Reading Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters is like sitting across a café table from Roth himself after he’s had a few. He holds nothing back. He rages, jokes, pleads, and sobs. “Don’t be upset,” he says—imagination supplies a wagging forefinger—“if my letters are full of impatience and even irritations. It so happens I live and write in a continual state of confusion.”

No standard biography of Roth exists in English, but this collection of his letters, superbly translated and judiciously edited by long-time Roth advocate Michael Hofmann, provides a more intimate portrait than any biography could. Roth’s letters are a study in authorial candor: in vino veritas, at least in part, for some of them were composed while he was drunk, getting that way, or hungover—the grim trinity that dominated his life more and more until he died of it, plusweltschmerz, in Paris in 1939. He was just short of 45 and had come a long way to die so young. He left behind one masterpiece,The Radetzky March, in which, in a series of vivid set-pieces, he evokes the reality of life high and low during the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s long decline, a vast theme encapsulated in the Trotta family, who ascend to nobility and imperial favor from provincial origins on the obscure fringes of the realm.