Dennis Marks, Wandering Jew: The Search for Joseph Roth, Notting Hill Editions, 2016.
Writer Joseph Roth was a notorious liar. Born in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia in 1894, he invented scores of false origin stories. In one he was the son of a Viennese arms dealer, in another the illegitimate offspring of a civil servant, and one more had his father as a Polish count. Such myth-making ran the gamut and endured from cradle to grave. Before Roth drank himself to death at age 44, he claimed to have been both a prisoner of war in Siberia and a member of the military detail at Emperor Franz Joseph’s funeral, among other things.
Such creativity served Roth well in composing fiction, and yet it poses a formidable obstacle when inquiring into Roth the man. Just two dozen or so photographs of Roth still exist, but what does remain is a tremendous literary output, including 15 novels, reams of correspondence, and a multitude of journalism. Best known for his canonical The Radetzky March, Roth has undergone a revival in recent years as his sharp insight into the untenable contradictions of early 20th century Europe—the glitzy culture of Vienna versus the abject poverty of the Jewish shtetl, or the nationalist drive for autonomy and its clash with a rigid imperial system—also captures a crisis of multiculturalism familiar to our own time.
“[Roth’s] language is German, but his subject matter is often Slavic, sometimes Jewish, and always extraterritorial,” Dennis Marks writes is his rereleased book The Wandering Jew: The Search for Joseph Roth.
The recently deceased Marks, a former documentary filmmaker and director of the English National Opera, looks to fill this dearth of insight into Roth — who still lacks a proper English language biography. In doing so Marks makes the case that the key themes of Roth’s work—multiculturalism, nationalism, borders, and displacement—have renewed relevance today. First published in 2011, but out again later this year, Wandering Jew is not an attempt at biography per se but asserts to map a “psycho-geography” of Roth — “or what German speakers call his Seelenlandschaft, his spiritual landscape.”
It is an essay in five chapters and comprises an examination of Roth’s inner world as well as the places where he spent his time. This appropriate strategy tries to turn Roth’s sizable output and itinerant lifestyle to Marks’s advantage. The book begins by introducing us to the anomaly that is Roth, a “mythomaniac” in Marks’s words, and after a brief description of the places Marks travelled to, quickly moves into dissecting Roth’s maturation as a writer. It wraps up with analysis of how Roth’s Jewish roots influenced him (his taste for paradox is “Talmudic”) before examining his contemporary legacy.
After leaving his hometown of Brody, Roth briefly studied in Vienna before dropping out to serve with the Habsburg army on World War I’s Eastern front. In the 1920s he wrote extensively about Berlin and the Weimar Republic, not to mention post-revolution Russia, and later settled in Paris as the Nazis were taking power. All the while he lived almost exclusively in hotels, nominally homeless and wandering, “a laureuate of displacement,” Marks writes. Once among the highest paid journalists of his day, literary recognition for his novels came later in Roth’s short life—The Radetzky March came out in 1932—and by the end this former radical had drifted reactionary, converting to Catholicism and advocating the return of the Habsburg monarchy.
In the early pages of Wandering Jew, a map details Marks’s own travels in Roth’s wake — a massive Austro-Hungarian loop of Sarajevo- Budapest-Cluj-Chernivtsi-Lviv-Krakow-Moravia- Bratislava-Vienna-Trieste, but just the second of five chapters really describes what Marks encountered, with a focus on Brody in present- day Ukraine.
“Seventy years after [Roth’s] death, it is once again the natural habitat of the displaced,” Marks writes. “Hitler may have removed all the Jews and Stalin most of the Poles and Romanians but others have taken their place. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union Ukraine has been a soft border for economic migrants and sex-traffickers.”
There is no real intent by Marks to lay out a thesis statement, but the closest thing to it sees him argue that the recent revival of Roth’s work coincides with the reemergence of what are more or less timeless themes in international affairs. “History no more ended in 1989 than it did after the Kaiser’s death in 1916,” Marks argues.
“It was only after the fall of the Berlin Wall that I began to understand the reasons for [Roth’s] neglect,” he writes. “We had simply forgotten the world he evoked.”
It may well be a matter of personal taste, but sections that describe Marks’s contemporary travels or put Roth in a 21st century context feel like the book’s strengths and leave the reader wanting more. Too often it feels as if the author tilts the discussion in the direction of psychoanalysis and literary critique. Still, the comprehensive survey of Roth’s work can serve as a helpful introduction to novices, filling in the gaps for fans of Roth’s work or prompting reaction from connoisseurs.
Conventional wisdom long had it that Roth was essentially a one trick pony. The Radetzky March, a jewel of a novel that tracks the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire through three generations of the Trotta family, is widely perceived as a masterpiece with most of his other work traditionally considered marginal or uneven. Even more so than geopolitics that brought the end of the Cold War, a spate of translations by Michael Hofmann have brought much more of Roth’s work to the attention of English-language readers — including two excellent journalism anthologies, What I Saw and The Hotel Years.
“I don’t write any ‘witty columns,’” Roth once wrote in a letter to his editor at the Frankfurter Zeitung. “I paint the portrait of the age. That’s what great newspapers are there for. I’m not a reporter, I’m a journalist; I’m not an editorial writer, I’m a poet.”
Indeed he was, and even a cursory glance at Roth’s hundreds of newspaper feuilletons (or as he referred to them, “saying true things on half a page”) indicates an eye for nuance, not to mention foresight. In one 1924 piece for the Prager Tagblatt, nine years before Hitler took power, Roth detailed the struggle of a Hamburg worker amid hyper-inflation in Weimar Germany. “Without the free food he gets in assembly halls he would starve to death,” he writes. “And in these assembly halls where people used to go to smooch and drink, they are now daubing swastikas and Soviet stars on the grimy walls.”
It is Roth’s focus on people and places off the beaten path that sets him apart. He has an affinity for misfits, with a smuggler named Kapturak appearing in five different novels for example. Marks makes much of Roth’s own status as an outsider, and rightfully so. Born in the Austro-Hungarian provinces, Roth’s father abandoned the family before he was born. His Jewish origins meant he was always perceived as something of an interloper in Austria. After World War I, the collapse of the Habsburg empire would have a profound influence on Roth. When his Brody roots meant he was designated as a citizen of Poland after the war, Roth sought out Austrian citizenship instead. By 1920 he was essentially permanently on the road.
Though Marks does not do so, Roth is often juxtaposed with his contemporary Stefan Zweig, who has also undergone a resurgence in recent years. While the latter gained literary fame young and hailed from the genteel Viennese establishment, the former lived hard out of a suitcase. The dichotomy is clear, and the debate about both authors’ relative merits resembles any number of watering hole or academic journal discussions pitting an establishment darling against an unpredictable rebel. If Zweig were a member of The Beatles, he would be Paul, with Roth standing in for John Lennon.
The two exchanged letters, and Zweig largely financed Roth for the final decade of his life, but their rivalry has reached a fever pitch only now, more than seven decades after both have died. Nobody is more responsible for this than the aforementioned Hofmann, who has called Zweig “a pedestrian stylist” and “just putrid” while forcefully arguing for Roth’s superiority as a writer.
“I learned to see Roth as his own solar system,” Hofmann has written. “The sparkling asteroid belt of his articles; the calm, temperate, crystalline planets his novels (populated by crooks, by enviably stupid and surprisingly heroic officers and petty officials and by fickle and beguiling women), and then his actual molten, sun-spotted core.”
It is Roth’s molten center that Marks is trying to reach, but at times he falls victim to over-analysis. Like an aspiring guitarist who seeks deeper meaning in a riff Jimi Hendrix once played on some bootlegged recording, Marks looks to explain—at length—Roth’s recycling of characters and names in various stories and novels.
The fact that some of them have different first names (a coachman named Kroy in the short stories Strawberries and This Morning a Letter Arrived, for example) or slightly different spellings (Nathan Piczenik in Tarabas and Nissen Pichenik in Leviathan) is cause for probing investigation. And yet it seems more likely than not that Roth, an alcoholic who produced an average of 300 published pages per year during his working years before dying young, reproduced a fair number of them by mistake. Churning out copy under the influence is hardly a recipe for precision.
Wandering Jew is enjoyable enough, driven on by Marks’s tangible excitement over his subject matter, but there are occasional minor miscues when relaying contemporary events. In making the point that in the 21st century most of the former Habsburg lands are again part of a larger political unit, Marks contends that “Czechoslovakia” was among those “welcomed into the European Union” — but the Czech Republic and Slovakia joined the EU in 2004, a full decade after they had split. Elsewhere, Marks marvels at the mostly border-free travel that comprised his itinerary writing: “In 2008, for the first time in ninety-four years, you could travel the thousand miles from Trieste to Lviv without a visa.” Even at the Ukrainian border his EU passport means he gains quick access and need not pay “a single penny, euro, zloty or forint,” he continues, but surely hryvnia would be a useful currency to have in Ukraine.
Rather than Zweig, Marks measures Roth against another Habsburg era cultural figure— one who likewise hailed from the margins of the empire—Moravian composer Gustav Mahler. “While Mahler commanded the heights of Austrian cultural life, Roth retreated to the margins,” Marks writes.
Whether its Zweig or Mahler, this tension between core and periphery, insider and outsider, are key to thinking about Roth. Marks takes up that discussion in his analysis of The Emperor’s Tomb, Roth’s final novel published in 1938, which he calls a “huge meditation on inner and outer displacement” while noting its larger argument: The demise of the Habsburg empire was rooted in Vienna losing touch with the provinces.
Roth makes the point through a Polish nobleman character, Count Chojnicki, who says: “The body politic of Austria is nourished and constantly replenished from the Crown Lands.”
The publisher of Wandering Jew, Notting Hill Editions, has taken on the admirable mission of reviving the essay as a literary form. This book appears in a beautiful cloth-bound hardcover, and at 132 pages it could easily tuck away in suitcase and be read in a single sitting on a journey of one’s own. The title is a fitting one as Wandering Jew references both Roth’s peripatetic lifestyle and his ties to an ethnic minority. It also alludes to his 1927 non-fiction work The Wandering Jews, which details the mass exodus by the descendants of Jacob from Eastern Europe after World War I — when national boundaries were in flux and the Russian revolution was underway. Though Marks’s book predates the current European migrant crisis, events in the meantime add to his case that Roth’s themes have renewed relevance today.
“They want to leave the country where a war might break out from one year to the next, and from one week to the next, a pogrom,” Roth wrote in The Wandering Jews. “And so they leave, by foot, by train, on board ship, for Western countries where a different, somewhat reformed, though no less dismal ghetto offers its own brand of darkness to the newcomers who have barely managed to escape the clutches of the concentration camp.”
For Roth, wandering may well have been a preferred way of life but for many others—then and now—it is merely the least bad option.
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