On the Anniversary of the Death of Joseph Roth: The Fallen

Die Presse (03/31/2009)

Joseph Roth died seventy years ago. The author of the “Radetzky March” is honored on television

One can hardly bear watching this man as he is drinking. He drinks like he writes - incessantly in the coffee houses of Vienna, Berlin and Paris. His ink pen flies over the pages, hectically crossing out passages, and meanwhile always with a hand around the glass. He looks like suicide incarnation. That was the writer Joseph Roth, who came from a middle class Jewish family who lived in the Galician city of Brody. With utmost clear sightedness he documented the fall of the Habsburg Monarchy, the terrors of war and Nazi rule. Very early on he grappled with Hitler in “The Spider’s Web” (1923), and with Stalinism in “The Silent Prophet” (1929).

“That’s who I really am – mad, drunk but clever,” he wrote unsparingly of himself beneath a sketch which Mies Blomsma made of him in November of 1938 in Paris. That is also the title of an excellent, one-hour TV documentary by Karl Pridun, who pursued Roth’s life journey beginning with his childhood on the Eastern border of the Monarchy until his miserable death in a hospital for the poor in Paris in May 1939. Quotations, photos, historic films and film adaptations are cleverly inserted, supplemented by contrived scenes and drawings. Biographer Wilhelm von Sternburg offers expertise (his book was recently published by Kiepenheuer & Witsch”) as well as historians Heinz Lunzer and Victoria Lunzer-Talos, whose magnificently illustrated book on Roth has undergone a new edition. Witness of the times Otto von Habsburg also expressed his reverence to the writer, who saw the decline of the Empire. From Paris, Roth and other enthusiasts of the monarchy wished for its return.

It is not really the political which is the main focus in Roth’s writings, but the experience of uprootedness. He moves from place to place with his wife Friederike, who is afflicted with schizophrenia beginning in 1928. Despite his high fees earned as a star journalist, Roth is always plagued by lack of money. The situation takes on a dramatic turn when his books are forbidden by the Nazis in 1933. He continues to write his most significant works, diligently and obsessed, testimonials of the big crises, both externally and internally, ennobled in a wonderfully clear language documenting the times.