Book reviews of Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters translated & edited by Michael Hofmann and Three Lives, a Biography of Stefan Zweig by Oliver Matuschek, translated by Allan Blunden
Writing in the Spectator in May 1989, G.M. Tamas, Hungarian philosopher, journalist, dissident, and briefly, after the collapse of Communism, a member of parliament, wrote about central Europe’s “dark secret”: “a universe of culture was destroyed.” That culture was German and Jewish, and its destruction was the work of the two “industrious mass-murderers”, Hitler and Stalin. Hitler exterminated the Jews, even though “the Jews, almost everywhere, were to all intents and purposes a peculiar German ethnic group”, originally speaking Yiddish, a German dialect, but understanding, enjoying and ultimately transforming literary German. Then in 1945-46 Stalin murdered or expelled the Germans, and central Europe was bereft. Without the Germans and the Jews, Tamas wrote, “our supposed ‘common culture’ does not make sense, and never will”.
Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig belonged to that vanished common culture. They were Jews and they were German authors, both born as subjects of the Habsburg emperor, Franz Joseph, Roth in the extreme east of the empire, Zweig in Vienna. Both were prolific writers, Zweig a very successful one, Roth the author of at least one masterpiece, The Radetzky March. Zweig was rich, Roth poor. Zweig lived for some years in a castle just outside Salzburg, Roth was a transient, moving with his two suitcases from city to city and hotel room to hotel room. Both were victims of Hitler’s frenzy, if indirectly, Roth dying of liver failure in Paris in 1939, aged only 45, Zweig committing suicide along with his second wife in exile in Brazil a couple of years later. They were unlikely friends, but they were friends, and their friendship survived Roth’s incessant borrowing, Zweig’s letters full of good advice, Roth’s dependency and inability to follow that advice, the exasperation each often provoked in the other.
It is to Zweig’s credit that he recognised Roth as the greater writer and wasn’t jealous, and it is perhaps unfair that one finds it so much easier to warm to Roth than to Zweig. That said, many will find Oliver Matuschek’s biography of Zweig enjoyable; only those who love and admire Roth’s fiction and marvellous journalism will endure these letters with their litany of moans, complaints, insults and pleas for help. They are a record of a mismanaged life, almost as painful to read as it must have been to live.
Roth was doubly cursed. He was possessed of a wonderful clarity of vision about everything and everyone except himself. He saw the horrors in store for Germany and Europe even during the Weimar years. And he could not believe there was any way out. Zweig, in contrast, retained the complacency of the successful bourgeois till almost the last hour — despite Roth’s frequent warnings. But Zweig was as successful in his private and professional life as Roth was disorganised and incompetent in his. Zweig was a efficient networker, Roth utterly incapable of establishing enduringly good relations with newspaper editors and publishers. Living hand to mouth, he wearied and irritated them by his constant demands for advances on work not yet written.
But what else could he do? His situation was wretched. His much-loved wife was schizophrenic and confined to an institution and, poor though he was, he had other dependants, whose position was even worse than his own. “You can tell me,” he wrote to Zweig in 1936, “advances are ruinous or immoral till you’re blue in the face. It seems to me it would be more immoral to give up writing or living altogether. It’s just a fact that I don’t have any money. I can’t live without advances. Fate is oppressing me in a terrible and tawdrily symbolic way, as if it were aping a stupid romantic novelist. I’m even ashamed of the blows it deals me. Such low blows.” (Did Zweig perhaps wince when he read that line about the “stupid romantic novelist”?)
What do you do when the world is collapsing? In 1937 Roth reproached Zweig for being “still on the side of ‘common sense’. You’ve experienced repulsive things with me: but the terror is still ahead. (Believe me!).” It is easy for us, at this distance, to admire Roth’s intransigence, his refusal to compromise, his insistence that if he survived his “penury” he would “outlive Germany; easy even to admire, or at least sympathise with, his self-destructive alcoholism, and to denigrate Zweig as the comfortable and prosperous writer, reluctant to look the bleak reality in the face — one reviewer of Roth’s letters dismissed Zweig as “a shit in a schloss”.
But it is fairer to accept that Zweig displayed the timidity and unjustified optimism of a man who had much to lose while Roth had the courage of one who had burned his boats long ago. Roth knew the temptation of despair and refused to surrender to it. He went on working, writing his books and articles, helping refugees even more helpless than he was himself. At the same time anyone reading these letters should recognise that in his dealings with Roth, Zweig showed consistent sympathy, understanding and readiness to meet the repeated demands for money. If he does not emerge from Matuschek’s biography as a very likeable character, there was nevertheless much that was admirable in him. Zweig too was forced to beg for asylum in the end.
Roth’s letters are harrowing, and not only in the picture they present of his own life. Footnote after footnote identifying people mentioned in the text report death in exile from Germany or Austria or death in the Nazi camps. A roll-call of those mentioned is like a funeral bell tolling for the culture of central Europe. The work of both Roth and Zweig was for decades unknown or forgotten in the English-speaking world. Pushkin Press has brought much of Zweig’s back into print. Michael Hoffman’s translations of Roth and tireless advocacy of his work have established him as one of the great German writers of the first half of the 20th century.
But the culture which nurtured them and of which Roth was one of the finest flowers, has been destroyed for ever. Roth’s life may be called tragic. The same adjective may be applied to Zweig’s end. There remains that other tragedy, the “dark secret” described by Tamas: that the two “industrious mass-murderers” destroyed “a universe of culture” which will never be revived, and can be recovered only in memory and the reading of books.