The last few years have seen the continued growth, in the English-speaking world, of interest in the work of Joseph Roth (1894–1939), the great Austrian novelist and journalist best known as the author of Radetzkysmarsch (The Radetkzy March, 1932) and Hiob (Job, 1930). The latest evidence for this comes in the form of two significant, though very different publications – Keiron Pim’s new biography of Roth, Endless Flight, and Hugo Hamilton’s novel The Pages, which is explicitly inspired by and indebted to Roth.
This wave of appreciation is pleasing to see, though it comes with a certain amount of natural lag in comparison with the German-speaking countries. There, Roth’s reputation was re-established, starting in the 1950s, through the gradual re-publication of his fiction, non-fiction and letters. In 1989–90, a near-comprehensive, six-volume Works appeared. In 1974 the American scholar David Bronsen published a meticulous biography establishing the facts of Roth’s life, and correcting many of the ‘myths’ surrounding this famously contradictory author. It is largely through the new translations by Michael Hofmann, published by Granta over the last couple of decades, that English-language readers today have had the opportunity to read the range of Roth’s work – but until now no English-language biography has been published.
With Endless Flight this omission has now been corrected. Pim, a professional biographer rather than a literature specialist or academic, has produced a detailed, persuasive and very readable account of Roth’s short, brilliantly creative and ultimately tragic life, synthesising in the process the key findings of the growing body of scholarship on Roth, which is generously and transparently cited throughout. It’s beautifully written with a distinctive, empathetic humanity. Pim charts the stations of Roth’s life against their historical contexts: his childhood in Galicia, his student years in Vienna and military service in the First World War, and his trajectory as journalist, taking in almost every corner of Europe and the Soviet Union. He naturally covers Roth’s literary career in depth, tracking the genesis of the major works and accounting for his development and style. He does particular justice to the heart-breaking tale of Roth’s marriage to Friedl, whose decline into incurable mental illness saw her institutionalised. Readers of Roth in English finally have the biography they were craving.
Hugo Hamilton’s unusual novel The Pages provides further evidence not only of the appeal of Roth’s fiction but of the biographical and historical context that shaped it. Hamilton, an Irish author who grew up speaking both German and English, takes the bold decision to have as narrator in his novel not a human character but a book owned by the protagonist, Lena, an American artist of German heritage. The book in question is a first edition of Roth’s 1924 novel Die Rebellion (Rebellion), and through this magical conceit the reader is guided by a voice who can simultaneously bear witness to the drama that ensues when Lena travels to Berlin, reflect on the book’s own ‘biography’ through the Nazis’ seizure of power and beyond, and also tell us about the life of its author, Roth himself. The threefold strands are interwoven and intended to complement each other, and for the most part this works well.
Lena has travelled to Berlin seeking to solve the puzzle of a map drawn in the back of the book by its original owner, a German-Jewish academic who was murdered by the Nazis, and in the process becomes entangled in the lives of immigrants to contemporary Berlin while coming to terms with her own ambitions and family history. The present at times seems to map onto the past, intriguingly, and there are echoes of the plot of Rebellion, which tells the story of a disabled war veteran who falls victim to prejudice and spite, and of Roth’s traumatising relationship with Friedl. There were admittedly times when I found the perspective inconsistent and somewhat contrived, and I was not entirely convinced by the love affair at the heart of the story, sparked by the theft and return of the book-narrator, or the melodramatic denouement. But this is certainly a novel worth seeking out, especially if you have already read Rebellion or have an interest in Roth, and one that makes an interesting point of comparison to Pim’s biography.
Reviewed by Jon Hughes
ENDLESS FLIGHT: THE LIFE OF JOSEPH ROTH by Keiron Pim, published by Granta (2022)
THE PAGES by Hugo Hamilton, published by 4th Estate (2021)
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Jon Hughes is Reader in German and Cultural Studies at Royal Holloway University of London. His research focuses on literature and film in interwar Germany and Austria, and he has published widely on the work of Joseph Roth.