End­less Flight: The Life of Joseph Roth 

  • Review
By – April 17, 2023

Writ­ing a biog­ra­phy of Joseph Roth presents two chal­lenges: 1) giv­ing a fresh per­spec­tive on an already beloved cul­tur­al icon, and 2) hon­est­ly por­tray­ing a man who emphat­i­cal­ly dis­re­gard­ed polit­i­cal and reli­gious cor­rect­ness. Roth was a Jew who wished he were Catholic and who made nasty remarks about Jews. He demand­ed sub­servience from women, embraced the Aus­tri­an monar­chy, and drank inces­sant­ly. Some biog­ra­phers might choose to focus sole­ly on all this unpleas­ant­ness, sens­ing that such tawdry tales attract audi­ences. Keiron Pim, how­ev­er, sin­cere­ly admires Roth’s work. While he does crit­i­cize some of his writ­ing (he refers to The Antichrist as dis­sat­is­fy­ing”) and call out Roth’s bad behav­ior (par­tic­u­lar­ly his misog­y­ny), he dis­cuss­es it in ways that keep read­ers engaged. Indeed, as he weaves in sum­maries of Roth’s major works, demon­strat­ing how he recy­cled char­ac­ters from pre­vi­ous texts (and even peo­ple from his own life), Pim turns a book that could be tire­some and redun­dant into some­thing almost mag­i­cal. Imag­ine Roth fill­ing a kalei­do­scope with the shards of his own auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Pim sug­gests, and then giv­ing it a lit­tle twist so that new images form.

The author tells Roth’s life sto­ry chrono­log­i­cal­ly, start­ing with his boy­hood in small-town Brody (in present-day Ukraine). Roth nev­er knew his father, who had fled and gone mad; his moth­er raised him her­self. (This absent father inhab­its most of his nov­els in var­i­ous guis­es.) Roth left Brody for cos­mopoli­tan Vien­na, where he adopt­ed every affec­ta­tion avail­able, includ­ing an abid­ing love of the Hab­s­burg monar­chy. After a brief faux mil­i­tary phase, he began liv­ing from city to city in hotels, writ­ing and drink­ing in cafes. Just after his moth­er died, he mar­ried a woman who would lat­er devel­op schiz­o­phre­nia. But mar­riage did noth­ing to domes­ti­cate his lifestyle. 

Because Roth usu­al­ly need­ed more mon­ey than he had and drank what he didn’t have, his friend­ships were frag­ile. Feel­ing he lacked an authen­tic iden­ti­ty — he was­n’t as obser­vant as the Gali­cian Hasidim of his youth, nor was he actu­al­ly Catholic like those Hab­s­burg mon­archs — he couldn’t bear the com­pa­ny of the assim­i­lat­ed. Beyond all his per­son­al issues, fas­cism drove him (and many rel­a­tives and friends) out of Ger­many and Aus­tria. Before long, they heard what was hap­pen­ing to the Jews who didn’t leave. God, he con­clud­ed, was nowhere. All he could do was drink and write him­self into a grave,” which he did.

Why read about Joseph Roth, such a twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry man, in 2023? Per­haps in the midst of Russia’s war on Ukraine, some read­ers are redis­cov­er­ing their Ukrain­ian and Mit­teleu­ropa roots. But even with­out a per­son­al con­nec­tion, Roth’s focus on the Heimkehrer—the ruined sol­dier return­ing home after war and find­ing noth­ing — may become our new reality.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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