Joseph Roth: He moved with his two suitcases from city to city
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.