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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.

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Phil Balla
February 26th, 2012
8:02 AM
Love Joseph Roth -- such decent, human stories he could tell, of such injured, naive, limited humanity. And such a scope he had for context - the entire terrain. Which makes him extra relevant now. Hitler. Stalin. Agreed. We know what they did. But how similarly do writers now -- especially those of the narcissist MFA ilk -- have even an inkling of the far greater damage their Corporate America poses for the world? Granted, the consumerism, the sprawl, the fossil fuel pollution, and the nuke poisons come all covered in genteel marketing lies and entertainment banalities now -- so few can see their damages at all in comparison to the obvious mass murderers and their then-similarly-Ph.D.'ed SS, stasi, and KGB enablers. But Roth could see human fallibility. He knew to love and to grieve in the contexts of the sicknesses he could also see.

repatriated expatriate
February 24th, 2012
5:02 PM
I agree with John in part. Zweig saw it coming, too. But Roth traveled lighter and was more clear-eyed. It was easier for him to pick up and leave and to see the full Nazi horror unleashed on all of Europe. But I disagree that old European culture will rise again. The Jews were the yeast in the dough. Also Americanization tends to flatten everything. Especially when exported!

John Borstlap
February 24th, 2012
3:02 PM
I find the negative remarks about Zweig in this article unjust. Zweig was fully conscious of the gradual change in European culture and political life between 1918-1939. That he was, up till the late thirties, not directly threatened in his existence, as with Roth, does not mean that he should be dismissed as 'a shit in a schloss'. The man in the midst of the surf naturally speaks another language than the man on the beach looking-on (and helping-out), but that is no reason for condemnation. Another thing: the almost institutionalized negativism as to European culture from after the 20C catastrophe is premature: there is no reason to conclude that some of this culture cannot be revived.

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