A conversation with Michael Hofmann about Joseph Roth.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth travelled extensively throughout Europe, leading a nomadic life in the various hotels he called home across the continent.
Roth wrote in an exceptionally turbulent time in European history, when political ideals moved at an exceedingly rapid pace.
He witnessed the disastrous consequences of the newly formed centrally planned economy in the Soviet Union, when he travelled there as a reporter in the 1920s. During the 1930s he observed how the rise of fascism turned Germany into a super-nationalistic state as Hitler began his master plan to eliminate the Jews and drove the rest of Europe towards another catastrophic world war.
The Hotel Years: Wanderings in Europe Between the Wars, recently translated from German into English by the German-born British writer Michael Hofmann, is a selection of Roth’s journalism from an era when Europe was dramatically changing.
Roth was especially wary of the dangers in the extremity of radical ideas—such as fascism and communism—that were the dominant ideologies gripping the European civilisation he lived through. If some saw these utopian ideals as a path to economic freedom, Roth could already smell the ashes of the barbaric destruction they would eventually bring about.
Roth was a journalist who was always acutely aware of history and preoccupied with political ideas of his time, but he also paid close attention to the smaller details that most writers are too busy to notice. In an article dated 11 January 1926, he writes: “[It’s] the gaps in the news that are the interesting bits.”
Whether it was looking into the eyes of beautiful peasant women in railway stations along the Baltic Coast, attempting to figure out why melancholy scarred their history so much; seeing first hand the idiosyncratic tics and quaint mannerisms of the rich and powerful staying in hotels across European capitals; or simply delineating the activity of a town square from a hotel balcony, where the world somehow goes on without him, Roth was always there as a flâneur, his job to simply observe.
Roth died tragically of alcoholism, almost penniless, in Paris in 1939, at just forty-four years of age. In his short life, though, he produced over twenty books, which include novels, collections of journalism, and his letters. All of his work in one way or another documents his thoughts on the politics of his age.
I caught up with Michael Hofmann, who has just finished translating into English his fourteenth book from Joseph Roth. We discussed Roth’s thoughts on conservatism, why he always felt so personally disappointed at the loss of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his fraught relationship with the writer and publisher Stefan Zweig.
In a letter from 1932, Roth wrote: “The most powerful experience of my life was the war and the end of my fatherland, the only one I have ever had: the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.” How influential was the collapse of the monarchy for Roth, both as a person and a writer?
By the time he wrote that letter in 1932 he was surrounded by so much breakage: there were his personal disappointments of not getting a job in Paris in 1926. Then there was the catastrophe of his wife losing her mind. And one tries to hang tragedy on the biggest peg one can find. In his case, that became the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
So in that way, it was useful to him. But empire was something he really believed in. Very early on in his career, he turns out to be against nationhood. The things that he likes, and the things he responds to, are places where people can mingle freely. He hates German racism and German nationalism. Until the end of his life, he believed the Jews never had it so good as in the Austrian empire, with an emperor who personally cared for them.
Was Roth getting paid an exceptional amount of money for his newspaper articles during the 1920s, before the Nazis took over the German press?
Apparently he was a very good negotiator. He also had a keen sense of what he was worth. And the people he worked for always seemed to have more money than he did. His attitude was: if they have it, why shouldn’t I?
He needed the money. And once he had it, he spent it. Either on his hotels, his travels, or his wife’s medical bills. But he also gave it away. The experience of being in exile always knocked him back a bit. He was an illegitimate child, he never had a father, and left home at fourteen. So in that sense, he never had a proper background, never had substance. But beyond that, the experience of exile, having the loss of a German readership in 1933, that was like knocking him down two or three classes.
And that was the case for every writer in Germany at that time, except of course for the people who were pro-Nazi. So all of these writers shared those same anxieties.
Was Roth a true conservative, in the Burkean sense?
Certainly he came to that view. He began as a man of the left, and then eventually changed. There is a conception out there of him that he went to the Soviet Union in 1926, saw what communism was, and that ultimately made a conservative of him. That’s not entirely correct, but there is definitely something in that. I think comparing Great Britain and the little state of Austria—or what was left of the dual monarchy after 1919—and that feeling of the loss of empire, or the loss of standing in the world, in both countries, is a useful thing to think about in this context. That is one reason Roth has the wide readership he does. He is someone that writes beautifully, but also someone who is aware of trouble looming.
What was Roth’s relationship like with the publisher and writer, Stefan Zweig?
Well Zweig was sort of everything that Roth was not: a rich, successful man from Vienna. As a Jew, Zweig was assimilated into society in way that Roth—who was from Galicia—was not.
Roth got in touch with Zweig when he was at a low point. I think they both knew that Roth was the better writer. Roth was always embarrassed having to take financial or moral help from Zweig, a person whom ordinarily he probably would have looked down on.
Zweig always tended to be excited by people who were severely gifted, because he knew he wasn’t. He was more a collector of culture, and of great men, rather than a writer. And he was always drawn to Roth’s fiery nature. Roth sponged a lot off Zweig, financially—especially later on during the 1930s when things got very difficult for him. A lot of the émigré writers found it very hard going during the 1930s. And Zweig helped many of them.
Roth wrote repeatedly about the dangers of the German political system during the 1930s. For example, he writes in one piece: “No one understands Germany: it is the least understood nation in Europe.” And in a letter to Stefan Zweig in 1933, he says: “Do not deceive yourself. Hell Reigns.” Even for his time, and the fact that he was a Jew, who may have been very fearful: was Roth an especially prophetic thinker?
Yes. He was a very sensitive man. In one piece he describes the atmosphere in a small German town as like five minutes before a pogrom. People throughout history flee for a reason: because life is impossible where they are. And Roth in his writing is very sympathetic to those people who are emigrating. In his time it was Jews emigrating to America from Russia. Nowadays, it’s refugees in Calais escaping Syria.
Roth also seemed to have an enormous strength for catching the sense of melancholy in things. For example in one article he writes: “But Sunday evenings are sad. Sunday evenings are thin and mealy as if they already belonged to Monday.” Was he a depressive, even lonely figure?
Well, I think it was Kafka who said that you wouldn’t have literature if you didn’t have windows.
In other words, life goes on outside, and literature is what the person standing at the window makes. I like Roth because, actually, he interacts with different people. Whether it’s the gypsy girls on the street, or when he goes to get his shoes cleaned, or even pretending to be a millionaire in the hotel. Unusually, he does a lot of mingling for a writer. Most literature is much more withdrawn.
But Roth was part of a generation that discovered people like Émile Zola, who had a willingness to go into life and mix with people. Writing in Germany during that period was so much more abstract: it was all about what you produce from your own spirit, introversion, and complexity. But Roth is much more interested in other people. He always wants to see what people are up to.
So yes, he is certainly melancholic and lonely. But he’s very gregarious at the same time.
What has attracted you over the years to Roth as a writer? And why have you dedicated so much of your career to translating his work from German to English?
He is ideal because he’s not been someone who has been translated over and over. He’s not a household name like Flaubert, Dostoevsky, or Chekhov. He’s also very underrated as a writer.
His work is full of color, balance, originality, and drive. And all the time you just feel you are in very good hands. I never intended to work with these translations as long as I have. But it’s now fourteen books that I have translated since I started working with Roth twenty-five years ago.
He never loses his balance as a writer. I think that is what attracts me to him most.
He didn’t have any use for things that were intellectual. And he was against intellectualism.
He thought a head is not worth that much without a heart. That balance of head and heart is why I have wanted to work on his translations so much over the years. He’s a very emotional writer. I also think your temperament has to coincide with the writer you are translating. And that is certainly true in this case.
JP O’Malley is an Irish writer living in London.