Monday, September 8, 2008

Joseph Roth & Sympathy for Losers

“He who has no unhappiness does not believe in miracles.”

“God grant all us drinkers such an easy, beautiful death!”

This summer I read two books by Joseph Roth, Job and The Legend of the Holy Drinker. Because I enjoyed these books so much, I wanted to bring them to your attention. Today I am only offering some information about Joseph Roth. Tomorrow and the next day I will take a look at these two books in more detail. I apologize beforehand that some parts of this essay are not quite as fully thought out as they should be; I thought it better to post it now or else risk never finishing it. (Spoiler warning: I will be giving away the endings of both stories.)

Joseph Roth is not very well known in America, though he is well-regarded in the German-speaking world. If an American has heard of him, it is probably on account of The Radetzky March, his fictionalized telling of the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nevertheless, Americans should study Roth more closely because he makes us ask ourselves a certain fundamental question we usually try to evade: In a society driven by success, what do we do with “the loser”? Roth’s writing poses this question so poignantly for at least two reasons. First, Roth himself was a loser. Geopolitics are certainly one part of the reason why Roth was a loser: He grew up in a turbulent world and into an age-old way of life that disappeared when he was barely reaching maturity. But, he was also a loser on a more personal level: He lied about himself compulsively, and died a homeless alcoholic. Secondly, Roth had the rare gift to be able to narrate a novel about a person’s entire fate with great sympathy in a deceptively simple style.
Roth was born in 1894 in Brody, East Galicia. Until the end of World War I, East Galicia belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but was then annexed by Russia; it is now located in western Ukraine. More importantly for Roth’s outlook on life, Brody was a sizeable Jewish shtetl. Roth was not raised speaking one of the local Slavic languages (Russian, Polish, and Ukrainian), but rather German and Yiddish; he later attended the only German-language high school in the nearby city of Lemberg, as he would have called it, or Lviv, as it is now known in Ukrainian. As a result, he was something of an outsider in his own native region, and always felt attracted by the wider German-speaking world outside the shtetl. This attraction drew him to Vienna for university studies. Shortly after this move World War I broke out and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the principle of unity in Roth’s life, was dismembered, with Brody and Lviv falling to the Bolsheviks.

With no home to return to after the war, Roth started work as a journalist, first in Vienna and later in Berlin. At the beginning of his career Roth was most concerned with social and political questions, displaying a generally socialist attitude. Nevertheless, his roots in the Jewish shtetl always shone through. Perhaps his most famous collection of articles from that period is entitled “The Wandering Jews” (Juden auf Wanderschaft).

The second stage of Roth’s career is marked not by an abandonment of social and political themes—they continued to play a role in his novels and short stories—but by a new emphasis on the fates of individuals. It is this stage that saw Roth produce the works for which he is still remembered, most especially The Radetzky March. It is also this same period—probably not coincidentally—that saw Roth’s personal life fall apart. His wife went insane, and he sought love from various paramours, with predictably poor results. He often lied to others about his childhood to cover up unpleasant details, such as his father’s insanity. But, he also told conflicting stories about his own religious views; some days he told people he was a proud Jew, other days he was a Catholic or an agnostic. He wanted to make a grand tale out of his own life. If personal problems were not enough for him, Roth had to flee Germany in 1933 when Hitler came to power. In the end, though, it was his drinking that caught up with him, and in 1939 he died, homeless and penniless, in a Parisian café.

This would be the life of just another unhappy artist—not at all worthy of the appellation “tragic”—if it were not for the fact that Roth was a man who had engaged with the world. Roth was a journalist who was deeply involved in the world around him. Yes, Roth was weak—he was an alcoholic, and he turned to other women when his wife became insane. He also had a narcissistic streak—thus, the many lies about his own life. But I cannot help but sense something greater than a plain old deluded alcoholic. He knew that life was a grand story, but as far as I can tell, he also knew that he could not deny his sins. And most importantly, he always kept his hope alive.

Joseph Roth loved a certain type of loser. It was not the loser who tried to blame all his own personal faults on other people. Even if Roth himself could legitimately blame circumstances beyond his control (World War I, the October Revolution, the Nazi rise to power) for his misfortunes, he always admitted that his drinking was a problem that he had to control. Roth loved the loser who could not understand the world and whom the world could not understand. He had nothing but sympathy for the man who truly struggled to discern his purpose in the world, but simply could not find it.

But for Roth, even a loser’s life was worth telling. Even a loser had to keep hoping.
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