Joseph Roth: Grieving for a Lost Empire 

In Ostend, his book about the German and Austrian émigré literary group that gathered in the Belgian resort town after Hitler came to power, Volker Weidermann describes Joseph Roth, the most talented of these writers, looking “like a mournful seal that has wandered accidentally onto dry land.” Roth was small, thin yet pot-bellied, slightly hunched over, with a chosen nose, a bad liver, and missing lots of teeth. He began most mornings, like the serious alcoholic that he was, vomiting. Always in flight, one of the world’s permanent transients, Roth was a one-man diaspora: “Why do you people roam around so much in the world?” asks a Galician peasant in one of his novels. “The devil sends you from one place to another.” 

Joseph Roth happens also to have been a marvelous writer, and he might have gone on to be a great one had he not died in 1939, in his 45th year. (He is of that uncharmed circle of writers—Chekhov, Orwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald—who died before they reached 50.) Not the least of Roth’s marvels was his astonishing productivity. In his short career between 1923 and 1939, he published, in German, no fewer than 15 novels, a batch of short stories, and, by his own reckoning in 1933, something on the order of 3,500 newspaper articles, most of them of the genre known as feuilleton, those short, literary, free-form, usually non-political essays that were once a staple in French and German newspapers. None of his writing that I have read, even the most ephemeral journalism, is without its felicitous touches, its arresting observations, its striking evidence of a first-class literary mind at work. 

Joseph Roth and his wife, Friederike, in the south of France, 1925. (Courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute.)

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About the Author

Joseph Epstein’s latest books are Frozen in Time: Twenty Stories (Taylor Trade) and Wind Sprints: Shorter Essays (Axios Press).


gershonhepner on January 29, 2018 at 7:12 pm

J. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Orwell, Joseph Roth
belonged to an uncharmed elite of writers who all who died before they reached the age of fifty.
In distributing years to elite writers God was to a most uncharming Roth less thrifty,
giving a great fillip to a Philip Roth
Regarding this I will not make, like Portnoy, a complaint,
as I will not about the fact that neither writer was a saint.
While Joseph Epstein, with Saul Bellow, thought that Portnoy, although passable, did not deserve a pass,
greatness was a goal that Joseph Roth might have achieved if had he not died far too soon, alas.

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