The hottest literary evening of a frigid New York winter took place recently at the city's Goethe House. It was a salute to Joseph Roth and a confirmation that he is now recognized as one of the 20th century's great writers. It was not always thus for this author, a Galician Jew who became the Hapsburg monarchy's most symphonic troubadour, a blazing radical, "der rote Roth," who venerated the piety of shtetl Jews and peasant Catholics, the highest paid journalist in Berlin's golden 1920s, who died when he was 45 in Paris an impoverished alcoholic with barely a rumpled suit to his name.
But thanks greatly to Michael Hofmann's luminous translations, which capture the incomparable verve and energy of Roth's supremely musical prose, many of Roth's novels, stories and essays are now available in English. The response has been stunning: Nadine Gordimer, for example, finds him an even more comprehensive novelist than Thomas Mann, with a greater range of inquiry and tone, and she may be right. Roth composes the most pleasing prose imaginable, but he can also trouble your mind and break your heart. Unlike any other great European modernist -- Proust, Kafka, Mann, Musil -- he can write with equivalent authority about high culture and low, country and city, dumb smart boys and preternaturally wise fools.
Because his best-known novels, particularly his masterpiece "The Radetzky March," celebrate a bygone era, Roth is sometimes called -- though respectfully -- a 19th century author, willfully non-modernist. Actually, he is definitively modern since he writes always from the current moment's perspective, while saturating that moment with a past terminated barely a second ago and a future that promises further cycles of loss: "[E]very new development constitutes a mysterious circle, in which the beginning and end touch and become identical." He describes this aesthetic stance as "the hard and proud melancholy of a solitary who wanders on the fringes of pleasures, follies and sorrows."
Roth's greatest strength is his prose, a uniquely modern idiom. Its secret is the application to "minutiae" of "the dialectical intelligence of the Jews." Where he differs from his great contemporary Rilke -- and Hofmann is splendid in finding parallels -- is in his recoil from that greatest of Rilkean dangers, a diaphanous whimsy. (Similarly, he can outdo Brecht, as he distinguishes two whores, "Bavarian Annie" and "Silesian Annie," without acquiring Brecht's worst trait, the hectoring snarl.) The constant joy of a Roth reader is his ceaselessly inventive power of description, enlivened always by that dialectical intelligence. He is the prose equivalent of a great jazz improviser, finding new resources in the familiar. Dickens seemed to require a defenseless child to set his pen on fire, Mann a troubled relationship between two men. Many things stimulate Roth, but he is most transcendent when something -- inanimate objects not excluded -- allows him to distill vast implications in a pithy formulation. A small detail is all he needs: "the diminutive of the parts is more important than the monumentality of the whole."
His rhetorical triumph, for which he frequently congratulated himself, was to be simultaneously breezy and profound; his ambition was to describe things better than anyone before or after by concentrating a universe of implications in the most abbreviated of commentary. At times, his rat-a-tat lyricism can remind you of a stand-up comedian on an inspired roll. But it can also achieve a biblical eloquence, as when he hears in the grunts and half-sentences of the poor "the sorrow of an entire world" and sees in "a silently bent head ... the misery of all time" or views a line of mourners "slowly being pushed along by silence."
The empathetic range is apparent in his famous discussion of shtetl Jews. Only James Baldwin has matched his vision of the fundamentalist's world. Indeed, Roth's details -- the confidence of "God's Jews" that they alone have a pipeline to the deity, their musical service, a compound of Bible and folklore, their flamboyant ritual with its culmination in a physical release that borders on the erotic, the cult-like worship of charismatic, faith-healing "wonder rabbis," the pleasure in the rebbetzin's fine clothes because of what they "represent" -- could serve, with minimal changes, as a guide to the African American church. Roth's sympathetic embrace of traditional culture was one reason he bitterly opposed Zionism. As early as 1927, he compared the Arab residents of Palestine to Jews fighting against the imposition of Anglo-American civilization, whose representatives were Jewish settlers engaged in "national rebirth" whom he bluntly compared to Crusaders. At the Goethe House conference, Cynthia Ozick raged against this anti-Zionism. "He saw," she said, her voice rising with vexation, "but he was not a seer." Some might argue he saw all too clearly. (And it must be added that, at least in Europe, he despised the capitulation of Jews, most particularly German Jews, their quixotic attempts to survive by getting by. Long before Hannah Arendt spoke her piece about the Jewish leaders' collaborations with Nazis, he deplored the existence of Kulturbunder, the separate-but-unequal cultural societies enforced by the Nazis.) Either way, his sympathy for the Arabs was a corollary of that for the shtetl Jews.
But, as he says, history has driven most Jews from the shtetl, and the literary payoff has been epochal: "The great gain to German literature from Jewish writers is the theme of the city." Roth is at his best strolling through a city, even though -- if not precisely because -- he doesn't much like the place. Writing about Berlin enables him to imagine towns he's never visited.
"It's as though I'd been to New York, having sampled the bitterness of the metropolis, because most major discoveries can be made very locally, either at home or a few streets away." "What I Saw" contains some of his most delightful prose and some of his most perspicacious: Here, at least, his analytic gifts are nothing short of prophetic. Though the essays are shorter than his best stories, much less his novels, nothing is missed. The interaction between his unique voice and an immense range of subjects provides all the drama anyone needs. These are not personal essays in the traditional sense. But if, as Oscar Wilde says, criticism is the most refined form of autobiography, then these essays are shot through with Roth's personality. (Of course, so are the novels in which, if one wanted, one could use the fact that he never knew his father, who died in an insane asylum, to explain his devotion to the soil, which signified a Fatherland, which meant a father: Emperor Franz Joseph.) From the subjects chosen to the virtuosic play of that dialectical intelligence to the minutest of grammatical details, the essays reveal him whole. In his fine introduction to "The Wandering Jews," Hofmann is surprised that Roth never identifies himself as a Jew. I would reply that he carries throughout the implicit burden of speaking for them all. In his role as gadfly, he was the Wandering Jew incarnate.
Roth may have questioned urban civilization, but he was not immune to its charms. He regarded the fans of popular music and of sports as little short of insane, yet he too could succumb and reach the point where "my knees fell to their knees." He can sing the splendor of skyscrapers, turning an engineering feat into a new kind of metaphysics, a benign version of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," and find in the noise of machines a "completely new language, a means of communication as universal as German," a prelude to "a beautiful and audible future music," a kind of Rilkean spell. He captures the manic-depressive rhythms and ritualized etiquette of sports fans and then jolts the crowd by having a practical housewife remove her family's lunch from its newspaper wrapping, thereby wafting a perfume of "cheese and politics" over the "dust storm of ecstasy." Who before had compared a Turkish bath to Dante's Inferno? Or tracked popular culture by going from the swankest nightclub to the lowest joint, observing the aging dancers and musicians who move ever downward, as their bodies widen and their lips fail?
But paradoxically this master observer feared the power of images. A mid-1920s trip to the Soviet Union dampened his utopian hopes, and for many years his leanings could be described as Trotskyist. He saw the dream die in a mundane sense as well: In 1927 he decried "an inhuman, technically accomplished future whose symbols are the airplane and the football and not the hammer and sickle." The only antidote was a language informed by thought and feeling. Even in his last, demoralized years, he could write, "Action stands roughly in the same relation to words, as the two-dimensional shadow in the cinema to the three-dimensional living man. Or ... the photograph to the original." This was Walter Benjamin's celebrated notion of the aura reduced to its humanistic core. Language became Roth's metaphor for all of culture and politics. As a Jew, he was particularly attentive to the power of names -- which Jews changed so often -- and passports -- which, like the poor in all times, they were frequently obliged to forge. One of his essays, "The Unnamed Dead," may be the saddest evocation of urban anomie composed in the 20th century.
But the most powerful essay in "What I Saw," and the longest, is "The Auto-da-Fe of the Mind," written in September 1933 for a small Jewish magazine in Paris, to which he had moved a few years earlier. The only indictments of Hitler that match Roth's eloquence are those Mann composed in the mid-1930s. Though Mann had attacked the Nazis throughout the 1920s, his voice was deafeningly silent from 1933 to 1935, in part because his Jewish publisher and radical brother Heinrich advised him to keep his name alive in Germany but in large part out of terror that his diaries, with their frank expressions of homosexual desire, might prove fatal to his reputation. When he finally spoke out, he made the Rothian point that German culture would be unthinkably dry without its Jewish element. True to character, he invoked Germany's most famous gay poet, August von Platen, the writer he identified with most intimately, thereby announcing, albeit only implicitly, that he was as physically threatened as the Jews. By the late 1930s, convinced that exile would be his permanent condition, Mann consoled himself with the famous words, "Where I am is Germany."
But Roth saw the situation more clearly and earlier. In his devastating essay, he surveys a world in which paradox and irony have ceased to be Rothian tropes but have become the plain truth. Gentile writers, like Mann, might compromise with the Nazis, but Jews, defeated on every other front, would be spared that indignity. His tone ranges from a bleak lucidity to a universal jeremiad. Nobody has proven worthy. He condemns the Jews for not being Jewish enough (by their susceptibility to the "journalistic cliches" and "failed European ideology" of political nationalism, namely Zionism), Christians for not being Christian enough (for not seeing that anti-Semitism was, by definition, an attack on Jesus), Germans for not being German enough (for failing to see that Jewish writers had sung their culture alive) and professors for not being scholarly enough (for not remaining absent-minded oafs but instead broadcasting "the philological equivalent of poison gas" -- with one phrase, replacing the image of Emil Jannings in "The Blue Angel" with that of Martin Heidegger).
The only honorable exception was the Jewish writer. And he then proceeds to a thrilling roll call of the great writers who have been hounded out of Germany. He knows that many of these men (there is only one woman, Elsa Lasker-Schuler) hated each other as literary rivals, and not a few recoiled from their quarter- (Rilke) or half- (Thomas Mann's son Klaus) Jewish identity. Some composed tragic epics, others, boulevard comedies; one, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, was "the classical heir to the Catholic treasures of old Austria." No matter, they were all now, in their enemies' eyes, "shtetl yids." And even the assaults of literary critics now became a thinly disguised form of anti-Semitism. A writer -- and he could only be describing himself -- was dismissed as a "superficial scribbler" when he displayed "charm and lightness of touch." Only at this moment does he bring himself into the picture. His cry is greatly more eloquent and disturbing than Mann's because it speaks for so many besides himself. And how much more provocative than "Where I am is Germany" is Roth's contention that the only German culture that ever existed was the one that Jews had imagined.
This great writer is an indispensable walking buddy through the modern city. People of letters will treasure him because in the face of all contenders -- politics, popular music, the heart with its unreason -- he gives final say to the word.