Joseph Roth Essay - Critical Essays


Joseph Roth’s novels fall into two basic periods, the first of which extends from 1922 to 1926, the second from 1926 until his death in 1939. Influenced considerably by his diverse journalistic activities, Roth’s early published fiction reflects the themes of social justice and revolt against oppression and exploitation that were characteristic of German literature during the Weimar Republic. The expressionistic writings of Ernst Toller and the satiric pieces of Bertolt Brecht are but two examples illustrating the importance of social and political themes in the literature of the day. Although Roth was never a political thinker in the manner of Toller or Brecht, or even of the young Thomas Mann, a deep feeling of compassion for humanity and great frustration with the conditions in Europe directly following World War I evoked great social concern in him. The title of his 1924 novel Rebellion alludes to these themes. Like Franz Grillparzer, the famous nineteenth century Austrian dramatist, Roth viewed the resurging nationalism of his day as a stage between humanity and bestiality.

Gradually, Roth moved away from the larger questions of societal reform and concentrated more on the individual’s fate and on the search for identity. Roth’s personal search for a new homeland began to crystallize into literary expression, as in the factual story about his friend, Franz Tunda, in Flight Without End. During this second phase of his career, Roth drew heavily on personal memories of Eastern Europe, the landscapes and characters of which color his novels and stories. For example, Roth’s birthplace, Brody, which was the center of a lively smuggling trade, is accurately described in Weights and Measures, as is the smuggler-type Kapturak, who appears in this and other novels.

Roth’s tendency during this phase of his career to romanticize the past is revealed in his symbolic exploitation of both the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, as represented by Emperor Franz Joseph, and of his own Eastern European and Jewish background. Although Roth recognized the onset of decay and decline in the monarchy and the often harsh imperfections of society in his birthplace, he nevertheless relied on these experiences to develop a supranational ideal based on hope and essential human values. The reshaping of these models into representative symbols provided the focal point for his later work; the nonprogrammatic social changes Roth advocated in his first three novels, for example, were transformed into abstract conservative idealism in the later works. The conclusion of The Emperor’s Tomb exemplifies Roth’s melancholic reverence for the established institutions of the past, which have been so long in the making. Though imperfect, this heritage provides the necessary cornerstone for building a positive future. Thus, the significance of Austria-Hungary and the melting pot of Eastern Europe, which together embody the agony of contemporary reality and the vestiges of bygone greatness, lies not in their political or social structure per se, but in the suggestive impact of what they symbolize.

Even Roth’s historical novels, such as Ballad of the Hundred Days, which in part recounts Napoleon’s return from Corsica, by no means present historical material for its own sake but rather reconcile the author’s personal idealistic message with temporal reality. Thus, Napoleon, like Franz Joseph, is transformed from a worldly hero into a mystical one. Roth’s cosmopolitan attitude and antinationalist zeal transform history into a new reality. As Carl Steiner shows, Roth’s growing love for France (underscored by his long stay there) and his inclination to Catholicism give further evidence of an ongoing search for a new and more perfect homeland. Roth established this position when he wrote in Antichrist, “The whole earth is temporarily our home. But our real home is the eternal bosom of God.” The various experiences of exile (existential, spiritual, and geographical) confronted Roth throughout his life. Roth’s biographer, David Bronsen, summarizes this experience when he writes, “Every external assimilation is a flight or the attempt at flight out of the sad association of the persecuted; it is an attempt to balance contradictions, which nevertheless continue to exist.”


Despite the large degree of thematic consistency in Roth’s later years, Job and The Radetzky March perhaps best display the poignancy of his themes and the lucid style he mastered. Written in the early 1930’s, both novels convey the experience of exile, alienation, and tradition so characteristic of Roth’s writings. In contrast to his earlier works, however, these two novels seek to furnish answers and solutions, even if solely on an idealistic level. Job launches into metaphysical flight; The Radetzky March delves into the myth of old Austria.

Job marked a noticeable change in perspective in Roth’s literary career; its metaphysical preoccupations stand in sharp contrast to the more earthly concerns of the earlier novels. Moreover, for the first time, a positive answer is provided as a means of resolving the human dilemma. Spiritual faith conquers despair, frustration, and pride. In the final analysis, Mendel Singer’s struggle with metaphysics is just as pressing an attempt at escape from the ravages of modern-day life as is the earth-centered quest for meaning of Franz and Carl Trotta in The Radetzky March. Mendel, Franz, and Carl reflect Roth’s own struggle. Viewed together, the two novels complement each other in that they respectively reflect the spiritual and temporal realms in an interrelationship akin to the medieval hierarchical system, in which church and state represented these respective...

(The entire section is 2386 words.)