Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2386
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...
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- 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 values.
Job, bearing the subtitle The Story of a Simple Man, takes place primarily in the easternmost regions of Austria-Hungary along the Russian border. Roth’s novel about the family of Mendel Singer, an actual name borrowed from this Eastern European locale, stands in sharp contrast to the biblical story of Job, whose test by God resulted in the loss of great wealth and power. Mendel has never possessed earthly riches, but his plight is just as severe and his fall from grace just as shattering as that of his biblical counterpart. Mendel has been blessed with four children, although the youngest, Menuchim, is epileptic. The long, painful agony suffered by Mendel and his wife, Deborah, because of Menuchim’s condition, becomes the central concern in the novel.
The theme of illness and recovery in the lives of Menuchim and of his sister Mirjam, who goes insane after she immigrates with her parents to New York, is closely associated with the feelings of guilt, despair, and hope Roth experienced during his wife’s mental illness. Mendel and Deborah’s outlook is basically Hasidic, reflecting Roth’s own inclination toward mysticism and Romanticism. Intuition, rather than rational thought, governs the lives of these simple people. Initially, Mendel is more inclined than is Deborah to let fate run its course. His faith and trust in God’s will do not allow him to seek help for his son, yet he acquiesces to Deborah’s desire to visit the Wunderrabbi (miracle rabbi) to receive guidance. The rabbi prophesies to Deborah that her son will one day be healed when he says Pain will make him wise, ugliness kind-hearted, bitterness charitable, and sickness strong. His eyes will see far and wide, his ears will be clear and receptive. His mouth will be silent, but when he parts his lips they will bring forth good tidings. Have no fear and return home!
Deborah is as persistent in following her motherly instincts to save her son as Mendel is in his spiritual resolve.
Gradually, the toll of eking out a meager existence by instructing young Jewish boys in religion alienates Mendel from his wife, from God, and from society at large. The fulfillment of the prophecy seems more and more remote. After these years of economic and spiritual stagnation, Mendel and Deborah decide to immigrate to New York, where their second son, Schemarjah, is prospering. Their oldest son, Jonas, has joined the Russian army, and Mirjam, still a young girl, has unacceptably fallen in love with a Cossack. With heavy hearts, Mendel and Deborah leave Menuchim behind to be reared by friends.
The opportunity for a new beginning in the new world is short-lived. Problems similar to those in Europe confront the Singers. Encouraging news from the family caring for Menuchim consoles Mendel and his wife at first, but new tragedies inevitably befall them. Jonas is reported missing; Schemarjah is killed while serving as an American soldier in World War I; Deborah dies of shock at the news; Mirjam becomes mentally ill and must be committed to an institution. Mendel turns increasingly against God and believes that Menuchim must also be dead by this time, yet the rabbi’s prophecy is miraculously fulfilled. Menuchim appears, having finally been healed in his native environment. After overcoming the serious illness that afflicted him as a child, he has become a famous musician. Mendel, too, is restored, as he repents for his lack of faith in God’s healing power. His crippled son, who stayed behind in a seemingly barren homeland, is the one who prospers in the end.
The symbolism of this blossoming in an otherwise seemingly arid milieu emphasizes Roth’s dependence on heritage and tradition. While avoiding the nationalistic and Zionist sentiments he opposed, Roth presents a picture of spiritual wholeness realized through acceptance of one’s indigenous home. The rabbi’s admonition to Deborah to “Have no fear and return home!” assumes symbolic significance. All members of the family except Menuchim abandoned their home and suffered because of it. Through spiritual rejuvenation, Mendel is afforded the opportunity to reverse his physical and spiritual abandonment of his “home,” and further hope still exists that Mirjam and Jonas, whose fates are not yet sealed, will one day share their father’s salvation. In Roth’s view, Mendel has become the ideal religious seeker. Faith, despair, and superstition mingle in him, as in the nontraditional religious faith of Mendel’s creator. Mendel experiences the miraculous glory of salvation on this earth, a fate that Roth did not himself share but could only idealize in his artistic creation.
The Radetzky March
The history of a peasant family from Sipolje, an eastern province in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, provides the content for the most famous of Roth’s novels, The Radetzky March. Spanning the years from the mid-nineteenth century to the end of World War I, the novel re-creates the nostalgic, melancholic mood of political, social, and cultural decline during Franz Joseph’s reign. For the various ethnic groups the monarchy encompasses, the emperor stands as a patriarchal figure, ecumenical in his humanity, but just as the dual monarchy became an anachronism in Europe when revolution, social ferment, and expanding industrialization catapulted Europe into the twentieth century, so too do Roth’s main characters, Franz Trotta and his son, Carl Joseph, symbolize the end of an era. Both father and son live in the glory that was once Austria’s, but adherence to an antiquated value system isolates them from their own time.
Franz’s father, Joseph Trotta, has been elevated to the nobility from his simple peasant background as a result of his having saved the emperor’s life at Solferino, a battle fought between the Austrians and Franco-Sardinians in 1859. The Trotta legacy lives on in the next two generations. By becoming the hero’s heirs, Franz and Carl Joseph share in their predecessor’s glory in a land rich in tradition. Yet this tradition slowly crumbles, as symbolized by the aged emperor’s progressive loss of touch with the past; he confuses the three generations of Trottas as senility blurs his recollection of the history he helped to form.
The story of Joseph Trotta is climaxed by his resignation from the army over the misrepresentation and romanticization of his heroic deed in a school textbook. He rears his son, Franz, not to serve in the military but rather to serve the state as a civil servant. Franz rises to the position of chief district commissioner within the empire and exhibits unwavering loyalty to Austria. His life centers on duty and reputation. Franz’s greatest disappointment occurs when his son, Carl Joseph, temporarily resigns from the military at the rank of lieutenant. When the emperor dies, Franz himself can no longer continue living. In his later years, Franz actually begins to resemble physically the emperor to whom he was so intimately devoted. The world of stability and security as he knew it has now completely ceased to exist after the emperor’s death. Carl Joseph, too, increasingly experiences the emptiness of life.
In contrast with the basically flat character of Franz, Carl Joseph is developed more fully. Much as the successive generations in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1900) become more passive, impotent, and indecisive, so too is Carl Joseph rendered ineffectual. His anxiety at the waning of a great heritage clashes with his resigned recognition of ongoing change. The result for Carl Joseph is a life devoid of meaning, as he hardly makes an effort to preserve the empire. Only his grandfather’s portrait and a few remaining relics from friends afford his life some meaning. The immortal “Radetzky March” itself, a lively, exuberant piece of music written by Joseph Strauss the elder in honor of one of Austria-Hungary’s greatest military heroes, Count Radetzky, serves as a reminder of this once glorious past. The baroque contrast between Schein and Sein, between appearance and essence, is seen in the main characters’ futile attempts to maintain the shell of Franz Joseph’s empire.
Stylistically, The Radetzky March reflects little of the stylistic experimentation of the early twentieth century. Roth’s fluid style is apparently a throwback to late nineteenth century realism, especially to the psychological realism of Flaubert and Tolstoy. The restricted instances of free indirect style (erlebte Rede), interjection, and thought recollections reveal Roth’s familiarity with current stylistic techniques but an unwillingness to exploit them. Traditional stylistic techniques provide a certain semblance of security and stability in an otherwise tumultuous world. Just as his characters seek refuge in the past, so does Roth look to the past for his literary forms of expression. Idealistic conservatism manifests itself both in content and in form.
A number of Roth’s novels have been reissued in English translation. Furthermore, a small but steadily growing critical literature attests the continuing relevance of the works of this exemplary exile.