Joseph Roth Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Joseph Roth was a prolific writer in a variety of prose forms. As a journalist for several leading German newspapers, Roth displayed his wide-ranging interest in politics, society, art, and culture through a “feuilletonistic” style that he succeeded in elevating to an art form. Between 1922 and 1939, he completed a number of short stories in addition to his fifteen novels. Like many of his longer works of fiction, Die Legende vom heiligen Trinker (1939; The Legend of the Holy Drinker, 1943), the most famous of these shorter works, is a tale of love and misfortune expressed through the lives of simple people and social misfits. Essays, short prose pieces, travel impressions, portraits, and book reviews complete the four volumes of his collected works, edited and published by friend and fellow-author Hermann Kesten.

The lengthiest and most notable of Roth’s many essays, Juden auf Wanderschaft (1927; The Wandering Jews, 2001) and Der Antichrist (1934; Antichrist, 1935), give unequivocal testimony to the author’s sense of social justice and firm commitment to humanity. Under the influence of neo-Romanticism as a student of German language and literature at the University of Vienna, Roth experimented with political and satiric poetry and with fairy-tale motifs. Although a number of his early works have been lost, Roth’s major novels have enjoyed enduring popularity; several have been made into films, and many of his major works have been translated into English. Roth’s papers are housed at the Leo Baeck Institute in New York.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

As an itinerant journalist and exiled Austrian author, Joseph Roth came into close contact with many of the principal writers and intellectuals of his day in the coffeehouses and hotels of Paris, where most of his later years were spent, and in those of other European cultural centers such as Vienna, Berlin, and Prague. Roth can best be described as a revolutionary conservative. He was influenced by French and Russian psychological realism, as exemplified by Gustave Flaubert and Leo Tolstoy, as well as by the Viennese impressionism of Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Arthur Schnitzler. Impulse, instinct, and emotion, rather than analytical thought and objective reflection, characterize Roth and his writings. He portrays individuals in the age-old search for identity, justice, and truth in a changing world scarcely equipped to provide the security and stability that they so eagerly seek. An existential quest for meaning, transposed to cultural, geographical, spiritual, and intellectual contexts, forms the core of his work.

Up to 1926, Roth’s fiction discloses a political and social “revolutionary” orientation in a subjectively eclectic rather than ideologically activist fashion. After 1926, his conservative side becomes more pronounced. Roth is revolutionary in the etymological sense of the word: The ideal state that society strives to attain has its source in the past. In an age dominated by war, existential uncertainty, and crumbling traditions, Roth’s fiction articulated both the anxieties and the hopes of common people in characters such as Franz Tunda in Flight Without End and Mendel Singer in Job. Roth’s friend, Kesten, has accurately described him as a Romantic with the eyes of a realist: Roth was a republican, rationalist, skeptic, friend of the Socialist proletariat, révolteur, Jacobin, and unbeliever, as well as a monarchist and faithful Catholic.

Roth’s compact journalistic style, characterized by repetition, questions, parataxis, interjections, and short chapters, was not innovative, yet the purity and simple power of his technique have kept his novels readable while many of the radical, experimental works of the 1920’s and the 1930’s have faded into oblivion. Roth’s novels are contemporary yet timeless tales of homelessness and exile, deeply embedded in the context of Imperial Austria, the Weimar Republic, and National Socialism, yet transcending their time and place.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Bronsen, David. “Austrian Versus Jew: The Torn Identity of Joseph Roth.” In Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook. Vol. 18. New York: The Leo Baeck Institute, 1973. The Leo Baeck Institute is trustee of Roth’s literary estate.

Browning, Barton W. “Joseph Roth’s Legende vom heiligen Trinker: Essence and Elixer.” In Protest, Form, Tradition: Essays on German Exile Literature, edited by Joseph P. Strelka. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1979. A critical study.

Gordimer, Nadine. “The Empire of Joseph Roth.” New York Review of Books 38 (December 5, 1991). Examines the social and political contexts of Roth’s work.

Manger, Philip. “The Radetzky March: Joseph Roth and the Hapsburg Myth.” In The Viennese Enlightenment, edited by Mark Francis. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. Major chapter on Roth.

Miron, Susan. “On Joseph Roth.” Salmagundi 98/99 (Spring/Summer, 1993). Looks at the autobiographical aspects of his characters’ rootlessness and loneliness.

Rosenfeld, Sidney. “Joseph Roth.” In Major Figures of Modern Austrian Literature, edited by Donald Daviau. Riverside, Calif.: Ariadne Press, 1988. Contains a lengthy chapter on Roth.

Rosenfeld, Sidney. Understanding Joseph Roth. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001. Part of the Understanding Modern European and Latin American Literature series, this study is a particularly valuable companion to Roth’s work.

Williams, Cedric E. “Joseph Roth: A Time out of Joint.” In The Broken Eagle: The Politics of Austrian Literature from Empire to Anschluss. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1974. Places Roth in his political context. The book contains a bibliography.