Writing a biography of Joseph Roth presents two challenges: 1) giving a fresh perspective on an already beloved cultural icon, and 2) honestly portraying a man who emphatically disregarded political and religious correctness. Roth was a Jew who wished he were Catholic and who made nasty remarks about Jews. He demanded subservience from women, embraced the Austrian monarchy, and drank incessantly. Some biographers might choose to focus solely on all this unpleasantness, sensing that such tawdry tales attract audiences. Keiron Pim, however, sincerely admires Roth’s work. While he does criticize some of his writing (he refers to The Antichrist as “dissatisfying”) and call out Roth’s bad behavior (particularly his misogyny), he discusses it in ways that keep readers engaged. Indeed, as he weaves in summaries of Roth’s major works, demonstrating how he recycled characters from previous texts (and even people from his own life), Pim turns a book that could be tiresome and redundant into something almost magical. Imagine Roth filling a kaleidoscope with the shards of his own autobiography, Pim suggests, and then giving it a little twist so that new images form.
The author tells Roth’s life story chronologically, starting with his boyhood in small-town Brody (in present-day Ukraine). Roth never knew his father, who had fled and gone mad; his mother raised him herself. (This absent father inhabits most of his novels in various guises.) Roth left Brody for cosmopolitan Vienna, where he adopted every affectation available, including an abiding love of the Habsburg monarchy. After a brief faux military phase, he began living from city to city in hotels, writing and drinking in cafes. Just after his mother died, he married a woman who would later develop schizophrenia. But marriage did nothing to domesticate his lifestyle.
Because Roth usually needed more money than he had and drank what he didn’t have, his friendships were fragile. Feeling he lacked an authentic identity — he wasn’t as observant as the Galician Hasidim of his youth, nor was he actually Catholic like those Habsburg monarchs — he couldn’t bear the company of the assimilated. Beyond all his personal issues, fascism drove him (and many relatives and friends) out of Germany and Austria. Before long, they heard what was happening to the Jews who didn’t leave. God, he concluded, was nowhere. All he could do was drink and “write himself into a grave,” which he did.
Why read about Joseph Roth, such a twentieth-century man, in 2023? Perhaps in the midst of Russia’s war on Ukraine, some readers are rediscovering their Ukrainian and Mitteleuropa roots. But even without a personal connection, Roth’s focus on the Heimkehrer—the ruined soldier returning home after war and finding nothing — may become our new reality.
Bettina Berch, author of the recent biography, From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezierska, teaches part-time at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.