The Last Chronicler of a Lost World: Searching for Joseph Roth in wartime Ukraine (EDWARD SEROTTA, FEBRUARY 28, 2024, Tablet)

This sprightly sounding young man, about to leave the shtetl and his mother behind, would die 26 years later, in 1939, as an impoverished alcoholic in Paris in 1939.

But in that period he also became one of the most prolific, insightful, and well-paid journalists in Europe, and wrote 17 novels and novellas along with at least four books of nonfiction (most of which he wrote while sitting in cafés and drinking). But despite these professional and artistic achievements, his personal life was one of catastrophe; aside from his oeuvre, he would leave behind nothing but debts and a schizophrenic wife locked away in Austria.

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, Roth initially identified as a pacifist. Nevertheless, he enlisted in 1916 and worked as a military censor, served on the Galician front, and then returned in 1918 to civilian life in a war-weary and impoverished Vienna.

Here is where Roth’s lies, fabrications, and “mythomaniac” days (as David Bronson, his first biographer, called them) began. He would claim his father was a Polish count, that he was captured and served time in a Russian prison, and that he left the army as a lieutenant, none of which was true.

What was true is that the world Roth knew had shattered completely. In 1916, the old emperor—the doddering Kaiser Franz Joseph I—died during the war he had started. His successor, Karl I, held on to the empire for two years before it collapsed. Soon after that, the victorious allies gathered in Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors to begin redrawing the map of Europe.

Roth began his journalism career in Vienna in 1919 and churned out a hundred articles before the newspaper he was working for folded. He met Friedl Reichler in 1919 and they married in the Leopoldstadt synagogue in Vienna in 1922. Friedl accompanied him to Berlin and Roth began to work for the prestigious Frankfurter Zeitung.

Always short of money—his great translator, Michael Hofmann, called him “the most impractical man who ever lived”—Roth published his first novel, Flight Without End, in 1927. Zipper and His Father came out a year later and Right and Left a year after that. His first financially successful novel—Job: Story of a Simple Man, published in 1930—was certainly his most Jewish. Never again would a Jew hold such a central place in his writing, although Jews did appear in nearly every one of them and his descriptions in his novels of shtetls were surely based on Brody.

The Radetzky March, a family epic about the fall of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, came out in 1932 and is considered one of the 20th century’s greatest novels. At 369 pages, it is Roth’s longest, though that isn’t all that long for an epoch-defining piece of literature. But Roth’s other novels, often written in haste, tended to be around half that.

On Jan. 30, 1933, the day President Hindenburg installed Adolf Hitler as chancellor, Roth took a train to Paris. He would never return to Germany and, as Hofmann tells us, Radetzky March was published “nicely in time to be fed to the flames by enthusiastic National Socialist students in Berlin on 10 May, 1933.”