“Please, save me, believe in me, in my sanity!” Stranded in Marseille, in the heat of July 1934, Joseph Roth sent out a cry for help to his friend and benefactor Stefan Zweig. What was the matter?
Roth’s life story is defined by a series of personal losses adding to the blows that history dealt him. Before he was even born, he lost his father to madness. In his 20s, he lost his homeland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to history; while in his 30s, he lost his wife to insanity (again!); a little over a year before sending out that cry for help to Zweig, he had lost his main clients—German papers and publishers—as well as a good part of his audience to the Nazis. And now, going on 40, he understandably feared losing his own mind:
“If only you knew how I’m doing!” Roth writes in his letter to Zweig. “Some days I fear for my sanity, and ideas that I haven’t had since childhood are coming back: to become mad at the age when my father did. I suffer terribly, dear, dear friend! And I escape into work.”
On the bright side, Roth’s escape into work has enriched us with some of the finest prose ever written in the German language. Shining examples are his novels Job and Radetzky March, his prolific output as a journalist, as well as his novellas The Bust of the Emperor and The Legend of the Holy Drinker. The latter is a literary document of the fact that work wasn’t Roth’s only refuge. Like the homeless protagonist, Roth ultimately drank himself to death shortly after he finished this masterpiece.
Trapped in time between two World Wars, Roth lead a life on the run from town to town, from hotel to hotel, never dwelling in a steady home, barely owning more than three suitcases and a stack of writings, living off the advances that his publishers were willing to grant. His correspondences read like travel journals from a never-ending odyssey through Europe.
Marseille is one of the places that he visited repeatedly. It was the Old Port that attracted him, perhaps because it provided a permanent option to leave. On his first Marseille sojourn, in 1925, he threatened to cash in on this option quite literally. Roth had grown weary of the nationalism and bigotry that engulfed Mitteleuropa turning the culture whose language was his work material ever more putrid. When he then sensed reluctance on the part of the Frankfurter Zeitung to publish some of his articles, he threatened to cut bait:
“The newspaper is a bunch of cowards. They will not print my articles and will not let me know why it is so. […] If the publishing house really has the courage, it will draw the consequences and kick me out. And then I will be free again, free as I have been for twenty years. I’ll get on a boat and go to Mexico.”
But Roth stayed, and in the years to come, he kept returning to Marseille. In the next episode, I will muse about why he did so—and what he may have been searching for in this old port, at the end of Europe.
(Quotes are my translation.)