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Some bits about Joseph Roth


 Soma Morgenstern was a writer and journalist who knew everybody in the 20s and 30s. He knew both Joseph Roth and Theodore Adorno. He knew Robert Musil. He knew that Roth hated Adorno, and had little time for Benjamin and Bloch. Once Soma gave him Lukacs “Theory of the Novel”. Roth gave it back and wrote in a letter: I’m no thinker.  Soma made me pick up a Novel-Theory by Georg Lukacs to read. I did him the favor of trying to read the book. Two pages in I let myself be tortured. And then I was finished with the book.”

Oddly, although Robert Musil was famously envious of other writers, he wanted to meet Roth. Soma hooked them up: they met, they talked in the Vienna Café Museum.

Morgenstern reported some of the conversation:

“I recall,” said Musil, “that you once wrote a preface to a book – I can’t remember the title of the book. But I remember the preface quite well. ‘Now it is time to report [berichten], not to compose [dichten], said the final sentence.  “Yes,” said Roth, “I wrote that. It was the preface to my book, Flight without end. “Do you still believe so much in reporting?” Musil wanted to know. “Why not?” said Roth. “But you are writing novels now,” said Musil. “I also report.” “Don’t you compose them too?” “In my reporting?” “I have to openly confess,” said Musil, “I have not read your reporting. But don’t you compose in your novels?” “Not intentionally,” said Roth, and gave a satisfied laugh.”

Afterwards, Roth said: he talks like an Austrian, but he thinks like a German. Almost like your friends Benjamin and Bloch. Pure philosophers.”

It is interesting to speculate about what Musil expected from Roth. Perhaps he recognized that the anti-philosophical bias was certainly a way to create a novel, even in the twentieth century with its different tempo and cognitive biases, but it seemed to him, evidently, hard to extract it from its nostalgic tendency to repeat the positivism of the 19th century. Roth though did not think philosophically. What he thought was that, literally, the newest thing each day is the newspaper, and the way he wanted to write a novel would take its clues, its m.o., from the reporting – the grand reportage – of the 20s breed of traveling journalist. He was himself one of the best. Of Egon Kisch he wrote that his reporting was a phenomenon of literature because he possessed the grace to report on reality without “wounding the truth”.

It is an odd opposition. One might think that reporting on reality was measured by fidelity to the facts – to the truth. But reality and the truth, for Roth, were evidently on different planes.  And the tempo he saw in the reporting of the time, that way of balancing ersatz generalizations against the potent anecdote, could be transposed to what Claudio Magris, in his book on Roth, sees as an epic. Perhaps it is a coincidence that the Lukacs book that feel from Roth’s hand after two pages begins with the epic. Perhaps Roth even read it, in spite of pretending not to. Certainly Lukacs pinpoints the problem of writing epically, in the hard dry manner of the reporter, about the intensely emotional borderlands to which his novels tend – in particular, of course, Radetzky March.

I have searched, but never found in Roth any remark about Martin Buber. I and You is undoubtedly a philosophical work – although Borges claimed it was one big poem. Buber’s work is about the encounter as a primary moment of existence – whether the encounter is with a tree, a stranger, or a lover. The encounter both recognizes borders and dissolves them – or, to be more precise, recognizes their ultimately liquid quality. There is a lot of border-jumping in Roth’s work, but one has a sense that often, the protagonists have somehow missed the moment, failed to recognize the border – which, though plastic, is never to be disregarded. It comes back like the repressed and bites you on the ass.