Roth was an outraged witness to tyranny, which led him to exile, and his books to the bonfire. In “Endless Flight,” Keiron Pim examines the flawed man and his resonant legacy.
VIENNA — In the last glowing light of a warm October day, a group of Viennese 20-somethings slap a volleyball back and forth in front of an old Nazi flak tower. Keiron Pim stops to take their photo. Pim flew into Vienna only a few hours before. He’s a soft-spoken 44-year-old writer from Norwich, England, self-described as someone who blinks a lot. And he has recently produced the first English-language biography of Joseph Roth, the ingenious, agonized, alcoholic Austro-Hungarian journalist and novelist, chronicler of the last years of the Hapsburg empire and the rise of fascism in Europe. Pim is here to see what the pandemic prevented him from seeing when he was writing his book: Roth’s Vienna.
Pim is not the obvious candidate for the role of Roth biographer. He has previously published two books, one a work of popular science on dinosaurs, the other a biography of David Litvinoff, a figure associated with 1960s London. And, as he admits in his acknowledgments, he does not speak fluent German. But when he read a review of Roth’s collected letters, he came upon this galvanizing sentence: “There is no biography of Roth in English.” Somehow Roth, who died in 1939, yet whose writing is as hotly resonant today as it was 100 years ago, had eluded the cradle-to-grave treatment of an English-language biography, though admirers have long called for one.
Pim had read one of Roth’s works years before — a book called “The Wandering Jews,” in which Roth returns to his Galician homeland to describe the “wonder-rabbis” and the Jewish believers who flocked to them. As he began to read more, he seized on Roth’s urgency and intensity, which he compares to a “double espresso.” He seized too on the way that Roth’s voice seems to reach across decades to pull readers into his vivid scenes, and on Roth’s renewed relevance as an outraged witness to the rise of tyranny. From exile, in 1934, Roth wrote, in a furious statement as applicable now as it was then: “The epoch-making discovery of modern dictatorships is the invention of the loud lie, based on the psychologically correct assumption that people will believe a shout when they doubt speech.”
Pim wondered, too, just how much of Roth’s history intersected with that of his own family: Despite his most British of surnames, Pim’s grandparents had lived in Vienna in the same years as Roth. So regarding the absent biography, Pim thought, “I’ll do something about that.” His book, “Endless Flight,” was published in England in October and is coming out in the United States, from Granta, on Dec. 6.
Less than a five-minute walk from the flak tower, Pim turns onto Rembrandtstrasse. This is Leopoldstadt, the historic Jewish district of old Vienna and the neighborhood that has given Tom Stoppard’s newest play its name. By 1920, just a few years after Roth arrived, there were 200,000 Jews living in Vienna, most in Leopoldstadt, many of them refugees from the east, fleeing poverty and pogroms. There are fewer than 15,000 Jews in Vienna today. Pim has been here before: During a layover in 2019, he took a few hours to see the buildings where his grandparents, Viennese Jews, had lived. When he tried to return two years later, for his Roth research, Austria was in lockdown. Now, he locates No. 35. Buzzed in with no questions, Pim crosses the darkened threshold into Roth’s first local dwelling.
Roth himself came from Eastern Europe, born in 1894 among the Hasidim and shtetls of a town called Brody, near Lviv (then called Lemberg). This was the edge of the empire, part of the shifting territory that would later be Poland but is now Ukraine. His father had gone mad just before he was born. Roth never knew him. He grew up the only child of an anxious, sheltering mother, reliant on relatives for financial support. Surrounded by antisemitism, he excelled in school, hoping to escape. Vienna would be the city where he reinvented himself, the bridge between his past and future. Once he arrived, he walked around in an impeccable suit, always needing to cover up his humble Eastern origins. “He began to affect the mannerisms and style of a Viennese dandy,” Pim writes.
Roth’s plans were interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. His experiences as a soldier became a subject he returned to again and again. He began publishing while he served, and became a master of the “feuilleton,” meaning “small page” (its purpose, as Roth described it, was “to say true things on half a page”). The novels came later — 16 of them, by most counts; some were short, others left unfinished, but they came at a desperate pace, as his financial situation worsened.
During the war, he likely worked as a censor behind the front lines, but his record would become subject to his many fabrications and obfuscations — what David Bronsen, who published a German-language biography of Roth in 1974, termed his “mythomania.” After the war, Roth said he’d been a lieutenant, that he’d been captured, that he’d heroically escaped. He sometimes wore a military medal awarded for bravery that he’d bought in a junk shop.
At the Cafe Museum, where Roth himself had dined, Pim ordered an Einspanner — a classic Viennese concoction of espresso with whipped cream — and brought up Roth’s self-mythologizing. Roth’s untruths had made Pim’s job as biographer that much harder, but he came to regard them with compassion. For Roth, these fantasies were “a self-consolation, a refuge, a reprieve from a painful reality,” Pim said. In such difficult circumstances, personally and politically, “you can see why it would make sense to retreat into a dream world.”
Roth drank. He claimed he started drinking at the age of 8. He drank Calvados and schnapps, and wine when he was on a “diet.” Pim argues that Roth’s alcoholism, for a Jew of his background and era, made him “a cultural exception.” Roth’s friends, including the popular Viennese writer Stefan Zweig, begged him to stop. But Roth was convinced that alcohol made him a novelist, not merely a journalist. This despite the fact that, while drunk, he left a chapter of his manuscript in progress — his masterpiece, “The Radetzky March” — in a taxi in Paris.
Alert to politics, Roth saw earlier than most that Hitler represented catastrophe. His 1923 book, “The Spider’s Web,” was the first novel to mention Hitler, who at that point was a rabble-rousing antisemite about to be imprisoned for a failed putsch and still a decade from gaining power. When he got it, he ordered all “degenerate” works of literature burned in public bonfires. Roth’s books were among the first to go. Roth, by then in exile in Paris, called the bonfires an “auto-da-fé of the mind.”
Scanning the contours of Roth’s life, some have labeled him a brilliant writer but a morally disappointing man. He left his wife, Friedl, alone in foreign hotels while he roamed Europe to report, likely exacerbating her mental illness. She was institutionalized by the time she was 30. Meanwhile, Roth had affairs, badgered acquaintances for money and, always, he drank.
Michael Hofmann, the most prolific of Roth’s translators, argues that moral condemnation misses the point. “He’s not a simple person,” Hofmann said, “but I think he’s a fascinating and a deeply lovable person.” Roth had friends who were loyal to the end — Zweig, the novelist Soma Morgenstern. He was charming and seductive, even when he was well on his way to alcoholic disrepair. He had never been an observant Jew, and claimed to have converted to Catholicism, but at the end of his life, what he wanted was to eat eggs with onions, Galician-style, and to sit in the Luxembourg Gardens with his old friend Morgenstern, asking him to sing the Yiddish songs they knew from their childhoods.
In 1939, at the age of 44, in Paris, the city that had represented pure hope to him, Roth collapsed in a bar. He was admitted to a pauper’s hospital, where, according to Bronsen, he suffered agonizing withdrawal, shouting out in German for a drink from his deathbed. But the attendants spoke only French. The following year, Friedl was transferred to the Hartheim Killing Facility, near Linz, where she was murdered by the Nazis.
It is only now, in Vienna, that Pim realizes just how close Friedl and her parents lived to the flat where his maternal grandmother, Ilse Epstein, grew up. Their doors are perhaps 200 meters apart, on opposite sides of Am Tabor Street. The extreme proximity is not as obvious on Google Maps, which Pim relied upon to write the Vienna section of his book. Friedl perished in Austria, but Pim’s grandmother escaped, arriving in England in 1939. She met his grandfather and gave birth to his mother and aunt there. Shortly after, she died there, by suicide.
So much of his family history, Pim said, standing on a wrought-iron staircase on the site of his grandmother’s flat, “wasn’t really discussed.” His mother got very “tight-lipped” when certain subjects came up. There were many holes in Pim’s knowledge, but also many points of convergence between his own family’s history and Roth’s. Those intersections, Pim said, were the invaluable, even magical, moments that brought Roth alive, the moments when he became “almost real, in front of me.”
The first major review of Pim’s book — in the Oct. 6 edition of The New York Review of Books — came out “the day before my mum died,” he said. “I was just reading it with my teeth gritted, like, please don’t say something that absolutely floors me at this moment.” His mother didn’t live to see the publication of “Endless Flight,” but she knew the story: Her son had written a book about a man who’d likely passed her own parents on an old Viennese street, on his way to capture a vanishing world.