Joseph Roth always knew when to get out. As a young man, he ran like hell from his birthplace of Brody, a small, struggling town in Galicia, on the northern fringe of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He arrived in Vienna in 1913, when it was the most intellectually thrilling city in Europe, and left when it shrivelled after the first world war. Having become a successful journalist, he fled Germany for the first time in 1925, on the morning after Paul von Hindenburg was elected president, and again, permanently, when Hitler became chancellor. And he left the world, his mind and body brutalised by alcoholism, in May 1939, between the annexation of Austria and the invasion of Poland, as if constitutionally incapable of witnessing the culmination of everything he had been warning about. He died in a Parisian pauper’s hospital at the age of 44, delirious, strapped to his bed to prevent him from running away. His last utterance, it seems, was a scream: “I have to get out of here!”
Flight, as the title of the first ever English-language biography of Roth indicates, is one way of making sense of his chaotic life. Another, Keiron Pim suggests, is paradox: “If you think you’ve placed him, he’ll prove you wrong.” He was a victim and critic of antisemitism yet sometimes a self-hating practitioner who called his editors “scheming Jews” and may have converted to Catholicism in 1936. Once a socialist, he adopted the bearing of an aristocrat and became an arch-nostalgist for empire in novels such as his 1932 masterpiece The Radetzky March. He thought and wrote in German but came to despise it as “a dead language”. At his best, claims the critic James Wood, “there is no greater modern writer than Joseph Roth”, yet several of his novels feel slapdash and incomplete.
Roth’s output, often produced in busy cafes between conversations with friends, was manic. A German edition of his complete works exceeds 6,000 pages. Between 1923 and 1924 he somehow wrote three novels in nine months. But even he had limits: in 1930 he suddenly remembered a lucrative contract he had signed a year earlier and realised that he had to generate a novel in three weeks. He might have pulled it off had he not accidentally packaged his frantic memos to himself (“Must finish novel in three weeks!”) with the manuscript when he sent it to his horrified publisher. The novel was rejected.
One reason Roth inspires passionate fandom is that his books are addictively strange, each one different from the last, sliding around in time or genre. “They seem to defy literary physics,” says Michael Hofmann, whose elegant translations over the past three decades are largely responsible for Roth’s revived reputation in the anglophone world. Pim writes: “Readers today connect with the moral clarity of his robust opposition to nationalism; admire his empathy with the exiled and dispossessed; recognise his crisis of identity; and, not least, are primed for a nostalgic pull towards the aesthetics and perceived values of his Mitteleuropa as its last inhabitants fade from view.”
Pim’s book is a little longer than it needs to be, swollen by multi-page plot summaries of each novel and slow to get off the blocks, but his effort to understand the man in full is profound and the result feels definitive. His research empowers him to be rigorously sceptical of a writer who was an unreliable historian of both the empire and his own life, telling outrageous lies about his war record, his education, his birthplace and, most significantly, his family. While Roth wrote numerous times about father-and-son relationships, his own father, Nachum, was confined to an asylum during his wife’s pregnancy and never returned, so he became a creature of dreams and fantasies for his brilliant, intense son. A source of shame, too. Nachum’s disappearance was embarrassing in Brody, and hailing from backward, unassimilated Brody was embarrassing elsewhere, even to fellow Jews. Galicia, Roth wrote, had “the sad allure of the place scorned”.
During the 1920s, Roth became a star writer for the Frankfurter Zeitung, commanding a Deutschmark per line. He became a master of the feuilleton, the short, finely polished form in which the simplest observation becomes a rich metaphor and journalism becomes literature. He had a particular eye for people who lived in the cracks and margins. “I don’t write ‘witty glosses’,” he snapped haughtily in a letter to his editor. “I paint the portrait of an age.” He also claimed that he was a bigger draw than the news itself, and that there was no point in interviewing people because he already knew the answers: “Interviews are an alibi for a journalist’s lack of ideas.” You have to be exceptionally good to get away with that sort of thing.
Roth’s journalism arguably outshone his fiction until his first great novel, 1930’s Job, which reckoned with both his Galician childhood and his devastated marriage. Two years earlier, his young wife, Friedl, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Still scarred by his father’s mental collapse, Roth refused to accept it, insisting that their unhappy marriage had brought about temporary hysteria. Hope of recovery required blaming himself, but that hope evaporated, along with all the money he poured into hospital bills. At one time among the most highly paid journalists in Europe, he spent the rest of his life in agonising debt.
Roth’s deteriorating circumstances inspired a fierce longing for his youth, before the war and the collapse of empire. That, he decided, was where it all went wrong, so he returned obsessively in his writing to the scene of the tragedy. He liked the new phrase “world war”, “not for the usual reason, that the whole world was involved in it, but rather because as a result of it we lost a whole world, our world … ” Nostalgia brightened and enriched his prose. He wrote about the end of the Habsburgs as a sunset, with a heavy, melancholy beauty.
While Roth’s prose grew more iridescent, his life became uglier. The most grimly compelling stretch of Endless Flight is his downhill slide to oblivion during the 1930s. “His sharp features grow pudgy, his jowls pustulate, he grows a moustache that rests like a ragged moth above his fleshly lips,” Pim writes. At 43, a friend noted, he looked more like 60 – bent and bloated, with a hoarse voice and violent cough from smoking up to 80 cigarettes a day. Roth was terrified of inheriting his father’s insanity and thought that only writing would save him, but he also believed that only drinking would help him write, and alcohol eroded his mental health. “Roth is, I believe, really about to lose the remnants of a once royal mind,” a Dutch editor wrote after an evening with him in 1934.
As Roth descended into bitterness and paranoia, being his friend became an increasingly thankless task. Pim includes an extraordinary pledge of loyalty from Stefan Zweig: “You can do what you like against me, privately, publicly diminish me or antagonize me, you won’t manage to free yourself of my unhappy love for you … Push me away all you like, it won’t help you!” Roth kept pushing.
It’s tempting to take sides when considering these two great exiled chroniclers of the end of empire and the rise of fascism. Pim makes no bones about his preference. “Where Roth is a double espresso, Zweig is a half-decent mocha, served lukewarm.” Put less harshly, Zweig’s prose is smooth and graceful while Roth’s is startling and restless. He felt that the more affluent Zweig could never appreciate his rage. Placed on the Nazis’ list of banned writers, Roth lost his newspaper job and his German readership in a stroke. As Pim observes, the man “who had expended much energy on transcending his eastern Jewish origin and assimilating into German-Austrian culture had been disabused of any lingering doubt as to his status.” Yet he could not have been entirely surprised. His 1923 novel The Spider’s Web was the first by anyone to mention Hitler, and he predicted that Germany was “heading for a tragi-comic ending”. From its inception he wrote about Nazi Germany as “Hell on Earth”, “the German apocalypse” and “the residence of the Antichrist”. It was the duty of every writer, he believed, to engage it in “pitiless combat”.
Pim steadily builds the case that Roth’s vagabond life – he lived out of three suitcases and was happiest in hotels – was his animating paradox: “One man’s rootlessness was another man’s freedom.” Roth had an idealistic aspiration to be both, a bridge between nations and races, but often felt as if he was neither. As Pim writes, he was “standing in a doorway between two crowded rooms, a double outsider … Marginality becomes central to your being.”
Roth came closest to contentment during his first sojourn in France. In one of a series of beautiful feuilletons he published in 1925, he reflected that the stars that looked down on Nîmes were the same ones that had illuminated the skies of his youth. “That’s how small the world is. And if you think some of it foreign, you’re mistaken. Everywhere is home.” Yet in his darker moments, of which there were many more, home was nowhere.
• Endless Flight: The Life of Joseph Roth by Keiron Pim is published by Granta (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.