Mankind Is a Piece of Shit: On Keiron Pim’s “Endless Flight”

By Luke WardeDecember 24, 2022

Mankind Is a Piece of Shit: On Keiron Pim’s “Endless Flight”

Endless Flight: The Life of Joseph Roth by Keiron Pim

ENORMOUS EVENTS OFTEN trigger a search for voices that might help us navigate — or at least temper the terrors of — the seemingly unprecedented. Last spring, as Russian tanks rolled into Eastern Ukraine, the Austrian Jewish writer Joseph Roth, who died in 1939, was designated one such voice: a native of Brody, a town close to modern-day Lviv, but which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Roth would later become a war veteran and refugee, as well as an early opponent of fascism. In an article in The Atlantic in February, Tom McTague singled Roth out as someone who might remind us that the recently unimaginable — a contemporary political leader ordering the invasion of a European country — is in fact eminently possible. “For many in the West,” McTague wrote, “wars of aggression are things that happen to poor countries a long way away” — in other words, “[t]hey are done by us. They are not done to us.”

While Roth might help to contextualize Russia’s murderous invasion of Ukraine, he is less likely to comfort us. What is widely considered his masterpiece, The Radetzky March (1932), is “an account of a formidable collapse, a deadly loss of scale and illusion,” and “a far bleaker, more unconsoling book than it is [often] taken for,” writes Michael Hofmann, Roth’s best-known translator, and the one who midwifed his renaissance among English readers. Elsewhere, Hofmann notes that, in most of Roth’s books, issues of agency are essentially peripheral; it is rather fate — die Fügung — that governs human action, and Roth wrote from the perspective of those who had little choice but to submit to it: those whose voices were drowned out by what he called the mighty “thunder of world history.” These were people such as “[p]oor Jadlowker,” a tavern owner in The Emperor’s Tomb (1938), who only “a week ago had sat there so majestically with his silver beard, like a lord mayor among the barmen,” but who “today looked like a human being who is obliged to liquidize his entire existence: a victim of world history.”

Keiron Pim could not have anticipated the dire context in which his eloquent new book would appear. The first biography of the Austro-Hungarian writer in English, Pim’s Endless Flight: The Life of Joseph Roth would have been timely enough even without the grim appositeness of a new European war. Across the continent, the kind of racist nationalism Roth deplored — Pim describes him as the consummate “poet of the marginalised, the alienated and the dispossessed” — has become resurgent. On the strictly literary side of things, Hofmann and other critics have helped secure Roth’s position as one of the most widely read modern German-language authors among Anglophone readers, along with Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, and Stefan Zweig (who features prominently in Endless Flight).

As might be expected, Pim begins in Brody, Roth’s birthplace. The town was then part of the Austrian crown land of Galicia, home to a significant Jewish population. Known as Ostjuden, these people were deemed the “lowest of all Jews” — even, it seems, by Roth, who was one himself. For obvious reasons, Pim considers the author’s childhood and upbringing in Brody crucial to understanding both the man and his work. Roth never met his father, Nachum, who vanished before he was born (he apparently ended up in a psychiatric institution, a fate that would befall others dear to his son), leaving the boy in the care of his stiflingly protective mother, Maria. It doesn’t take any special powers of discernment to notice how both the absence of his father and his complicated relationship with his mother would later feed into Roth’s literary works: ersatz patriarchs, most notably Emperor Franz Joseph, figure prominently in his novels, along with a litany of almost cartoonish maternal figures, like Katharina Blumich in Rebellion (1924), who is described as “warm, big-bosomed, round-hipped.”

How Roth perceived his home, itself an “old border town in a borderland,” was similarly complex. Indeed, if we are to believe Pim, Roth felt he never truly had a home, or at least was never comfortable identifying with the one fate had assigned him. Yet if he rejected his birthplace and the identity that came with it, he was at the same time “never [quite] sure of how to replace [these] either.” Ensconced in Vienna, where he decamped to continue his studies in philosophy after a brief period at university in Lemberg (Lviv), Roth began to internalize the anti-Semitism of the Austrian bourgeoisie. He was far from the only Jew, especially among the many who were artists and intellectuals in Vienna, to be beset by such anxieties: Arnold Schoenberg and Karl Kraus, among others, converted to Christianity, as Roth eventually would too. Many felt compelled to “pass” as non-Jews, a phenomenon that had as much to do with self-preservation — the Christian Social Party’s Karl Lueger, a harbinger of Hitler, was then mayor of the city — as it did with self-loathing. Roth’s own attitudes were revealingly confused; according to Pim, he writes of his fellow Jews with a mixture of “respect and contempt, love and loathing.” But even as he trafficked in the snobbery of his new milieu, he would nonetheless periodically betray a ferocious loyalty to the origins he had apparently renounced; only he, an insider, an Ostjude, had the right to criticize his fellow Galicians.

The Vienna whose fin-de-siècle vibrancy the young Roth embraced was crucial to his development as a writer. After all, he was a journalist before he was a novelist, and the form at which he initially excelled was the Viennese feuilleton. Originating in 19th-century France, feuilletons were short impressionistic pieces that, at their best, seemed capable of capturing, in microcosm, a whole zeitgeist. The approach this kind of “journalism” demanded shares little with what the modern profession tends to make a fetish of: facts and “objectivity.” Instead, the feuilleton is thoroughly subjective, a product of the same cultural context that gave us the dandy and the flâneur, a form that focuses less (in Pim’s words) on “the literalities of journalism” and more on facts of a “poetic and psychological kind.” It is worth pondering, and perhaps says something about our contemporary intellectual and cultural moment, how the writings of Roth, a producer in his journalism of what we might today dismiss as “fake news” and a serial liar in his private life, would come to be seen as one of the very few voices of reason and sanity in the face of Nazi barbarism and irrationality.

Pim devotes significant attention throughout his biography to Roth’s complicated political evolution. Given his background and the discrimination he faced as a young Jew in Vienna and then Berlin, it is hardly surprising that the author initially took to socialism. Indeed, he even garnered the nickname “Der rote Joseph” (“Joseph the Red”) on account of his early radical journalism, much of which revolved around the daily indignities faced by Europe’s urban poor. For Roth, socialism was more a moral imperative than a Weltanschauung to which he was intellectually drawn, and he maintained what looks like a lifelong hostility to Marxism. At the same time, he was no liberal in the conventional sense. In fact, what Roth did share with Marxists — or at least with Marxism’s less subtle proponents — was a profound skepticism about individual choice. This wariness had much to do with the shattering experience of the First World War, whose many horrors he witnessed firsthand, and which ended the empire about which he would increasingly wax nostalgic. He was apt to ascribe such cataclysms to inscrutable forces — die Fügung, again — rather than to the actions of individual men and women. But these forces never resembled anything as temporal as a political-economic order; the suffering soldiers described in his early novels seem instead victims of some horrible cosmic intervention: a just god doling out “shrapnel, amputations, and medals to the deserving,” as he writes in Rebellion.

Where Roth did truly part ways with the Left, and where he seemed to credit individual agency, was on the matter of human nature, so to speak. Here, he was distinctly anti-utopian, even misanthropic. A passage, again from Rebellion, captures this contradictory worldview, in which cosmic judgment and individual malice somehow coincide. Andreas Pum, one-legged due to injuries suffered in the war, is about to have his fateful encounter with Herr Arnold, the ludicrous reactionary who suspects him of being a Bolshevik; the subsequent exchange leads to Andreas’s arrest after he refuses to alight from a tram and show the police his papers. The narrator intervenes:

[S]uch is the treacherous way of Fate: we are doomed not by our own fault, and sometimes without our even perceiving a connection; we are doomed by the blind rage of a stranger with whose story we are unfamiliar, to whose misfortune we are unconnected, and with whose opinions we are even in agreement. He and no other is the instrument in the casually devastating hand of Destiny.

Our misfortunes, for Roth, are at once the product of human crumminess and of impersonal fate, both ineradicable. His socialism was basically a general sympathy, a necessary corrective to what he saw as our innate selfishness.

A conservatism he would later embrace was thus long present in embryo, awaiting articulation. The potential attractions of Catholicism to someone with such leanings scarcely need unpacking. The tone of a 1935 letter is indicative of where he would arrive on this score: “I am near to becoming an orthodox, even a militant Catholic. I don’t believe in ‘humankind’ […] but in God, and in the fact that mankind, to whom He shows no mercy, is a piece of shit.” Elsewhere, he wrote: “I do not believe that man can save man. I am a believer, and as such I believe that man can only be saved through heaven. […] [I]f one believes that man can be saved by man, one is ripe for communism or for National Socialism.” The latter statement attests to Roth’s enduring appeal for a certain kind of moderate liberalism, ever leery of extremes. Yet the late Roth — the Roth who wrote The Antichrist (1934), a fiery rant combining “polemic, philosophical treatise, memoir and fiction” — seems closer to today’s Catholic integralists than he does to any kind of centrist. Increasingly, he would inveigh against a “heathen” society, against the decline of “virtue,” against a newspaper industry that “peddles lies and censors honest journalists’ reports.” His inner aristocrat, which had asserted itself earlier during his Vienna years when he cosplayed the dandy, reared its head yet again. This was the Roth who had once declared that he was “incapable of solidarity with the poor.”

This growing cantankerousness was catalyzed by a broader sense of impending collapse, especially as Roth became ever more dependent on alcohol. It is surely astonishing that he produced The Radetzky March during this late, drink-soaked period. Pim goes so far as to call the book Roth’s first “alcoholic novel,” one populated by “desperate men” who are “isolated” and “straightjacketed in their stiff uniforms and ingrained formality”; only after “a night’s drinking do they form brief emotional bonds that melt away again by the morning.” Could a sober man have written such a book, one that captures the “urge towards the next drink” with such relentless conviction? Probably not, Pim suggests, for alcohol irrigated the novel’s very creation. What Roth called a “diet,” a term he resorted to when his habit threatened to capsize the whole endeavor, consisted of copious amounts of wine rather than spirits. The relationship between his creative output and alcohol would prove a toxic, and ultimately lethal, symbiosis: he would work harder and harder to earn money, but “the only respite lay in drinking more.”

A protracted misery for Roth, and something that gnawed at him more and more, was his wife Friedl’s deteriorating psychological condition. They first met in Vienna in 1919, and a period of infatuation ensued. This was not to last. The frustrations arising from Roth’s jealousy, rooted in his troubled familial past, were visited more and more upon his wife, whom he regularly accused of betrayal, the very iniquity of which Roth himself was guilty (he had numerous affairs). Not long after their marriage, Friedl began to experience concerning symptoms, including manias and episodes of catatonia. Eventually, he was left with little choice but to solicit care. Friedl would spend years shuffling in and out of psychiatric institutions; in between these committals, she was looked after by her parents in Vienna. Meanwhile, her husband went on with his nomadic existence.

Roth’s reaction to his wife’s travails betrayed a recognizable combination of narcissism and genuine concern: he tortured and blamed himself, as if he were the malady’s sole cause and her only potential savior; he pored over the latest developments in psychology, hunting for a cure; and he prayed, hoping for a miracle. For all his sympathy, Pim is unsparing in highlighting how Roth contributed to Friedl’s complete emotional collapse. “She had given her life over to this man and his needs,” he writes, “this man who had forcibly moulded her personality into a shape he deemed appropriate, who did as he pleased without reference to her needs.” In 1935, Roth would visit Friedl for the last time at the Lower Austrian Provincial Institution for the Care and Cure of the Mentally Ill and for Nervous Disorders at Steinhof. She reportedly threatened to attack him.

A conspicuous absence of women had long been a feature of Roth’s works, but Pim singles out a late short story, “The Triumph of Beauty,” as being both particularly explicit in its misogyny and disquietingly suggestive of Roth’s attitude toward Friedl. Narrated by the psychiatrist Dr. Skovronnek, who first appeared in The Radetzky March, the narrative centers on Gwendoline, whose husband commits suicide after she develops “hysteria.” Skovronnek “treats the husbands who suffer more at the hands of their wives than the wives do from their illnesses.” The story is littered with the oldest of misogynistic tropes: Gwendoline’s tongue reminds Skovronnek of a snake’s; smiling women are likened to prostitutes. Skovronnek, one senses, functioned as a vehicle through which Roth could ventriloquize his basest judgments, and Pim dismisses “The Triumph of Beauty” as a “blemish” on his oeuvre.

Such an epithet presupposes a wider, pristine whole, and for many, Roth’s literary works represent just such an achievement. While unflinching in documenting his subject’s faults, Pim remains ultimately committed to Roth the novelist-chronicler — sometimes, indeed, to his detriment as a biographer. One of the very few blemishes on Endless Flight is the sheer length of its plot summaries, many of which feel unnecessary, particularly where Roth’s best-known works are concerned (there will surely be few readers who have not read these but who will nonetheless decide to take up their author’s biography).

Such minor quibbles notwithstanding, Pim has given us an authoritative and long-overdue life of an author whose pertinence to our contemporary times is both indisputable and unsettling. Perhaps one of the most extraordinary things about Roth is that he offers a vision both of Europe as it has been — a fissiparous place, riven not infrequently by violence — and of what it could be: a peaceful, collaborative project. The former vetoes complacency and the latter instills hope. We would do well to meditate on both.


Luke Warde holds a doctorate in French from the University of Cambridge, and is currently a Visiting Research Fellow in French at Trinity College Dublin. His writing has appeared in The Irish Times, The Dublin Review of Books, The Sunday Independent, Review 31, and The Times Literary Supplement.

LARB Contributor

Luke Warde holds a doctorate in French from the University of Cambridge. He is currently a Visiting Research Fellow in French at Trinity College Dublin. His writing has appeared in The Irish Times, The Dublin Review of Books, The Sunday Independent, Review 31, and The Times Literary Supplement.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!