Academic journal article German Quarterly

Understanding Joseph Roth

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Understanding Joseph Roth

Article excerpt

Rosenfeld, Sidney. Understanding Joseph Roth. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.128 pp. $29.95 hardcover.

This is the first book in English, apart from two conference volumes in the 1990s, to be devoted to Joseph Roth. It is a welcome addition to the series "Understanding Modern European and Latin American literature," which is designed for anglophone students, academics, and general readers, and it appears at a time when, with the recent publication of The Rebellion, the task of translating Roth's novels into English has at last been completed. Rosenfeld's introductory chapter begins not at the beginning, but with January 1933 and the cultural rupture that was Roth's fate as an exile writer, and its consequences for the post-war reception of his works. Rosenfeld takes the story "The Bust of the Emperor" (unfortunately not available in English) to exemplify both Roth's themes and the fraught publication history of his works. He then provides a deftly focused, informative account, linking biography to the political and historical context in which Roth's works were produced, highlighting his core preoccupations with Austria, homelessness and identity. There is strong emphasis here on Roth's predicament as a Jew, on his uneasy position between linguistic and ethnic cultures. Special attention is paid to Jewish aspects of Roth's works throughout: the index has more entries on Jews than on anything else. Buber's notion of the Jewish "chain of generations" (21) is invoked in connection with Hotel Savoy, among other works. In the final chapter, "Riddles of a Torn Existence," there is an interesting discussion of Roth in relation to Jewish self-hate and Rosenfeld suggests elsewhere, surprisingly, that Roth's enlistment during the war was an act of assimilation.

The novels are presented chronologically in five chapters. Plot summaries are provided and the critical commentary includes numerous judgments on the literary quality of individual works. These often focus on issues of structure and composition. Rosenfeld writes from a profound knowledge and appreciation of Roth's works, and frequently puts his finger on its unorthodox characteristics, but is too ready to classify these as weaknesses. The analysis of Die Rebellion, with a note on its possible source in an article by Kraus, is well-judged, however, and observations on Roth's position beside his contemporaries open up new perspectives, by placing him closer to Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald than Doblin or Kastner in one of several attempts to locate Roth in relation to coevals and compatriots. …

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