(Granta, 527 pp, £25.00)
I owe it to my Gramophone colleague Richard Bratby who last year posted an announcement that he had reviewed the above book in ‘The Critic’ (which I still haven’t managed to track down) and therefore alerted me to Keiron Pim’s superb Roth biography, one of the best of any kind that I have read in recent years. Put briefly, Roth was an Austrian-Jewish journalist and novelist whose epoch-making novel Radetzky March about the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire condenses a War-and-Peace-like array of characters into a tighter space. My own introduction to Roth was via his letters, then the novella Job and The Wandering Jews, the latter about Jewish migrations from eastern to western Europe in the aftermath of the First World War and the Russian Revolution.
Roth himself, a Catholic convert (superficially a least), never denied his Jewish heritage and had infinitely more sympathy for Eastern Jews than for their Western counterparts. At the end of his life he craved a Galician-style diet of eggs with onions, and longed to sit with an old friend asking him to sing the Yiddish songs they knew from their childhoods. Roth grew up in Brody (currently part of Ukraine), a location that is powerfully evoked near the start of the book. Of his father Roth wrote, ‘he must have been a strange man, an Austrian scallywag, a drinker and a spendthrift. He died insane when I was sixteen. His speciality was the melancholy which I inherited from him’ (I think of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard here, who also inherited a melancholy streak from his father).
Pim traces Roth’s life and career, detailing his fraught but fruitful relationships with such writers as Stefan Zweig. His sense of political protest was fired by the hell that he saw evolving (he died, an alcoholic, in May 1939, just as Hitler was gearing up for war) and his pointed, deeply poetic prose evokes the complexion and aroma of a world long gone. Whenever Pim references one of Roth’s works he usefully offers a précis of what it is about, its style and scale, with numerous pertinent quotations. Roth’s aphoristic style lends itself to such an approach.
Anyone interested in middle-European writing from the period will be hooked, and Pim’s own writing matches that of his subjects. I can well imagine why one of his daughters renamed ‘Endless Flight’ ‘Endless Work’. It must have taken an age to complete but it was well worth the effort. Absolutely unmissable.