In my review of David Bronsen's "Joseph Roth", I said that no biography was yet available in English. Now we have an English-language commentary of Roth's life, just 132 pages long, beautifully written and published attractively by Notting Hill Editions. For the purpose of this book Dennis Marks is himself, in a sense, a wandering Jew, for its framework is his physical journey to places associated with Joseph Roth, and the map at the beginning of the book shows his own itinerary through the former Habsburg Empire rather showing the many places in Eastern, Central and Western Europe (always in hotels) in which Roth lived in the course of his life.
The book is not a chronological account of Roth's life, whose main events are only touched on. Rather its main purpose, beautifully fulfilled, is to analyze the themes in Roth's books; and there is also much historical background and much musing by Marks about the history and consequences of nationalism, right up to the present day.
The first chapter relates the difficulty of pinning down Roth's ever-shifting utterances about his origin and opinions to that of pinning down the frontiers of the area in which he was born. In Roth's lifetime his birthplace of Brody was successively part of the Habsburg province of Galicia, of a short-lived Ukrainian Republic, then of Poland (and it would after that become successively part of the Soviet Union and once again of the Ukraine.) All this reinforced Roth's feeling, ever since the break-up of the Habsburg Empire (much beloved by him in retrospect, though he was always aware of its archaic nature, picking away at its absurdities "like a scab"), that he really had no home, and therefore a very weak sense of identity, certainly no sense of national identity and a very ambivalent attitude about his Jewish identity. He had chosen Austrian citizenship in 1919, and even that vanished with the Anschluss.
The second chapter mostly analyzes Roth's attitude to the Habsburg Empire, and contrasts it with that of his contemporary Robert Musil.
In the third chapter Marks discusses the themes of displacement and statelessness which figure so prominently in Roth's work, and Marks points out that he was portraying not only his own condition, but that of millions (four to five million, according to Eric Hobsbawm) immediately after the First World War, with more to come ever since. Even the soldiers who return home from the battlefields often find their home has become an alien place.
The next chapter examines Roth's attitude to Judaism. He is intimately familiar with the lives and culture, admirable as well as less admirable, of the poor East European Jews who figure prominently in his books; but we are not to think that he sees himself as one of them (except as a displaced person - and then he thinks of himself as belonging to the host of displaced persons in general, rather than as a displaced Jew). Though Roth observed rather than lived a Jewish life, though he claimed at times to have converted to Catholicism, though he detested Zionism as just another nationalism with all the militarism he foresaw that it would involve, Marks disagrees with those commentators who have applied to him "the irritating phrase `self-denying Jew'".
In his final chapter Marks comments on the strange fact that, whereas the fighting on the Western front and the subsequent history of Germany has inspired countless "legendary accounts", the fighting on the Eastern Front and the subsequent history of the area that was once the Habsburg Empire has attracted only two great writers: the journalist John Reed and the journalist and novelist Joseph Roth. He provides no explanation for this. Instead the chapter ends with a magnificent analysis of one of Roth's last works, The Emperor's Tomb (Die Kapuzinergruft) which is an elegiac coda to his most famous work, The Radetzky March.