Sunday, September 18, 2016

Joseph Roth: To Gustav Kiepenheuer on his fiftieth birthday

I have had to cover many miles. Between the place where I was born, and the towns and villages I have come to in the last ten years in order to dwell in them, and which I have dwelt in only, apparently, to leave them again, lies my life, amenable more readily to spatial than to chronological measurement. The years I have put behind me are the roads I have travelled.

Nowhere, in no parish register or cadaster is there a record of my date of birth or my name. I have no home, aside from the fact that I am at home in myself. Wherever I am unhappy is my home. I am only ever happy abroad. If I leave myself so much as once, I will lose myself. Therefore, I take great care to remain within myself.

I was born in a tiny hamlet in Volhynia, on 2 September 1894, under the sign of the Virgin, with whom my given name of Joseph stands in some vague relation. My mother was a Jewess of strong, earthy, Slavic constitution, she would often sing Ukrainian songs because she was very unhappy (and where I come from it is the unfortunates who sing, not the lucky ones, as in Western countries. That’s why Eastern songs are more beautiful, and anyone with a heart who listens to them will be moved to tears). She had no money and no husband. Because my father, who turned up one day, and whisked her off to the West with him, probably with the sole purpose of siring me, left her in Katowice, and disappeared, never to be seen again. He must have been a strange man, an Austrian scallywag, who liked to spend money, presumably drank, and died insane when I was sixteen. His speciality was melancholy, which I have inherited from him. I never saw him. But I remember when I was four or five, I had a dream of a man in whom I saw my father. Ten or twelve years after that, I first saw a photograph of my father. I had seen the face before. He was the man in my dream.

At the sort of tender age when other children are just learning to walk, I was already going on trains. I came to Vienna early in my life, soon left it, came back, went to the West again, had no money, lived off subventions from well-off relatives and from giving lessons, started to study, was keen and ambitious, an ostentatiously good boy, full of quiet malice and poison, modest out of conceit, jealous of the rich, but incapable of solidarity with the poor. They seemed stupid and clumsy to me. I dreaded any coarseness of expression. It made me very happy when I found in Horace’s odi profanum vulgus an authoritative confirmation of my instincts. I loved freedom. The times I spent with my mother were my happiest. I got up at night, got dressed, and left the house. I walked for three or four days, slept in houses whose state I didn’t know, and with women whose faces I didn’t see, and was curious to see. I roasted potatoes on summer meadows, and on hard autumnal fields. I plucked strawberries in forests, and hung around with a half-grown rabble, and was thrashed from time to time, so to speak, by mistake. Everyone who gave me a thrashing would quickly beg my forgiveness. Because he feared my revenge. My revenge could be terrible. I had no particular affection for anyone. But if I hated anyone, I would wish his death, and was prepared to kill him. I had the best slings, I always aimed for the head, and I didn’t just use stones, but also broken glass and razor blades. I laid traps and snares, and I lay in wait and lurked in bushes. When one of my enemies once turned up armed with a revolver, admittedly without ammunition, I felt humiliated. I started off by flattering him, gradually, in the teeth of my true feelings, made myself his friend, and finally bought the revolver off him, with bullets I had been given by a forester. I persuaded my friend, that the ammunition on its own was much more dangerous than a weapon without ammunition.

Noble feelings came to me later, and not for long. My first noble stirrings were roused in me by a girl, I was in my second semester as a student of German. The girl in question came from Witkowitz. At sixteen, she had fallen prey to an engineer, and got pregnant by him. Luckily, the child she had was stillborn. The engineer didn’t care about her. So she went to Vienna, as a governess with horrible, stupid people. What else could I do, but be noble? I rented a room for the girl, induced her to quit the ghastly blond children in their sailor suits, and decided I would make a live baby with the poor girl, and challenge the engineer. To that end, I sold my coat, and took an advance from a lawyer whose son I was teaching. I travelled to Witkowitz, found the engineer, he arranged to meet me in a café, after he received my blunt little note. He had a pointed black beard, crooked upward-slanting eyebrows, glittering eyes, a fine, brown complexion, slender hands, he reminded me of the devil. On his calling-card it said: Lieutenant of the Reserve. He bought me a cup of coffee, was friendly, smiled, admitted that he slept with the daughters of all his foremen one after the other on principle, but didn’t have time to busy himself with them beyond that. He took me to a brothel, bought me three girls at once, and said he was prepared to turn one of his Witkowitz damsels over to me. He bought me drinks, took me to the station, we embraced as we parted. Unfortunately, He died during the typhoid epidemic of 1916. He was one of my earliest friends.

I got back, the girl had found a new job by now. She wrote me a nice farewell letter, from which it appeared I wasn’t the type for her. Quite rightly, she was still in love with the engineer. Thenceforth, I started looking for women in the Stadtpark, the Volksgarten, the Vienna Woods, and with modesty and fake timidity, tried to win the pity, and then the love, of the mothers of my pupils. I was especially popular with the wives of lawyers, as their husbands had so little time for them. They gave me shirts, underpants, ties, took me with them to their boxes at the opera, in their carriages, and went away with me to Klagenfurt, Innsbruck, and Graz. They were my mothers. I loved them all dearly.

When the War broke out, I lost my pupils one by one. The lawyers joined up, their wives grew moody and patriotic, and began to express a preference for war-wounded. I volunteered for the 21st Jagers. I didn’t want to have to travel third class, to salute incessantly, I was an eager soldier, got to the Line too soon, on the Eastern Front, I reported for cadet school, I wanted to be an officer. I became an ensign. I remained at the Eastern Front till the War ended. I was brave, strict, and ambitious. I decided to stay with the Army. Then came the Revolution. I hated revolutions, but had to make way for them, and, since the last train had just left Shmerinka, I had to march home. I marched for three weeks. Then for another ten days I followed roundabout routes, from Podwoloczysk to Budapest, from there to Vienna, where, because I didn’t have any money, I started to write for the papers. They printed my nonsense. I lived off it. I became a writer.

Soon after, I moved to Berlin – I was forced to go by the love of a married woman and my fear of losing my freedom, which was worth more to me than my uncertain heart. I wrote the stupidest things, and so made a name for myself. I wrote bad books, and became famous. Twice I was turned down by Kiepenheuer. He would have turned me down a third time too, if we hadn’t got to know each other.

We drank schnapps one Sunday. It was bad schnapps, it made both of us sick. Out of sympathy, we became friends, in spite of the difference in our natures, which are such that only alcohol is capable of bridging them. Kiepenheuer is a West-Phalian, you see, while I am an East-Phalian. There hardly exist any greater contrasts than that. He is an idealist, I am a skeptic. He loves Jews, I don’t. He is an apostle of progress, I am a reactionary. He is ageless, I have been old since I can remember. He is turning fifty, I am two hundred. I could have been his great-grandfather, if I wasn’t his brother. I am radical, he is conciliatory. He is polite and vague, I am unjust. He is an optimist, I am a pessimist.

There must be some secret connection between us somewhere. Because sometimes we do agree. It’s as though we each made concessions to the other, but we don’t. Because he doesn’t understand money. That’s a quality we both share. He is the most courtly man I know. So am I. He got it from me. He loses money on my books. So do I. He believes in me. So do I. He waits for my success. So do I. He is certain of posterity. So am I.

We are inseparable; that’s his advantage.

Joseph Roth 
 10 June 1930

No comments: