The writer Joseph Roth in Paris in 1925.images by brandstatetter (Getty Images)

No one can say that he did not enjoy fame and recognition during his lifetime. Mars Radetzki was a terrific novel with many fans, and German actress Marlene Dietrich put it on the map when she confessed that Use was his favorite book. However, when Joseph Roth died of cirrhosis in a Paris hospital in May 1939, the city’s Jews did not say Kaddish for him (they saw him as a convert) and Catholic priests refused to say Mass. (nobody knew if he was baptized). Even his tombstone reads as an affront: “Austrian Poet”. And this despite the fact that he died stateless and without ever recognizing the republic that succeeded the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He left an unpublished manuscript which would be published months later by a German publisher in exile in Amsterdam; a practically secret edition which was almost lost at the dawn of the new war. Nothing announced posterity. He was even forgotten by his friends, stateless people like him, some close to suicide, like the novelist Stefan Zweig. There was no indication that more than 80 years later, at the start of the 21st century, he would be one of the most revered, quoted and honored authors.

Interest in Roth is growing and there are no signs it will wane. In addition to constant reprints of his books, new essays about him are being published this year, as well as a recently published biography by Keiron Pim, which delves into his legendary character. Nevertheless, no evidence is more compelling of Roth’s current relevance than his inclusion as a character in Berlin nightthe latest installment of the Corto Maltese comic strip.

What would drive a legion of readers to take an interest in the life and work of a poor, stateless, alcoholic Jew? The reasons are mysterious. Either way, I’ll dare six attributes that reinforce Roth’s contemporaneity and may explain why so many followers consider him one of their own.

1. He is a prophet. Although he did not live long enough to see his prophecies come true, Joseph Roth was one of the first scholars to predict the Holocaust. He deeply understood the xenophobic and violent transformation of German society and singled out the Nazis as the destroyers of civilization, even before they came to power and long before the threat was taken seriously by anyone. that is. In Wandering Jews he evokes the world of the shtetls, these Jewish villages of Eastern Europe – like the one in which he was born – which he considered as already lost. It was in 1927, eight years before the Nuremberg Laws! Read books like The Antichrist, we are amazed at his perspicacity and the indifference he encountered.

Joseph Roth, with his wife, Andrea Manga Bell, in Austria in 1933.
Joseph Roth, with his wife, Andrea Manga Bell, in Austria in 1933. Anonymous (Getty Images)

2. He is a nomad who has never had a home. Young people in the 21st century, anxious about an aimless life without a mortgage or a garden of their own, look a bit like Roth, who has always lived in hotels, had no children and had romantic relationships. what we would today call fluid, open and free (one of which is tragic: he spent almost all his money paying for the care of his schizophrenic wife). His first major work was Hotel Savoy, and from then on his books abound with vagabonds, travelers and hustlers. No Ulysses or Ithaca in its pages: everyone assumes that life is fragile and unstable and that you have to adapt to perpetual motion, because capitalism has destroyed all certainties and the sense of community.

3. He yearns for the sacred. Like all uprooted people, he feels an enormous nostalgia for a world where another life was possible, that of community ties, where things made sense and where transcendence was a daily miracle that no cynic would deny. If he had lived today, he would probably have been called a stubborn nostalgic; Mars Radetzki might as well be a reactionary pamphlet. Of course, he would always have postmodern defenders – he has some, in fact – who would interpret his nostalgic bent as a subtle response to the banality of the present.

4. He is a readable narrator who transcends modes. Roth’s voice is unique. It is not linked to any movement, it does not look like anything and, therefore, it does not need any explanation or interpretation, even if it can be the subject of many analyses. And while he’s best understood with a basic knowledge of Judaism (his entire narrative draws from that tradition), one doesn’t need to know about the theological disputes between Hasidic and enlightened Jews in 17th-century Poland to to understand Tarabas, because Roth is an oral storyteller, with a simplicity that dazzles and transcends any cultural or historical barrier. It can be trendy at any time because its literature is timeless, just like the Bible.

Stefan Zweig and Josef Roth in Ostend, Belgium, in a photograph dated 1936.
Stefan Zweig and Josef Roth in Ostend, Belgium, in a photograph dated 1936.images by brandstatetter (Getty Images)

5. As a debater, he took no prisoners. A Joseph Roth on Twitter would be terrifying. Rare are the controversies of his time on which he does not comment: his collections of articles and his correspondence reveal a capricious, witty debater who is very difficult to refute; he was a formidable adversary in any dispute. Neither friendship nor personal debt softened his judgement: if he had to call someone stupid in the context of a heated argument, he did so without hesitation. Poor Stefan Zweig knew it well – he received many letters from Roth who, after having harshly reproached him for his political positions, asked him for money.

6. His personal tragedy shakes up today’s hyper-sentimental world. If Roth’s books weren’t enough on their own, the writer’s life (or rather his death) would place him in the Parnassus of the 21st century: lonely, desperate, sick, and a preemptive victim of Europe’s most gruesome criminals. When the owner of the Parisian hotel where he spent his last months refused him alcohol, saying he had had enough, he went on the sly to another café and ordered a clandestine Pernod. He was not a smug drunk; he was only a poor, sad and resigned man. Someone to love.