Chronicler of the chaos of change

Josef Roth's stylish 1932 masterpiece The Radetzky March has beenre-published in translation

Josef Roth's stylish 1932 masterpiece The Radetzky March has beenre-published in translation. It's a dark novel of eccentric beauty

He saw , he listened, he understood. Joseph Roth, novelist, journalist and for too long, as Nadine Gordimer argues, neglected genius, is a great writer in the truest sense. As the supreme chronicler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that vast central European world which stretched from Habsburg Austria to the edges of another equally diverse kingdom, that of Tsarist Russia, it is he who most brilliantly describes the chaos of change. Roth evokes, as has no one else, with the possible exception of Scott Fitzgerald, the particular mood and atmosphere that heralds the end of an era and, with it, the loss of those oddly reassuring old beliefs.

Yet it was far greater than the decline of an epoch, it was the utter disintegration of a complex world order, a staggering collapse speeded up by an assassin's bullet in Bosnia in 1914 followed by the Great War it had precipitated. All of it, steps in a process that in time, redrew the map of Europe.

As the outspoken landowner, Chojnicki, the prophetic voice of Roth's stylish masterpiece, The Radetzky March (1932), announces with some exasperation midway through the narrative: "Of course, taken literally, it [the monarchy\] still exists. We still have an army . . . and we have an officialdom . . . But it's falling apart as we speak. As we speak, it's falling apart, it's already fallen apart! An old man [Emperor Franz Joseph\] with not long to go, a head cold could finish him off, he keeps his throne by the simple miracle that he's still able to sit on it. But how much longer, how much longer? The age doesn't want us anymore! This age wants to establish autonomous nation states! People have stopped believing in God. Nationalism is the new religion." This speech marks a turning point in European and world history. It is an interesting passage for many reasons, not least because it presents the understated, always subtle and ironic Roth at his most openly polemical.

An "End of Empire" theme runs through the work. Roth was an Austrian Jew who had served with the Austrian-Hungarian army on the Eastern Front during the first World War - possibly as a soldier, probably as a reporter. He knew where his loyalty lay, later recalling: "My strongest experience was the War and the destruction of my Fatherland, the only one I ever had, the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary." Shortly before his death in 1939, the self-exiled Roth wrote of his desire for "the return of the Empire". His personal longing, however, never rendered his fiction nostalgic or sentimental.

Many things are at work in his writing; the notion of contrasting cultures, the sheer complexities of national and regional identities, of history and geography, the dynamics of men versus women, of fathers versus sons, of the powerful and the powerless, the glamorous military officer juxtaposed with the drab civilian. And always, there is the presence of the eternal outsider, as outcast and loner as personified by Friedrich Kargan in The Silent Prophet (1966; English translation 1979).

Regarded by Roth as "my Trotsky novel" it was published long after his death and never formally finished by him. Part Trotsky, part Roth, Kargan is caught up in the confusion of the Russian Revolution and the novel's strength rests in its depiction of absolute loneliness.

As early in his career as Hotel Savoy (1924; English translation 1986), Roth is aware of a particular class of nomad, the misfit known as the returning soldier who no longer belongs anywhere. Gabriel Dan, the son of Russian Jews, is the first of Roth's many narrators to confront the dilemma of statelessness. "I am on my way back from three years as a prisoner of war, having lived in a Siberian camp . . . After five years I stand again at the gates of Europe. I am thankful once again to strip off an old life, as I so often have during these years. I look back upon a soldier, a murderer, a man almost murdered, a man resurrected, a prisoner, a wanderer." Among the recurring themes is a piece of music that is itself something of a theme song, and certainly provides an atmospheric refrain throughout The Radetzky March, to which it gives its name. Johann Strauss senior's flamboyant marching tune became the very symbol of Habsburg military might - just as his son's graceful waltz, The Blue Danube, would later epitomise both the romance and the hedonism of imperial Vienna. The marching melody ebbs and flows, all the while conferring a polite defiance on a narrative in which the characters collectively stumble about, thanks to events haphazardly overseen by the increasingly ancient presence of Emperor Franz Joseph.

For all the characteristic Roth lightness of touch, The Radetzky March is a dark, disturbing novel of eccentric beauty, never quite settling into a nostalgic celebration of times past. It is far tougher work than that, a 20th century novel with roots in the 19th century. Published fittingly in 1932 between the wars, it was well received and was among the first of his books, along with Job - The Story of a Simple Man (1930), to be translated into English by 1933.

NOW re-published in a superb new translation by Roth's ideal translator, poet Michael Hofmann, it is highly significant that most of the officers described in it are in love with the glamour of army life, particularly the cavalry with its dashing uniforms, magnificent horses and readily available women. These are career men who enjoy drinking, gambling and bantering. While duels are viewed as a fact of honour, dying for the Fatherland is not exactly a priority. War is merely an abstract concept. Even Lieutenant Trotta, a reluctant soldier, who loathes riding and asks for a transfer when his only friend, Dr Demant, is killed in a duel brought about by Trotta's carelessness, is aware that his uniform has become his sole expression of self.

Although three generations of Trotta men are entrapped by a chance act of heroism that changes the family's destiny, the novel is not about heroes. In fact one of the triumphs of Roth's fiction is that it is not concerned with courage. Many of his most memorable characters are marginally appalling, cowardly and grasping, but always human. The Radetzky March is his longest book and it has his largest cast of misfits and dreamers.

Both District Commissioner Trotta, a study in repression, and his hapless son, Carl Joseph, later Lieutenant Trotta, are described in an almost neutral way. Their lives have been shaped not by themselves, but by the weight of the District Commissioner's father having impulsively saved the Emperor's life at the Battle of Solferino in 1859. "The Trottas were not an old family. Their founder had been ennobled . . . Fate had singled him out for a particular deed. He subsequently did everything he could to return himself to obscurity." Here, as throughout his other 14 novels and some 18 stories, Roth seldom takes sides and never pitches for the reader's sympathy. Whether describing life in a remote military border outpost, or a Berlin boarding house, or a café in Vienna, his tone is humane and objective. Other characters such as the gossipy Captain Taittinger who reappears in The String of Pearls (1939; English translation 1998) are ultimately pathetic. Great War veteran, the simple Andreas Pum in a wonderful early work, Rebellion (1924; English translation 1999), who "had lost a leg and been given a medal" is destroyed by fate, tested by life and finally earns a token moral grandeur.

Roth's concern is with people; their fears and mistakes, their botched love affairs, the crazy dreams, the essential smallness of us all. If heroes fail to interest him, he does allow himself enigmatic individuals such as the mysterious Russian Jew, Nikolai Brandeis, in the colourful comic satire Right and Left (1929; English translation 1991).

Brandeis, who "appeared to be descended from some obscure strain of titanic, heavy-boned Mongols", is a larger than life will o' the wisp with a flair for repeated self-reinvention. "He had the impolite habit of repeating the sentence that had just been addressed to him, in his own rhythm and with his own errors, as though to correct the speaker, or perhaps to confirm that he had understood him correctly. This habit made people suspicious of him.Brandeis was alien to them. They were only able to tolerate a certain amount of strangeness, and Brandeis overdid it." Equally sharp in the same novel are the characterisations of Frau Bernheim and her miserable sons Paul, a self-loathing failure, and the petulant Theodor, a would-be revolutionary who leaves home, but only after packing "his pyjamas and his 24 ties." Elsewhere, in an early story, The Honors Student (1916), Anton, a young boy is introduced as "the oddest child you ever saw". Roth continues, "His thin, pale little face, with its sharply etched features, emphasised by a grave beak of a nose, was surmounted by an extremely sparse tuft of white blond hair. A lofty brow lorded it over a practically non- existent pair of eyebrows, below which two pale blue deepset eyes peered earnestly and precociously into the world. A certain stubbornness showed in the narrow, bloodless lips, clamped tight. A fine, regular chin brought the ensemble to an unexpectedly imposing finale. The head was perched on a scrawny neck, the whole body was thin and frail. Altogether incongruous on such a frame were the powerful red hands that looked as though they had been glued on at the delicate wrists."

Even at their most extreme, his forensically exact physical descriptions rarely result in caricatures, so adroit is Roth's characterisation. His prose possesses elegance and lyricism with vivid descriptions of the countryside. Dialogue always falls true to the ear, he has a natural feel for detail and Roth is often very, very funny. In the context of early 20th century literature written in German, Roth's oeuvre stands equal to that of Robert Musil, Franz Kafka, Hermann Broch and Thomas Mann.

It is worth noting that although he died young - 44 to Kafka's 41 - he left a large body of work produced during a hectic parallel career as a journalist based in Vienna, then Berlin and eventually Paris. What I Saw, a volume of his Berlin journalism spanning 1920 to 1933 and extending to some 300 pages, translated by Hofmann, will be published by Granta next spring.

Assignments took Roth all over Europe including Revolutionary Russia. The sheer quality of his reportage is evident from The Wandering Jews, a cultural study undertaken by him of the Jewish experience across Europe and on to the US in the early to mid 1920s. At the heart of the book is the plight of the Eastern European Jew, particularly when transplanted to the social injustice of the West.

He knew what he was writing about. Roth was Jewish, but there is no presumption - he records. At no time does he impose his insider's status on his observations. The Wandering Jews is historical reportage as well as social observation. If there is nothing about his own experience, there are instances of his humour. "In a true Jewish café you can walk in with your head under your arm and no one will notice." Above all there is Roth's immense understanding of suffering. His own life was never easy. His father left his mother before the future writer was born in Brody, Galicia in 1894 - then the extreme east of the Hapsburg Empire, it is now part of the Ukraine. Roth never met his father, who later died in a Dutch lunatic asylum.

RAISED by his mother and her family, he was educated in Brody before entering the University of Lvov (or Lemburg), later transferring to the University of Vienna. After the war, he returned to Vienna and became a journalist. He also began to write fiction. By 1920, he was in Berlin - already observing. The Spider's Web (1923; English translation 1987), his first novel, notes the rise of Nazism and mentions the future dictator by name. Hotel Savoy and Rebellion followed - each sustained by a subtle rage. Rebellion is among his finest works. Zipper and his Father (1928; English translation 1987) in which the named Roth narrator observes a father and son possesses an engaging intimacy.

Little is really known about Roth; admittedly Job, a beautiful account of a loss of faith, and his eerily unintentionally autobiographical The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1939), written in his final months and sharing the dying confusion of Rebellion which it echoes on several counts, partly reflect his story. But only partly.

Roth's wife became insane. During the war, after his death, she was murdered by the Nazis. Before that though, near the end, his career faltered, he became an alcoholic and had a crippling heart attack in 1938.

Having abandoned Berlin in disgust in 1933, he settled in a Paris hotel. Tarabas - A Guest on Earth, an odyssey in which the eponymous central character, an angry sinner becomes a saint, followed in 1935. Set in the 1920s it portrays the deconstructed German world in limbo.

Cold, somewhat cryptic and very sad The Emperor's Tomb (1938; English translation 1984), an elegiac sequel to The Radetzky March, would have been a regretful, rather curt finale. Instead, there is The String of Pearls, an initially comic skit and celebration of Vienna that quickly acquires a tragic pathos, becoming languid and melancholic and, above all, the strangely optimistic miracle-fable, The Legend of the Holy Drinker. It is a dazzling novella possessing such lightness and hope considering what must have been the dying Roth's personal hell. But he was never a moaner; look to the magnificent story, Strawberries (1929; English translation 2000) about his native Brody in which Roth's spirit and prose soar.

So what of the elusive, mercurial Joseph Roth, habitually inconsistent with details of his own life, a wanderer, exile and prophet of sorts who died poor and alone in a Paris hospital? Read all his books, his stories, his observations and wonder at the intelligence, natural poetry and humanity of a gifted and candid master storyteller.

The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth, translated by Michael Hofmann, is published by Granta at £14.99. Collected Shorter Fiction of Joseph Roth, translated by Michael Hofmann, is published by Granta at £6.99. The Silent Prophet by Joseph Roth, translated by David Le Vay, is published by Peter Owen at £9.95