My Novel is Going Nowhere: Dispatches from a Literary Classic in Progress

February 9, 2012 | 6 5 min read

In 1930, the year Joseph Roth turned 36, he had written and published seven novels plus three books of non-fiction; another two novels, newly begun, were doomed to or staring at incompletion. He had had a glittering and fraught seven-year career as a journalist for the Frankfurter Zeitung. After six years of marriage, his wife Friedl was beginning to show disturbing symptoms of what was later confirmed to be schizophrenia. He was drinking. He needed money, money for Friedl, money for himself, money above all for those less fortunate (imagine), whom he persisted in trying to help. Gustav Kiepenheuer, his publisher, was paying him a modest retainer.

cover It is in November of this trying year that Joseph Roth’s letters make their first reference to The Radetzky March, a novel twice as long as most of his other books, and infinitely more painstaking, which would come to be known as his masterpiece. By my reckoning, following the letterheads of the times, Roth took the work-in-progress with him to Frankfurt, Goslar, Leipzig, Berlin, Cologne (Germany), Paris, Marseilles, Antibes (France), Badenweiler, Baden-Baden (Germany again), and Rapperswil (Switzerland). He lost the original fourth chapter in a taxi, drunk, and rewrote it. He wrote journalism for various people — not just the Frankfurter — he had to. He wrote a series for someone on the German provinces — apparently from memory. He promised someone else a coffee-table book on the Orient Express, and ended up, as often happened, owing for it. He had a bizarre clandestine affair with a teenage Roman Catholic Belgian girl of good family, which ended predictably badly. He had skin and eye trouble.

In a 2004 feature in The New Yorker, Joan Acocella wrote, “with the writings of Kafka and Robert Musil, Roth’s novels constitute Austria-Hungary’s finest contribution to early-twentieth-century fiction, yet his career was such as to make you wonder that he managed to produce novels at all, let alone sixteen of them in sixteen years.”

coverBelow, you’ll find every mention Roth made about The Radetzky March, as he was writing, that can be found in the recently published Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters. In these brief dispatches, mostly to his friend, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, we see a writer struggle with his book, his health, his debts, and his own mind. In Roth’s doubts, many writers will recognize their own.

November 20, 1930
Joseph Roth to Stefan Zweig:
“‘The Radetzky March,’ it’ll be called, set in the Dual Monarchy from 1890 to 1914. I’ll tell you the plot sometime we’re together.”

February, 1931
JR to Friedrich Traugott Gubler:
“My novel is going nowhere.”

April 4, 1931
JR to Stefan Zweig:
“Just a few words. I’ll write in greater detail once I’ve finished the 4th chapter.”

April 22, 1931
JR to Stefan Zweig:
“I am still on my 4th chapter, and have been here since the day before yesterday…The novel remains my chief concern. Being or staying in the mood for it: the tensions help and simultaneously hinder.”

July 4, 1931
JR to Stefan Zweig:
“Because of my eyes, I won’t be able to get going on the novel for another 2-3 weeks.”

July 8, 1931
JR to Stefan Zweig:
“I think I may go somewhere where the air is clean to work on my novel. It has to be finished by the end of September, because after long negotiations I managed to get my advance from Frankfurter Zeitung commuted to royalties for the serialization.” (Note: The Radetzky March was serialized in the FZ, beginning on April 17, 1932, before Roth had finished writing it.)

September 2, 1931
JR to Stefan Zweig:
“If I am to finish the novel this year, then I can’t go to Vienna. It would set me back weeks. I’ve been stuck of late anyway. Maybe it will flower again next week.”

October 28, 1931
JR to Stefan Zweig:
“Don’t make me itemize the sorrows that are besetting me. Sick girlfriend, creditors, pharmacies, doctors, I myself am still going to the clinic twice a week on account of my eyes, I avoid people, have destroyed six completed chapters, they were rotten, now I’m rewriting them.”

March 20, 1932
JR to Félix Bertaux:
“I was sick and miserable for a long time, and I’m working desperately on the Radetzky March. The material is too much, I am frail, and unable to shape it. On top of that there’s the material misery in which I’m obliged to live…More after the novel is done (another 2 weeks, with luck).”

March 20, 1932
JR to Friedrich Traugott Gubler:
“I am unhappy, confused, wholly unable to leave the four walls I’ve thrown up around me and the book, though it feels more like a mountain range in which I wander about in terror. One day, everything comes off, the next day it’s all shit. Tricky, treacherous business.”

March 22, 1932
JR to Friedrich Traugott Gubler:
“I am incredibly afraid the novel will end up no good. I have a feeling for what is good, but whether God will give me the strength to actually make it good is something else. In two weeks a big section of the book will be set, and I’ll send you a copy.”

July 5, 1932
JR to Annette Kolb:
“My Radetsky March still isn’t quite set. You’ll get it right after I’ve revised the proofs, at the end of July.”

July 11, 1932
Benno Reifenberg to JR:
“Dear Roth, The Radetzky March is the first novel I read in serial form in the paper from beginning to end. Sometimes I even waited for the Reich edition to come out, so that I could read the following installment the evening before.”

August 7, 1932
JR to Stefan Zweig:
“Imagine, my novel had started to run in the paper before it was even finished. And, so to speak with the hot breath of pursuing time on my neck — of course to paralyzing effect — I had to go on writing, revise, correct, and finally put in a flimsy ending. A Hamburg book club bought the book for August. I have to correct and revise, all at the same time, for 8 bloody hours a day and I’m completely enfeebled by it.”

September 18, 1932
JR to Stefan Zweig:
I know all too well that my book hasn’t turned out the way it should have. Of course I can tell you exactly why and wherefore. But what would be the point? I felt it while I was writing.”

March 16, 1933
JR to Blanche Gidon (French translator):
“I have always been grateful to you for going to such trouble over my book. I never doubted that you took on the translation for no selfish motive. However, I cannot avoid saying to you that your translation is a bad translation, and — in spite of my debt to you for going to so much trouble over the book, and in spite of the friendship I feel for you — it remains a bad translation. Do you want me to tell you it is good, against my own convictions, when I am convinced of the opposite? — Maybe I am a boche. But, be it out of politeness or friendship or anything else, you can’t expect me to say something that doesn’t accord with my convictions.”

March 12, 1934
JR to Carl Seelig:
“My book, which I finished in Rapperswil, I no longer have any feeling for. I am writing a new one.”


Excerpts from: Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, edited and translated by Michael Hofmann. Published by W. W. Norton & Company.

, a poet and translator, has won numerous awards for his translations, including the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the Dublin International IMPAC Award, the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Prize, the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize, the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, and The Schlegel-Tieck Prize (four times). He is the highly acclaimed translator of, among others, Kafka, Brecht, and Joseph Roth.


  1. Roth, for all his doubts and misfortune, must have received some sturdy support in response to these communications. I, for one, am so grateful he persevered. The Radetzky March is one of my favorite books of recent years, and I’m looking forward to reading Roth’s letters in full.

  2. “The Inextricable Shuffling Toward Oblivion Or; Joseph Roth Who?” by Chris “I’ll Drive a Stake Through You Effing Heart” Roberts.

  3. Oddly, this essay reminds me of Lawrence O’Donnell’s The Last Word show last night in which Kelly Price spoke eloquently of the costs of being an artist.

    Rest in peace Whitney Houston….

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