Thursday, 9 February 2012

The empire strikes back

250th post: Ill health, suicide; ill health, suicide

Literature of the Austro-Hungarian empire has gained an increasing hold in English, kickstarted almost a generation ago by poet Michael Hofmann (latterly behind a revival of interest in Hans Fallada). Hofmann has just translated and edited Roth's Life in Letters, but German-language voices have been bolstered by such Hungarians as Sandor Márai and Gyula Krúdy.

Hofmann's translations of Joseph Roth are vital reading, notably his portrait of the collapse of the Habsburgs, The Radetzky March (1932). In 1933, Roth settled in Paris, where he died in 1939. Roth's final years were marked by the alcoholism he outlined in final novel The Legend of the Holy Drinker ('his last detail,' according to Hofmann), which was filmed by Ermanno Olmi. Rutger Hauer was the perhaps unlikely star of this miraculous homeless drama, which closes with the unforgettable: 'May God grant us all, all of us drinkers, such a good and easy death!'

Hofmann takes up the tale of Roth's death: 'In 1938, he went to Horváth's funeral, and told friends that the next obituary they would write would be his own. It was the news of another friend's death, the suicide of the playwright Ernst Toller, that precipitated his own collapse...' He died aged 44.

Through his descent into poverty, Roth was supported by compatriot Stefan Zweig who has caught imaginations for his novel Beware of Pity (1939). There is, too, The Post Office Girl, which was found among the author's manuscripts after his death and has been republished by Sort of Books (with a quote from Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant on the cover).

The author of short fiction The Royal Game and Letter from an Unknown Woman (filmed by Max Ophüls) left Austria in 1935 and became a naturalised Briton. He travelled to the US and onto Brazil where, on 22 February 1942 - an anniversary that occurs soon - he and his wife committed suicide.

For more short stories I especially recommend a collection by a Hungarian writer of the period: Life is a Dream (1931) is published in Penguin's Central European Classics series. Author Gyula Krúdy is also served by New York Review Books, which publishes a couple of his works, including The Adventures of Sindbad. The rogueish author is another who ended his life in poverty, inspiring compatriot Sándor Márai to lead a reappraisal with his own Sindbad Comes Home (1940).

Márai was also rediscovered posthumously thanks to the German publication of his Embers (Die Glut) in 1999 (it was later adapted by Christopher Hampton for a London stage production starring Jeremy Irons), followed by Conversations in Bolzano (alternately Casanova in Bolzano) and The Rebels. Márai's publishers made much play of the author's unhappy end: having survived the Nazis and Communists, he fled to the US where, in 1989, he too killed himself - just before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the return of democracy to central Europe, is the line.

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