Joseph Roth: Flight Without End – Die Flucht ohne Ende (1927) Literature and War Readalong November 2014

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I’ve read a few novels by Joseph Roth now and every time I’m surprised how different they are. Die Flucht ohne EndeFlight Without End is no exception. This is a Roth I’ve not encountered so far, or only in snippets. Flight Without End clearly shows the mark of the journalist, but it’s also the book of someone who cannot take the society he lives in seriously. Rarely have I seen him this sarcastic, mocking individuals and groups of people. And rarely have I come across a Roth that was this funny. I had to laugh out loud more than once and truly wish the translator was able to capture this. Roth’s wit and humour is very subtle and although a translation could be literal, the humour might get lost in translation as it’s often tied to one word that changes the meaning. Mostly he uses it when describing someone. Here’s just a short example.

Eine junge Schauspielerin, die zwar mit dem dicken Zweiten Bürgermeister geschlafen hatte, aber unbeschädigt aus seiner Umarmung wieder herausgekommen war und teilweise sogar erfrischt.

A young actress, who indeed slept with the fat second mayor but came out of this embrace undamaged, partially even refreshed.

I take just one element of the sentence to explain what I mean. It’s entirely possible to choose the word unharmed instead of undamaged but it would remove a lot of the fun. “Unbeschädigt” means both unharmed or undamaged, but normally you’d use it for an object, while unharmed would rather mean a person. Roth chose undamaged very consciously.

What struck me too in this book was how cosmopolitan Roth was. The book starts in the Russian steppe, moves to Baku, from there to Vienna, then to a unamed city on the Rhine, and ends in Paris. Each place is described masterfully, its essence captured, its character laid bare.

The story is a bit more problematic. I’ve seen this book mentioned as one of Roth’s weakest works, which would have needed some editing. I agree to some extent. I didn’t mind the lack of plot. What we find here is basically the story of a quest. Franz Tunda, former officer, then captive of the Russian army, escapee, revolutionary, drifter and private tutor, lacks one thing – a home. What is home for a man like Tunda? If he can be of some use, he’s adopted everywhere, but never really welcome. He stays an outsider and this makes him a keen observer. He sees behind everyone’s masks, doesn’t buy any of the big theories on progress and wealth. He’s as wary of the communists as he is of the socialist’s and the bourgeoisie. They all have a hidden agenda. That’s why his flight is without end because, as vast as the world may be, society ultimately makes it very small and there’s no home for those who don’t play along. When I get so much insight and analysis of people and countries I don’t mind a lack of plot. My reservation has something to do with the structure of the book. It’s presented as if we were reading an account of someone who is Tunda’s friend. At the same time there are accounts that are directly made by Tunda and it switches occasionally from third to first person. I think this would have needed editing but it’s a minor flaw.

One of the most poignant scenes is when Tunda visits the grave of the unknown soldier, under the Arc de Triomphe, in Paris.

The blue flame burned not to honor the dead soldiers, but to reassure the survivors. Nothing was more cruel than the blissfully ignorant devotion of a surviving father at the grave of his son, whom he had sacrificed without knowing it. Tunda sometimes felt as if he himself lay there in the ground, as if we all lay there, all those of use who set out from home and were killed and buried, or who came back but never came home. For it doesn’t really matter whether we’re buried or alive and well. We’re strangers in this world, we come from the realm of shadows.

Flight Without End doesn’t show us a poetic or lyrical Roth. It’s not elegiac or nostalgic. It’s sarcastic and ironic. It’s the work of someone who saw the downside of globalisation long before anyone else and who was no fool when it came to human beings. There are a few good ones out there but they hardly ever occupy the big stages; they might be hidden somewhere in the Taiga, doing their thing quietly and unseen.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s witty, irreverent, unflinching and astute. It may not be the best book for someone who hasn’t read Roth yet, but it’s a must-read for those who already like him.


Other reviews

Vishy (Vishy’s Blog) 



Flight Without End is the eleventh book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is Letters from a Lost Generation by Vera Brittain and four of her friends. Discussion starts on Monday 29 December, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.

37 thoughts on “Joseph Roth: Flight Without End – Die Flucht ohne Ende (1927) Literature and War Readalong November 2014

  1. Pingback: German Literature Month – Book Review – Flight Without End by Joseph Roth | Vishy's Blog

  2. Wonderful review, Caroline! I didn’t know that this wasn’t a typical Roth book. I loved it nevertheless. I loved the way, how in a few sentences, he sketches a complex character or a place, something which other writers might need pages to do. I also found the prose deceptively simple but the insightful passages made me come back and read them again and again. It was fascinating to read your thoughts on the translation. In the edition of the book that I read, that sentence has been translated as – “a petite young actress who had undoubtedly slept with the stout deputy mayor, but had re-emerged from his embrace unharmed and even, to some extent, invigorated”. It clearly looks like the translator has missed the humour here. I feel sad that I couldn’t read the work in the original German. The movement from the third to the first person was a little odd, but I didn’t find it hard to follow and so it was okay.

    Thanks for hosting Joseph Roth week, Caroline. I loved my first Joseph Roth book. Hoping to read more in the future.

    • Thanks, Vishy, and thanks for reading along. I’ll visit soon.
      Thanks for adding the translation. The translator made an independet sentence out of it while it’s fragmented in German as it’s part of a list of people. (The next being the museums’ director . . .) The sentences are fragmented.
      I think there are two translations of this book if I’m not wrong.
      The second quote I added is taken from the translation – I found that online.
      It is a wonderful book but not entirely like his other work, although there’s a lot of humour in most books. I’m sure the version you added is more elegant than mine but it’s one-dimensional.
      He’s amazing at capturing someting in just a few words. I hope you will read more of him.

      • I used to be so intimidated with those long sentences with many independent clauses, but now after reading a lot of German literature, I love that. When I read pages of Ingeborg Bachmann’s prose with those complex fragmented sentences and didn’t even notice them, I realized that I have arrived as a reader 🙂

        I hope to read more of Joseph Roth. If you host of readalong of ‘The Radetzky March’ next year, I would love to join. Thanks for introducing me to a wonderful new author.

        • The sentenvce structure is quite different. And complex indeed. French is so tidy compared to German – even more than English – which can be almost messy at times.
          I’m vey tempted to host a readalong. 🙂

  3. Well mu copy of Flight without End flew away! (I had it in the pile for GLM but it, along with Indigo, vanished into thin air.). I’ll catch up with you when it reappears ….

  4. If there’s one thing I’ll take away from German Lit Month it’s that I have to read Roth. It’s been fascinating to see the reviews as they give a sense of how the books vary.

  5. You are convincing me that I really need to read Roth soon.

    I do like it when a writer exhibits variety and thus shows different aspects of his or her mind.

    As for the lack of plot, I am finding that is never a problem for me these days.

    Great commentary al always Caroline.

  6. I’m desperate to read a bio of Roth, but there isn’t one in English, apparently. How weird is that? He sounds so world-weary and wise in the quotes you included. I want to read this, too.

    • Bone-tired and world-weary. I was also thinking of reading a biography. I’m not that surprised that there isn’t anything available in English. I don’t think he’s as widely read as others but Im sure a biography would be great.

  7. The only thing I can find is an edition of his letters, but the reviews are mixed. Apparently, he wrote rather a lot of ‘trivial’ letters about money matters, although no doubt his income was of vital importance to him. Yes, he sounds bone-tired. He packed so much living into his short life. I think he’s fascinating and don’t know why he’s not more widely read. I wish someone would translate a bio of him, though. Are there many available in German?

    • I had a look and ordered a biography. It’s quite new. It came out in 2010. That might explain why nothing is available.
      There was a shorter one available but not as extensive as this one and I also ordered the memoir of a woman who was a close friend and she called it “Flight and End”. It sounds very good. So does the biography.
      If these two books are really good I might write to the editor. You never know. 🙂

  8. I wonder whether it’s always humour that gets lost in translation? Jokes are such cultural things, so often attached to nuanced meanings of words. I’m so glad that you got into Roth over the course of this month. I’ve heard good things about him and he’s definitely someone on my ‘really ought to read’ list!

    • Jokes are very difficult to translate but more subtle humour like in Roth’s case seems even more difficult. I wonder if in some cases the translator didn’t even get it.
      He’s worth reading, Litlove. Maybe not this one first but many of the others.

  9. The wit does sound very hard to capture. I hadn’t even heard of this one before German Lit Month.

    I want to reread Savoy and to read Radetzky and Holy Drinker ahead of this, but this still sounds interesting by way of comparison. Have you read any of his journalism? I covered a collection of his short pieces about Berlin over at mine. They’re as well written as you’d expect.

    • I haven’t had the chnace to get to his journalism yet. I’m pretty sure it’s well written. I think he moved without effort from one to the other.
      There are a lot of novels which sound that I haven’t read yet. Job, for example.

  10. It sounds like an interesting book. I am always curious about what gets lost in the translation–there are always subtleties that don’t quite make it over into a different language, which is a pity. Still, better to get the basic flavor of a book than perhaps not at all. I believe this would have been my first book by him that I would have read (had I read it!), but maybe it would be better to start somewhere else in any case. Glad to hear you enjoyed it!

    • I did and so did Vishy for whom it was the first Roth but I wouldn’t suggest it as the best place to start. I think you’d like Hotel Savoy – or if you don’t mind a longer book The Radetzky March.

      • I will try one of the two you mention–I only read a page–didn’t set it aside because I didn’t like what I read–just knew I didn’t have enough time! (Even with a short book). I have heard good things about The Radetzky March–am not familiar with Hotel Savoy (but why do stories set in hotels sound so appealing to me?). I don’t think I own a single Roth book–may have to use one of the gift cards I am hoping to get in a couple of weeks to remedy that!

        • I know what you mean. I love books set in hotels. If you want to buy a Roth, I’d suggest The Radetzky March. In German everything is available for free for e-readers. Is there nothing available for free in English?

  11. This was my first Joseph Roth too and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It gave the reader a great sense of the times that Roth must have lived through after the First World War and I liked the feisty female characters. Many thanks for the introduction.

    • I’m glad to hear you liked it. I wasn’t sure how it would be as a first novel by Roth but since both you and Vishy liked it, I think it’s a worthy introduction after all.
      The female charcaters are very strong.
      I thought it gave you a great feel for the chaos of those times.

  12. Pingback: Some thoughts on Joseph Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb – Die Kapuzinergruft | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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