The Zweig-Roth correspondence dominates Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters. Zweig was one of the most famous men of letters of his era, a fine memoirist and essayist but overall a less-than-great writer. There was too much mush in his romances—Letter from an Unknown Woman, The Royal Game, Marie Antoinette—for that. Roth was never as rich or as famous, but his fiction, especially The Radetzky March, was better.
Zweig knew this, and there’s a hint of deference in his letters to Roth, whereas the latter’s missives to the man he usually addresses as “Dear esteemed Stefan Zweig,” although respectful of his friend’s standing, contain less deference than irritation and despair: “Don’t make me itemize the sorrows that are besetting me”; “Any friendship with me is ruinous. I myself am a wailing wall, if not a heap of rubble”; “Physically I’m fucked. I’ve got no money. I owe enormous amounts”; and so on. But occasionally Roth speaks to even-tempered, civilized Zweig in the voice of an Old Testament prophet, especially after Hitler’s accession to power in January 1933, which precipitated Roth’s departure from Germany for good:
It will have become clear to you now that we are heading for a great catastrophe. Quite apart from our personal situations—our literary and material existence has been wrecked—we are headed for a new war. I wouldn’t give a heller [penny] for our prospects. The barbarians have taken over. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns.
Such prescience, when so many chose to turn a blind eye, came easily to Roth, who had nothing to lose by facing the facts, being pessimistic by nature and rootless by choice: “I am never at home,” he wrote, “just wander around aimlessly, I can’t stand to be in a room.”