Joseph Roth is surely one of the great author portraits of the 20th century. It is almost, indeed, a portrait of the 20th century in all its tragedy and suffering, the weight of which seems to bear down on the shoulders of the dejected figure sitting on his luggage waiting for who knows what, the next train to who knows where. He is the eternal refugee, the man in transit from his own world, and the chalked-on freight truck behind him has an all too obvious resonance, post Holocaust.
Poor Roth saw it all coming, and long before almost anyone else - certainly before his long-suffering friend Stefan Zweig. 'We German writers of Jewish extraction,' Roth wrote in 1933, 'are the first to have been vanquished for Europe.' On the day Hitler became chancellor, Roth boarded a train from Berlin to Paris, and never returned. 'We are headed for a new war,' he wrote. 'I wouldn't give a heller for our prospects. The barbarians have taken over. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns.'
'Let me say it loud and clear,' he wrote in November 1933. 'The European mind is capitulating. It is capitulating out of weakness, out of sloth, out of apathy, out of lack of imagination.' Happily, he was not entirely - or finally - right, but he was righter than he could bear. He had drunk himself to death by May 1939. Zweig killed himself three years later, having completed his masterpiece The World Of Yesterday.