Keiron Pim is a determined, persistent biographer. 

There are no easy subjects in his eye; instead, he focuses on figures we know little about, who we want to know more about, and then, in a meticulous, no-stone-unturned pursuit of their lives, tells us a fascinating story about even more fascinating characters. 

His latest biography, Endless Flight: The Life of Joseph Roth, is that and more as it portrays the life of a tragic, alcoholic, yet brilliant author and journalist, who was constantly on the move. 

It follows the acclaimed Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Underworld, which is the story of ‘a mythic 60s London character’, flitting between the worlds of music, art and crime, and a man also determined to live without trace. 

A former Eastern Daily Press journalist, Keiron spent the best part of five years researching and writing each of the books about two quite different, but perhaps equally elusive, Jewish cultural figures. 

In his pursuit of Litvinoff (1928-75), he travelled from London to Wales and Australia, to interview people as diverse as Eric Clapton, Marianne Faithfull, James Fox and ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser. 

The quest for Roth saw him in Ukraine, Austria, Amsterdam and Ostend, but this was also a journey that has a parallel to his own family’s history. 

There was an almost irresistible lure to writing an English language biography of early 20th century novelist Joseph Roth - who was born on September 2, 1894, and died of pneumonia in Paris on May 27, 1939 – as no biography existed of the man whose work includes The Radetzky March and The Wandering Jews. 

The Radetzky March, notes Keiron, is “one of the great eulogies” for the Habsburg empire that collapsed in the redrawing of Europe at the end of World War One. 

“It a beautiful sad novel about the Habsburg world that he grew up in, and which was lost,” he says. 

By Autumn 2017, Endless Flight had become his core literary focus. But why Joseph Roth? 

Apart from it not having been done before, it was reading The Wandering Jews that also suggested Roth as a subject ripe for biographical exploration. 

“The book does not read like non-fiction because it is poetic and haunting – you feel like you know him, but you don’t,” Keiron tells me. 

“He describes Jewish eastern Europe in a way that makes him sound like an alien investigator from afar, but what you know if you do even the smallest amount of biographical research is that is where he is from.” 

Writing about Jewish eastern Europe, but not wanting to admit he is from there, was “characteristic of many eastern Jews of that time.” 

Eastern Daily Press:

“Any young aspiring Jewish writer or anyone who wanted to make something of themselves got out as soon as they could and went west to Vienna, Berlin, or Paris and tried to scrub off the taint of the ghetto and of the backwards provincial towns such as Brody.” 

On reading Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters by Michael Hofmann, and noting a Guardian reviewer stating “they serve as the closest thing we have to a biography in the absence of a biography,” he truly had the “lightbulb moment.” 

“So, with the kind of excited hubris that accompanies the beginnings of an ambitious project, I thought ‘I can do this, I know a bit about his world, I have read his work’. 

“The other answer to ‘why’ is that on one side, my family were from his world so I am fascinated from a personal perspective. Researching his world was researching my grandparent’s and my great grandparent’s world. 

“But suddenly, I had quite a proposition on my hands. To write a big book about a fascinating, but maddening, paradoxical figure who defies you every time you think you have pinned him down.” 

The scale of the Roth undertaking quickly became apparent, amplified against the backdrop of a global coronavirus pandemic, lockdowns and travel restrictions. 

With Roth writing in German, Keiron took German lessons and worked with his tutor on various texts. 

Reflecting also on how his journalistic background shapes his approach, he explains: “The narrative non-fiction writing of the two biographies feels like a natural extension of the features I used to write for the EDP. 

“I am always fascinated by human behaviour, why people act in the way they do, and how they become the people that they are. I like writing about place, trying to understand the connections between people and the places they live within, and I love telling peoples’ stories.” 

Eastern Daily Press:

With Litvinoff, many of his contemporaries, friends and relatives, were still alive, which created a quest biography to track them down. 

“In terms of Endless Flight, I was told at the outset there is no-one left alive who remembers Roth,” he says. 

“But the great success story of my research is that I did find someone who remembers him. I was thrilled that I found someone, who is now 93-years-old, who met him as a boy in October 1938.” 

That was Dan Morgenstern, the son of Soma Morgenstern, a close friend of Roth’s. 

“I interviewed him on the phone and he was lovely and remembers him very vividly. It was very poignant speaking to this man, now in advanced old age, remembering a brief intersection of his life with Joseph Roth’s.” 

The Morgenstern family had been dispersed with the rise of Nazism, but Dan and his mother travelled to visit Soma who lived in the same Paris hotel as Roth. 

“Dan told me this lovely snapshot of a few days in Paris where he met Roth. It worked very nicely as a little vignette at the beginning of this book - a snapshot from the very end of Roth’s life remembered by someone who is still alive now, who talks about being in the hotel with him and going for walks with him and his father. 

“He said something very poignant at the end about ‘he was a bit like a friendly bear to me and I still recall the sound of his voice when he called for a drink.’ 

“For what turns out to be the biography of someone who was a chronic alcoholic, that is quite a bitter sweet note to begin the book with,” adds Keiron, 44. 

Eastern Daily Press:

Prior to Covid-19, his research plan was to ‘follow’ Roth around Vienna. While that had to be abandoned because of lockdowns, Keiron was able to venture from his Norwich home toLviv in the Ukraine early in 2019, which during Roth’s time was Lemberg, part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the first city Roth escaped to after leaving Brody. 

Heading 50-plus miles east of Lviv to Brody, Keiron walked the streets of Roth’s hometown and, working with Ukrainian researchers, was able to pinpoint the exact address Roth lived at, visit the railway station he describes in The Wandering Jews, and his secondary school. 

“I always think when writing about place, you have got to go there if you possibly can. When you walk the streets, you realise there is something that seeps into you in a way that you cannot understand from afar.” 

A five-hour stopover on the return from Ukraine was the only time he was able to visit Vienna during his research, to see Leopoldstadt where the main concentration of Jewish families stayed after fleeing eastern Europe, when the pogroms and poverty became intolerable. 

“That is where Roth went when he first got to Vienna, it is also where my grandparents on my mum’s side grew up, so I was wandering around looking at addresses where my grandparent’s lived.” 

The title Endless Flight references Roth’s novel Flight Without End. 

“But thematically it is the theme of his life,” explains Keiron. “He was someone who lived in a state of endless flight, he was always looking for home, he left eastern Europe, rejecting that as home, wanting to find himself a perch in one of the more sophisticated cosmopolitan capitals of western Europe.” 

That was initially Vienna. But facing antisemitism, he abandoned his studies at the University of Vienna in 1916, and decided to fight in the war despite being a pacifist objector beforehand. 

At the end of the war, Roth moved to Berlin, where he “writes brilliantly about Weimar Berlin” but while excited by it, was also repelled by it. 

Settling in Paris in 1925, he found that as close as any to a “spiritual home” and the “happiest period of his very unhappy life.” 

As the star journalist and roving report for the Frankfurter Zeitung newspaper, he filed dispatches from all over Europe, writing in a style known as feuilletons, or poetic sketches. 

“Roth is such a relentlessly perceptive observer of his times and from anything that caught his eye he had a remarkable ability to spin out a human story from fleeting moments.” 

The restless, roving, lifestyle suited Roth and his reluctance to call anywhere home.  

“He never had a flat, and instead lived in hotels. He liked the freedom that offered, he always wanted an escape route and always had his suitcase packed with one eye on the railways station just in case things got too difficult. Endless Flight was a phrase that felt appropriate in many ways.” 

Roth never knew his father, who went insane before he was born, and this left a “huge gap” in his life. 

“I think the root of his constant self-mythologising and fantasising about his world. The root of his great abilities as a writer of fiction lies in the fact that he was always inventing father figures for himself, or inventing stories about himself, always trying to create a more comfortable exciting world than the rather sad world that he actually grew up in.” 

As well as discussing Roth’s marriage and relationships, the book also looks at how Roth absorbed aspects of the antisemitic environment he lived in. 

“He was very contrary, paradoxical; he could seem very proud of being Jewish at one moment and then would say something appallingly antisemitic as well.” 

He also became “besotted” by the Catholicism of the Austrian aristocracy that he grew up admiring, but it remains unclear if he ever formally converted. 

“In his essence, he was always an eastern Jew,” remarks Keiron. 

The Litvinoff and Roth books offer an insight into an understanding of two characters “who lost something of themselves in trying to assimilate into a non-Jewish society.” 

But Keiron also acknowledges they were “to some extent” fired by being Jewish on his mother’s side, and his own Jewish heritage. 

“In terms of researching Roth’s life, his world was my grandparents' and great grandparents’ world and it felt very much like I could satisfy a curiosity about searching their world while researching his life.” 

A visit to Mostyska, on the Ukraine side of the Polish border, took him to where his great grandfather was born and grew up before leaving for Vienna. 

“I was the first member of my family to return there since my great grandfather left around the time of the First World War. 

“He went to Vienna where he settled and had family,” says Keiron. “His son was my grandfather who was born there and fled the Nazis in the late 30s and came to England, where my mum was born. Going back completed that circle.” 

Other locations he visited included Amsterdam, where Roth as an advanced alcoholic would continue to drink in 1936-37, and also Ostend. 

Keiron, who was educated in Aylsham, North Walsham and Brunel University in West London where he studied politics and philosophy, hopes the book will enlighten Roth’s established readership about the “extent to which he was drawing from his own tragic personal circumstances in his fiction” but also introduce him to a new readership. 

A guitarist, Norwich City supporter, footballer and music fan with a wide range of tastes, Keiron’s previous works include The Bumper Book of Dinosaurs and editing a collection of medieval Jewish poetry by Meir of Norwich. 

But following the biographies his initial plans are to focus on teaching the ‘writing lives’ module on the masters course in biography and creative non-fiction at UEA, as well as an online course for National Centre of Writing called Start writing narrative non-fiction. 

Having lost his mother, Claudia, on September 16, this will also be important time to grieve and be around for his father Malcolm, who still lives in Aylsham where Keiron grew up, and spend time with his wife Rowan and daughters Isla (14), Lottie (11) and Rosa (9), who he acknowledges have all been “wonderfully helpful” throughout the project. 

As a measured biographer, telling fascinating stories that also enthral, entertain and leave a literacy legacy, he is thrilled by the hugely-positive and informed reviews for Endless Flight. 

But there will be no “trilogy of writing about these haunted tortured Jewish characters”. 

“I feel I have said what I have to say,” he adds. “Whatever I do next will be different.” 

Endless Flight – The Life of Joseph Roth by Keiron Pim is published by Granta Books at £25.