Review: Luke Slatteryon Joseph Roth

Writing About Elsewhere: The Hotel Years by Joseph Roth

In this unsettling age of transition from page to screen – and perhaps, ultimately, from printed to visual narrative – there are few causes for celebration. One reason to cheer, to shout without inhibition, is the rediscovery of Joseph Roth and the release of sparkling translations of his entire oeuvre by Michael Hofmann. Roth was a journalist, novelist and wanderer of the inter-war years, an Austrian-born writer with the lightest of feet and the heaviest of hearts whose untimely death, in 1939 at the age of just 44, was a form of slow-drip suicide from booze: the salve, and the curse, of the solitary writer. Roth wrote in German, Hofmann’s mother tongue, and it was in German, until relatively recently, that he was read and loved.

I mention the heft of Roth’s heart with equivocation, for its largeness is a matter of empathic capacity, and only occasionally of weight. He is now and then sad, though never leaden. To read his fiction – he published some 20 novels and novellas and enough short stories to fill a posthumous collection – is to enter a busy, often discordant, dream that is fabulistic rather than fantastical.

Roth wrote in short, clipped and often dazzling sentences. In his masterpiece, The Radetzky March, the fictional chronicle of an Austro-Hungarian family’s rise and fall told against the Habsburg Empire’s decay and collapse, some twenty officers in high spirits march off to a brothel, spurs jingling. ‘The naked girls fluttered towards them, like a gaggle of white hens.’ Walking the streets of Vienna on a fine August afternoon, the young revolutionary and hero of The Silent Prophet, Friedrich Kargan, notes a carriage whose ‘noiseless rubber tyres glided over the paving as if it were a polished table’. Inside sits a beautiful young woman, who regards him with hard indifference. He contemplates his wretched appearance and his cheap suit. ‘It has a shabby false brightness,’ he realises, ‘like deceptive sunshine in February.’

Then there is Rebellion, the story of one-legged war veteran Andreas Pum. His destroyer, Herr Arnold, is a man whose strides, so unlike those of the halting cripple Pum, ‘were greatly long and ate up the ground’. Job is Roth’s riff on the Hebrew bible and when his hero, Mendell Singer, arrives in New York he is shown the city from an open wagon that ‘rattled through the streets with an angry momentum’. With these sharp, deft touches Roth animates tales that are in many other respects conservative and cramped. There are no spacious psychological interiors: Proust and Joyce have passed him by. In fact, the omniscience of Roth’s standard third person narrator is often clipped; if he sees the workings of the human heart he does not discern their details. Nor is Roth interested in the artful management of narrative time, voice and point of view; he simply wants to pick up a story and propel it forward.

Born into a strict Jewish family on the northern fringe of the Austro-Hungarian empire – a land, he later wrote, of ‘unworldly seclusion’ – his writings on Germany carry the stamp of both fraternity and estrangement. When he writes about the rise of the Reich his tone is pained, clear-eyed, and full of foreboding. He knew Germany was sick. In a 1924 essay on Berlin traffic, the streetcar with its ‘rancorous, quarrelsome and aggressive’ passengers seems like an incubator of National Socialism.

So he wrote, mostly, about elsewhere.

The Hotel Years, the latest installment of Hofmann’s Roth published by Granta – there are thirteen so far – is a collection of short pieces about his European travels in the 1920s and 30s. In a section on hotels there is a lovely piece that reads like a traveller’s vignette penned by a metaphysical poet. ‘The lobby is brightening with a specifically hotel morning,’ it begins, announcing the conceit with which it will, some 1000 words later, neatly end. But the day will only dawn when the night porter extinguishes the ‘tardy gleam’ of his lights. In late afternoon the night porter returns to banish the deepening gloom. ‘Fresh, youthful, shaved and powdered, in blue and gold livery, he rises like a second morning when the world has evening.’

At last the headwaiter bids a ‘hurried goodnight to the night porter, whose day is now beginning. Already fresh stars are glimmering in the lobby’s pale sky.’ With two dawns in one day, the spa hotel is a world of its own. And yet there manifestly is a grim world outside to which the guests answer. Serious men collect themselves in a conference room. ‘They determine our prices, our wages, and the degree of our hunger.’

Hofmann follows this with a gorgeous feuilleton titled ‘Spring’:

I am woken by the sound of carpets being beaten overhead. The muffled thudding provokes my neighbor’s canary, and he cheeps and twitters and warbles like a bird song imitator. In the yard a window flies open, a second, a third: the whole building seems to be tearing off its windows… A hurdy-gurdy is playing in the yard. The streams of melody burst through, melting and freed.

The emotional register of this passage approaches the rhapsodic, echoing the dominant tone of another collection of Roth’s travel writing, Report from a Parisian Paradise. There he writes of Avignon in the manner of a man who sees sharply, but through a heady swoon:

In the narrow streets where all the families sit outside in the evenings, with children and dogs and cats and parrots and in-laws, and grandmothers, I only ever heard laughter, and to me, going by, evidently a foreigner, they called out friendly greetings, and if one happened to have drunk a little more wine than usual, then he would ask me in. Even if his house pro tempore, was the street.

Now that Roth has been thoroughly absorbed into English, it seems right to ask whether there is a more joyously unbridled – and a more appealing – writer of narrative fiction in the literary tradition. Dickens and Twain, certainly, in the century of the realist novel’s great flourishing. Before them, Stendhal, preceded by Cervantes and Chaucer. To place Roth in this company might seem boosterish, for while his oeuvre is richly and evenly embroidered with artistry, there is only one work of art in his profusion of writings. And yet Hofmann, in his introductory notes to The Hotel Years, insists – after Joseph Brodsky – that on every page of Roth there is a poem. Rather than impose a poetic rhetoric on the world, he saw poetry in the world: in the ‘mild sorrow of the [Galician] fields into which the battlefields have grown’; in [Soviet] ‘villages built of wood and clay, roofed with straw and shingles’, sometimes with the ‘broad, motherly’ dome of a church.

Roth was more interested in these vivid singularities – the impress of the eye and ear – than in the generalities that could be wrought from them. ‘From time to time I think of describing the “German”, or defining his typical existence,’ he writes in ‘Retrospect of Magdeburg’, an essay from the German section of The Hotel Years. ‘Probably that isn’t possible. Even when I sense the presence of such a thing, I am unable to define it… I have seen this and that; I have tried to write about what stuck in my senses and my memory.’ The result, in a writer of Roth’s rare literary gifts and tremulous sensitivity, is originality.

It is an idiosyncratic mixture of witness narrative, reportage, lyricism, nostalgia, comedy, anger and despair that elevates the work of this peripatetic, left-wing, journalist-drunkard. His apotheosis – and Hoffman’s work on Roth’s behalf is aimed at no lesser goal – also dignifies a genre often regarded as sub-literary and evanescent: journalism, and in particular, travel journalism.

Roth’s account of his arrival in Albania – one of five reports written on that lost Balkan-Mediterranean world for the Frankfurter Zeitung in 1927 – is a traveller’s tale written by a master of poetic brevity:

The sea is calm, the clouds hang in the sky as though nailed there, a ghostly boat skims across the placid surface towards the ship as though drawn on an invisible rope to collect me. There are only two of us disembarking here: a man hoping in this land of beards to sell Gillette razors, and myself.

Where terra firma begins there is a little wooden hut with a picture book chimney from which the smoke goes straight up, as though drawn with a ruler. It’s seven in the morning; wooded, green, bare, steel-blue mountains frame the horizon; cryptic larks flit about the shiny blue sky; the hut, like many attractions these days, has a guest book; sitting over the book is a man in a black uniform, rolling himself a cigarette, and this is the Albanian border police. A master of the alphabet, but unused to writing, he sits there, whiling away the time of the new arrivals by painstaking scrutiny of their passports…I cut short his study by offering to set down my name for him.

The opening sentences – clouds hang in the sky as if nailed; a boat comes on across the water as if drawn by an invisible rope; smoke rises straight like a ruler – might border on excess. It depends on your tolerance for simile. And yet these images read as genuine registers of felt experience rather than efforts to achieve colour or effect. And besides, Roth wrote so quickly – about one published page a day in the course of a two-decade career – that he didn’t have time to waste striving for finish. The Albanian passage quickly shifts gear: a clatter of adjectives train the reader’s sights on the mountainous horizon in front of the hut, and bring the border policeman, into focus. This sets the scene for the touching human exchange at the end of the passage: the visitor, moved by the only semi-literate policeman’s predicament, writes his own name in the guest book.

In 1921 Roth published a vignette titled ‘Travel’ in a Berlin journal, and it sports with the allure of elsewhere. For this everywhere-and-nowhere writer a favorite hotel was a ‘fatherland’ and ‘paradise’ a Parisian bar. Roth begins with some of his characteristic singularities – travellers with ‘sandwiches in greaseproof paper’ – before taking flight:

Once, a beautiful damsel entered my compartment and my soul gave a lurch. The next morning, her eyes blinked open in the direction of the luggage rack, and I saw a creature in feminine apparel, her complexion ravaged by an agitated night with little sleep. The wind that came whistling through the open window mixed soot among her powder, and sleep had gummed up her eyelids.

Here Roth is playing a sophisticated literary game, at once ironic and parodic; the sort of game that he would elsewhere repudiate in favour of his naïve ethic of direct witness. The damsel invokes the tradition of courtly romance but the ‘soot among her powder’ messes with the trope. Roth goes the same way with the next sentence: he invokes a dreamy cityscape of ‘green copper cupolas and Gothic towers climbing into the sky’, only to drag it down to earth:

Beggars clustered outside church doors, stubble-faced lady beggars among them. They lay in wait for believers, and assaulted their impressionable souls with a litany of ills. Children, old people and women dropped coins into the laps of the beggars, thinking: God is my witness.

Like most pessimists, Roth was really a romantic whose optimistic suit had been so badly soiled by the world that he was forced to change. He saw things with the sweetness and fury of an avenging angel. But, good journalist that he was, he saw them true.

Almost a century before the refugee crisis of 2015-16, Roth watched on as a wave of exiles rolled across Europe from the East. ‘Their garments were a weird and wonderful hodgepodge of uniforms,’ he wrote. ‘In their eyes I saw a millennial sorrow. There were women there too. They carried their children on their backs like bundles of dirty washing.’ Some 50,000 Jewish refugees, by his reckoning, were welcomed by the good Germany. ‘They are bathed, disinfected, deloused, fed, warmed, and put to bed,’ Roth reported. And then, just a few years later, the good Germany turned bad. One reads these words with a sense of wonder at his powers of prophecy and with trepidation, too.

With Hitler’s rise, in 1933, Joseph Roth went into exile. A year after writing from Paris to his ‘true friend’ and sometime rival, Stefan Zweig, warning of impending war, he wrote a searing piece titled ‘The Third Reich, a Dependency of Hell on Earth’, included by Hofmann in The Hotel Years. ‘After seventeen months, we are now used to the fact that in Germany more blood is spilled than the newspapers use printers’ ink to report on it,’ he begins.

Goebbels, the overlord of German printers’ ink, has more dead bodies on the conscience he doesn’t have, than he has journalists to do his bidding, which is to silence the great number of these deaths. For we know now that the task of the German press is not to publicize events but to silence them; not only to spread lies but also to suggest them; not just to mislead world opinion – the pathetic remnant of the world that still has an opinion – but also to impose false news on it with a baffling naivete.

Here Roth, who is sometimes supposed to be a mere elegist for a lost age, reveals just how deeply engaged he was with his age. And with, by extension, ours; for his anatomization of the media under the Reich anticipates a long – and persistent – totalitarian tradition.

Even as Roth was writing for publication in this spirit of furious lucidity the wheels were beginning to come off his personal life. Zweig writes him in July 1934: ‘I’m going to be honest with you – for the first time, I’m really afraid for you. You’re overwrought, it’s alcohol or it’s something else.’ He ends: ‘Please take it easy. Stay in bed if you must, but don’t drink.’ Roth died in Paris from the effects of his alcohol-induced anaesthesia. Stefan Zweig followed him to the grave three years later, having taken an overdose of barbiturates.

Roth is an indispensable writer and The Hotel Years, though translated rather late, is the indispensable introduction to his sad, beautiful, prophetic, imperfect, but so often startlingly original, body of work. There is, in addition, something very contemporary about Roth. His mastery of the vignette, the resonant trifle, the pointed or whimsical feuilleton, speaks to our fragmentary culture; and the rare quality of his journalism is a timely reminder of what that troubled literary – at least in Roth’s hands – form can accomplish.