CAP­I­TAL­ISM LURCHES INTO EX­PRES­SION­ISM

Geist - - Endnotes - —Stephen Os­borne

Joseph Roth was the quin­tes­sen­tial observer of cul­tures in col­lapse: as he trav­elled through Eastern Europe in the tur­bu­lent years af­ter World War I and the breakup of the Aus­tro­hun­gar­ian Em­pire, while “all around stroll the war prof­i­teers with their x-ray vi­sion,” his at­ten­tion is drawn to de­tails: “a large blond mous­tache that went out into a cou­ple of butcher’s hooks”; peo­ple in the now-di­vided city of Bruck “come in two types: those in blue shirts, and those in white shirts. The for­mer are po­lice spies, the lat­ter com­mu­nist ag­i­ta­tors. (The lo­cals wear no col­lars.)” At the seashore, “the wind that billows out the swastika ban­ner does so in all in­no­cence.” In The Ho­tel Years (New Di­rec­tions), Michael Hof­mann has col­lected and trans­lated sixty-four short pieces writ­ten by Roth for the feuil­leton sec­tions of the Frank­furter Zeitung and other news­pa­pers, in the course of which he touches on the af­ter­math of war, the in­fla­tion, the repa­ra­tions and the French oc­cu­pa­tion of the Rhineland (a blond­haired African French sol­dier with a love of Ger­man cul­ture), the un­rest and in­sta­bil­ity in Weimar Ger­many; pol­i­tics, crime, style, em­i­gra­tion and ex­ile; Com­mu­nism, Fas­cism and Hit­lerism; train travel, fields of oil wells (“cap­i­tal­ism lurch­ing into ex­pres­sion­ism”), in­te­rior de­sign, bal­conies and ve­ran­dahs. There are sin­gu­lar pieces on two Roma girls met on the street, a mu­si­cal clown, a near-ma­t­ri­cide, a mor­phine mur­der­ess. He wan­ders the streets of Ti­rana fear­lessly and with some trep­i­da­tion, meets with the dic­ta­tor-soon-to-be King Zog, jour­neys into Gali­cia and Soviet Rus­sia—all the while com­pil­ing an en­ter­tain­ing study of ho­tel liv­ing. In “Fra­ter­nity Stu­dent,” writ­ten in 1924, Roth gives us the now fa­mil­iar type of the hooli­gan na­tion­al­ist found in the streets and, as he writes, “in bars, on du­el­ing-grounds and at na­tion­al­ist meet­ings. Askew on his closely cropped skull he sports a cap that would be the envy of any Amer­i­can mes­sen­ger boy. Across his ch­est he wears a gaudy sash of two or three colours in which may be picked out a ring­ing phrase, as for ex­am­ple: With God for King and coun­try! So he projects his in­ner­most feel­ings and con­vic­tions, a slo­gan on two legs, nour­ished on beer and tra­di­tion… he cre­ates tu­mults and af­frays—in the mis­taken view that acous­tic ef­fects en­ti­tle one to ex­ist. Drunk­en­ness that saps oth­ers gives him strength. He lives from the mould of the past and de­cay. His sheen is as that of a dead body that phos­pho­resces at night. He is a corpse that his­tory has failed to bury. Ideals from the nurs­ery deck out his walls and hang in his brain. One day a young beer drinker be­comes an old fart… To his griev­ing fra­ter­nity, he be­queaths beer stein, sabre, swastika, cap, sash and what­ever else he may pos­sess in the way of stu­dent knick-knacks. Mak­ing haste to fol­low him, the next gen­er­a­tion comes along, and plants their hopes, which to us are dis­ap­point­ments, on his grave.”

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