From a Hotel Lobby
The Hotel Years, Joseph Roth,, translated by Michael Hofmann, Granta, 2016, 288pp, £16.99 (hardback)
For Joseph Roth, the twenty years after 1919, until his death from alcohol the name ascribed to this ambitious compendium of journalistic pieces. In truth there was barely a moment when Roth was not residing in a hotel, or writing about one. Roth’s hotel catchment area was vast, stretching to the limits of Europe, East and West. In the form of the French ‘feuilleton’ and mostly destined for the prestigious Frankfurter Zeitung, Roth wrote passionately and with impressive insight and poignancy of a world inexorably cleared away by the indifferent shovel of modernity. He saw his Hapsburg domain as a plant still recalling its last blooms, but poised to be drowned in a season by the bindweed of militaristic nationalism. These journalistic probings, generally fashioned on the move, were Roth’s speciality; pared down, pitiless revelations of landscape, people and atmosphere. Here in this lavish collection of sixty-four works, carefully selected by Michael Hofmann, Roth’s peculiar genius is displayed at every turn. The reader is transported, in a wood-panelled train compartment of course, from the Baltic to Baku, Hamburg to Tirana, the Ruhr to the Volga, Sarajevo to Mala The Hotel Years is, in a sense, the third part of a trilogy of Roth’s journalism which began with one of Hofmann’s earliest Roth outings, What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-33, followed a year later by the The White Cities: Reports from France 1925-39. Across these three volumes we now constituting the true backbone of his oeuvre.
It is interesting to compare Roth’s ‘travel essays’ with those of his friend and benefactor Stefan Zweig, a selection of which I translated as Journeys
the two writers, just as existed in their backgrounds and personal circumstances, a dichotomy which perhaps invested their friendship with a necessary tension. But what both men shared was a profound awareness of loss, revulsion against the destruction of authentic atmospheres, of ancient traditions honed over centuries and inexplicably condemned to be jettisoned in an older strain, with the dry leaves of the nineteenth century still scuttling around them. Roth on the other hand, with his habit of immersing himself amongst the ordinary people and employing a sparing prose, seems closer - tel’ (1918), Roth’s ‘Retrospect of Magdeburg’, published in 1931, is a protest against the ruthless changes to Europe’s old order, the ‘new zealotry’, or neue sachlichkeit,
that leaves no place, no movement, no association, no community untouched, disrupting the honest features of the preserved facades with a wilful bold coolness, with smooth, neutral, disagreeably emphatic concrete.
, which appears the dreaded ‘r’ words, the three horsemen of the make-over apocalypse: Restoration, Renovation and Refurbishment. ‘The pillars were dark brown, and a polished bark covered them, as if they had reverted to the status of remain as concealed as in the middle of a forest.’ Roth supplies a typically haunting image with one stroke of his writerly brush when he speaks of the face of the lady behind the counter; ‘pale, a little subterranean, as though lit by ancient candles’. A gentleman passes, the proprietor one presumes, and another keen observational insight follows; ‘He offered a restrained greeting with the dignity of someone who has been greeted himself with considerably less warmth over decades.’ Such lines, so effortlessly gilded with humanity, are strewn everywhere across this collection, especially in the passages which are about hotel staff, where lengthy sojourns have
been replaced by a modern sterile changeling. In a salvo of complaints, and potential prophetic anticipation of the Nazis’ functional architecture of experimentation and extermination, Roth proclaims ‘[t]he colour of the age is white, laboratory white, as white as the room where they invented lewisite, white as a church, white as a bathroom, white as a dissection room, white as steel and white as chalk, white as hygiene, white as a butcher’s apron, white as an operating table, white as death and white as the age’s fear of death!’
Roth wins our respect when he says ‘I try to avoid the kind of reportage that rush of satisfaction. But I can’t.’ It is the inwardly stored ‘recordings’ from allowing them to rove free of their time and enter future epochs such as our own with their authenticity intact. Roth’s pieces have an energy and timelessness which makes them seem as if he sent the copy in to the editor this very morning. What impresses is their inherent variety, from the more routinely journalistic, such as ‘The Currency Reformed City’, published 1926, about energy exploitation in the backwoods of Russia, to the deli - neys, such as ‘The Dapper Traveller’ (1924) and ‘The Lady in the Compartment’ (1926). Then there are the perfectly judged portraits of vagrants, such as the tender and telling ‘Two Gypsy Girls’ (1924) in which Roth spies a Roth leads them across, taking their hands, one on either side, ‘feeling how they trembled’. The prophetic moment is when Roth receives a furious look from a stranger at this gesture of kindness, a look ‘full of contempt and menace, of inexpressible rage’. The Germans’ treatment of Europe’s travelling peoples two decades later seems to hang over this melancholy tale.
Further haunting pieces concern the demise of Czarist Russia. In ‘The Opened Tomb’ doomed Russian Royal Family captured shortly before the revolution of
living dead marionettes in all their pomp and regalia seems to Roth ‘this frolicsome, and who when they were murdered were not murdered; what was extinguished from them was not life so much as an unreality which - liantly capture a face, where a drawn out description might founder. The face of Czar Nicholas then is ‘mounted on a little pointed beard screwed to the middle of his chin… his heavy eyelids are like lowered blinds.’ And looking at the Czar we see Roth is spot on. Roth’s premise here is that given never be known.
’. Roth lambasts the western stereotype of the ‘Russian soul’, ‘the old literary formula’, and suggests that the aimless wandering of these un travelling performers, theatrical puppets to cater to western tastes. In a denunciatory masterstroke, he rounds on French ‘romanciers’ and ‘sentimental Dostoyevsky readers’, who have ‘deformed the Russian into a kitschy samovar cosiness…’ What’s more, Roth shows, the longer this went on, the more the Russians themselves adapted to their hosts’ tastes, demeaning themselves with endless performances of the Balalaika and Cossack the Berlin Tiergarten, on the banks of the Danube in Budapest and in the
Many eyes will be drawn to Roth’s painstaking depictions of hotel receptionists, porters and the like, at which he naturally excels. In a feat of breathtaking hyper-observation, Roth follows a chief receptionist, perhaps man’s ‘gift of switching behaviour almost instantaneously between fury
and graciousness, indifference and curiosity, cool aloofness and anxiety to be of service. It’s as though each of his feelings is lined with its obverse, and then all he needs to do is turn his mood around to transform himself.’
Elsewhere, Roth is master of transmogrifying the mundane. This is wonderfully displayed in ‘Melancholy of a Tramcar in the Ruhr’, published in the Frankfurter Zeitung in 1926. Here, the reader joins Roth on a rainsoaked tramcar, travelling we know not where, in a suburb of the Ruhr. The oppressive fug of the everyday embalms the car. ‘The atmosphere is leaden, damp, lethargically provincial. All bare boards, school girls clambering aboard with ugly satchels on their backs the rain has darkened…’ and then the ominous ‘No-one speaks, everyone is preparing themselves for the or the city, stranded in the nameless void of the suburban, the journey proves a drawn-out torture of the unrealised. All is suggestion and promise but can merely ‘a vegetative bald patch with comb-over fronds of pine’. Needless to say the destination turns out to be identical to their place of departure. ‘It’s as though there are no spatial dimensions here, only temporal ones,
In many pieces Roth is the elegist of an empire, recording the inhabitants still functioning in their allotted roles after the unimaginable fall, but now threatened in an undisclosed way, tradition moulting off them as their these disparate people, blown along the plains of Galicia like so much tumbleweed by the powerful winds of change. But Roth will never give up on his Heimat, due to that perennial ‘sad allure of a place scorned’. More than once he refers to the cultural links, citing well stocked bookstores: ‘I saw the latest literary titles from France and England… the train brings news are touching, the instinctive heroism of Roth’s stand is to be admired, his prescience of obliteration respected.
genius as a writer, it should, in this reviewer’s opinion, be this one. The Hotel Years spans the length and breadth of Roth’s interests and concerns, conjuring the full diversity of his cherished European hinterlands and does not limit itself to one particular period. Across the entire collection Roth’s - ment, and this urgency to secure truth, echoing Goya’s famous signature of ‘ yo lo vi’ (I saw it), characterises his oeuvre. Reading Roth’s vitally imbued vignettes of people encountered, that ‘spring in the step’, I am reminded of Robert Walser, another European maverick currently enjoying a Renaissance. Susan Sontag’s description of Walser as ‘a truly wonderful, heart world, so reading a rare collection like The Hotel Years feels like stumbling