From a Ho­tel Lobby

The London Magazine - - WILL STONE -

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

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