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 alcoholism and morbid despair in 1939, might well be termed the ‘Hotel Years’, 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- Polska. 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 have the richest selection of Roth’s primary nonfiction writings, arguably 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 (Hesperus Press, 2010). There are fundamental differences between 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 a generation. Zweig’s texts, though always eloquent and informed, seem of 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 to our time. Echoing Zweig’s earlier melancholy elegy ‘Requiem for a Hotel’ (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.
This piece prefigures the wonderful ‘Destruction of a Café’, which appears later in the book, in a section fittingly entitled ‘pleasures and pains’. The old café, comfortably anchored by its time-worn fitments, is menaced by 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 trees’ Roth tells us. ‘It was possible to sit in the middle of the café, and yet 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 enabled Roth to refine his articulations. By 1927, Roth’s beloved café has 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 looks out of a railway window and jots down fleeting impressions with a rush of satisfaction. But I can’t.’ It is the inwardly stored ‘recordings’ from these first felt impressions which produce the poetic quality of these pieces, 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 in 1924, which concerns the Hamburg gold mark, or ‘Saint Petroleum’ of 1926, about energy exploitation in the backwoods of Russia, to the deliciously piquant and comical observational tales unfolding on train journeys, 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 pair of unworldly Romany girls attempting to cross a traffic-clogged street. 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’ (1925), Roth is transfixed by newsreel footage of the doomed Russian Royal Family captured shortly before the revolution of 1917, on one of their last public outings in Petersburg. The footage of these living dead marionettes in all their pomp and regalia seems to Roth ‘this vision of ghosts who were dead at the moment they were filmed, fresh and frolicsome, and who when they were murdered were not murdered; what was extinguished from them was not life so much as an unreality which bore an uncanny resemblance to life.’ Often Roth’s quick sketches brilliantly 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 the wretched events which followed, this silent newsreel film exudes an almost supernatural eeriness, requesting some code of meaning which can never be known.
Continuing the Russian theme, one of the finest pieces is ‘The Czarist Emigrés’. Roth lambasts the western stereotype of the ‘Russian soul’, ‘the old literary formula’, and suggests that the aimless wandering of these unfortunates plays into the clichéd notion of Russians as romantic vagrants, 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 figure compounded of divinity and bestiality, alcohol and philosophy, 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 gallops. Roth laments the uncertain fate of these émigrés, ‘slumped on the benches of the Tuileries, the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Viennese Prater, the Berlin Tiergarten, on the banks of the Danube in Budapest and in the cafés of Constantinople.’
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 a collage of the type channelled into the one figure. Roth marvels at the 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 rain-soaked 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 ordeal of a long ride.’ Have we not all been there? Not quite in the country 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 never quite bear fruit. A wood appears on the horizon, but in the end it is 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, like the certain, final, irrevocable death of the last patch of native earth.’
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 unique environment passes into history. Roth relishes his experience of 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 newspapers from Vienna and Prague and Ostrava’. Such earnest declarations are touching, the instinctive heroism of Roth’s stand is to be admired, his prescience of obliteration respected.
If one collection in English translation was to define Roth’s undeniable 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 quick impressionistic pencil lines always manage to capture the vital moment, 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-breaking writer’ can equally be applied to Roth. Such writerly greatness can often seem stifled by the sheer pace and clamour of our contemporary world, so reading a rare collection like The Hotel Years feels like stumbling upon a lavish banquet after years of emergency rations.
Will Stone is a poet, essayist and literary translator. His first poetry collection Glaciation (Salt, 2007), won the international Glen Dimplex Award for poetry in 2008. The sequel Drawing in Ash, was published in May 2011 (Salt) and Shearsman Books recently reissued these collections in new editions and published a third collection The Sleepwalkers in April 2016. His literary translations include works by Verhaeren, Rodenbach, Nerval, Trakl and Roth. Pushkin Press published his first English translation of Zweig’s Montaigne in August 2015 and Zweig’s Messages from a lost world in January 2016.