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Home Uncategorized The High-Wire Man

The High-Wire Man

Enda O’Doherty

The Hotel Years, by Joseph Roth, edited, translated and introduced by Michael Hofmann, Granta, 269 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1783781270

Joseph Roth had a writing career of little more than twenty years, from his return in 1919 from the First World War, where he had served in the Austrian army, to 1939, when he died, aged forty-four, in Paris, from the effects of his alcoholism. Included in his work are stories, novellas and about a dozen novels and fragments, of which the most famous is his magnificent elegy for the vanished Austro-Hungarian empire, The Radetzky March. He also wrote hundreds of articles in German-language newspapers, chiefly in the continental European form known as the feuilleton, a rather freestyle, often lighthearted, composition on cultural or human subjects which Roth understood as being simply an invitation to “[say] true things on half a page”.

He was born in 1894 in Brody, on the eastern (Russian) border of Galicia, a province then part of Austria-Hungary and now divided between Poland and Ukraine. Brody was predominantly Jewish, a once wealthy trading town plonked down in an impoverished countryside inhabited by “the only productive class”, the peasants.

These are devout, superstitious, anxious. They live in timid awe of the priest, and have boundless respect for the “city”, from which come strange horseless carriages, officials, Jews, gentry, doctors, engineers, geometers, electricity, which is known as “elektryka”; the town into which they send their daughters for them to become maids or prostitutes; the town where the law courts are, the clever lawyers a man has to be wary of, the wise judges in their gowns behind metal crosses under the colourful pictures of the Saviour in whose Holy Name a man is sentenced to months and years and sometimes even to death by the rope; the town which he feeds so that it can feed him, so that he can go there to buy colourful headscarves and aprons, the town where “commissions”, decrees, local ordinances and newspapers break out.

In 1913 Roth went to nearby Lwów (in German Lemberg, today L’viv in Ukraine) to attend university but was forced to transfer to the University of Vienna in the following year when the Russians captured the city in the early stages of the First World War. In 1916 he joined up himself, more out of embarrassment than enthusiasm, serving for the most part, it seems, as an army journalist and mail censor. After the war he returned to Vienna, where “[f]or lack of money [I began] to write for the newspapers … My nonsense was printed. I began to live off it. I became a writer.”

In 1920 he moved to Berlin, where his articles – cinema reviews at first ‑ began to appear in the Freie Deutsche Bühne, then the Neue Berliner Zeitung, which soon changed its name to the 12 Uhr Blatt, the Berliner Tageblatt, the socialist Vorwärts and the Berliner Börsen Courier. He joked, but there may have been some truth in it, that he not only wrote for the various newspapers that took him in but also hawked them on the streets. In 1923, after some time back in Vienna and in Prague, he hit pay dirt when he was hired to write from Berlin for the prestigious Frankfurter Zeitung, the leading German liberal paper in the interwar period, which published the work of many distinguished authors and intellectuals, among them Max Weber, Stefan Zweig, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Sándor Marai and Alfred Döblin.

The Hotel Years is the fourth anthology of Roth’s non-fiction pieces that Michael Hofmann has assembled and translated. The Wandering Jews, essays on the fate of eastern Jews forced into emigration in the early part of the twentieth century, was published in 2001; What I Saw, dealing with his Berlin years, appeared in 2003; The White Cities (in its American edition titled Report from a Parisian Paradise), comprising selections from fifteen years of writing from and about France, came in 2004.

The anthology is divided into a number of thematic sections: reports from Germany in the 1930s; reports from “abroad” – Polish Galicia, Italy, Russia; a visit to Albania; the life of hotels; musings on private life and private pleasures; “Ending”, a section containing late pieces informed by the shadow of impending war, and a brief coda in which Roth recounts his earliest memory, when to his great distress the cradle in which he had lain as an infant was taken from him, as his national, or rather multinational, cradle, Austria-Hungary, was to be in 1918. Roth’s journalistic style corresponds roughly to what is now called “colour writing”, a feature which, on a newspaper’s foreign pages, is meant to illuminate strange places and extreme situations for the reader in a way in which, it is thought, news stories proper or analysis cannot. You know the kind of thing: “Grigor drives a taxi; but since the July war no fuel is to be had, so instead he sells packets of tissues, pencils and razor blades each day from a dusty pavement on Revolution Street. It is now midday and he has been there for five hours; the heat is unbearable and there are few passersby. He takes another sip of ayran, a salty yoghurt drink, from his tartan thermos flask. In the distance a cock crows.” This kind of writing is, one assumes, thought to be capable of delivering particular insights, or at least a “feel” for the situation, as well as giving the reader a bit of a rest from the heavy stuff – the contemporary consumer of news is thought by editorial managements, perhaps correctly, to be a creature of very little stamina. Often, however, colour writing from abroad seems to have an oddly globalising effect, making everywhere, no matter how far-flung or exotic, sound pretty much the same, the same unfamiliar names, sad stories, heat, dust, dirt, poverty and intruding street sounds, often, curiously, “in the distance”. Perhaps the plight of all people undone by war or natural disaster is similar, but it seems a pity to so routinely deprive them – and their countries ‑ of their individuality.

What Roth did as a journalist was not hugely different: he was working from the same box of tricks, but he brought to the task considerable literary elan and an imagination that was always fertile and frequently acrobatic or surreal: a sudden loud noise in his apartment block sets off the neighbour’s canary, who “cheeps and twitters and warbles like a bird song imitator”; looking out from a tram at a semi-rural wasteland, he sees “a kind of beginning vegetative bald patch with comb-over fronds of pine”. As Hofmann astutely observes, Roth’s “gifts of style and perception could, on occasion, overwhelm his subjects”, but only on occasion; almost always he treads the high wire with aplomb and triumphantly arrives at the other side. His writing also benefits from having the anchor of a largely consistent point of view which might be thought of as left-wing but derives more from an unbudgeable sympathy for those at the bottom of the heap, a hostility to the wealthy and their agents and a deep-seated suspicion of change and innovation. On a visit to the industrial Ruhr in 1926, where the towns have all joined up into a great splodge, making a nonsense of the provincial boundary between Rhineland and Westphalia that cuts through the region, he reaches almost Dickensian levels of lyrical disgust:

People get in the way of progress. They hang sentimental weights on the winged feet of time. Each one wants his own church tower. In the meantime chimneys grow over the heads of church towers. The smoke eats up the sound of bells. It swaddles them in its black wool, so that they cannot be heard, much less told apart …
Some of the smaller towns here have their old gabled romantic parts. These are referred to as idyllic. Time drones all around them. Busy wires enmesh them. All the trembling airwaves are full of the radio-borne words of the present. What is the point of these slumbering nooks, these dreamy beauties? While there was a blue sky over them they were in their element, but now grey smoke hangs over them. They are buried under billions of dust and carbon particles. They will never experience a resurrection …
Climb on the tram. In half an hour you’ll be in the next place. Is there any difference? Smoke over the world! You go to Oberhausen, and then Mülheim, and to Recklinghausen, to Bochum, to Gladbeck, to Buer, to Hamborn, to Bottrop. Smoke over the world! No sky, no clouds. Rain precipitated from smoke: black rain. A hundred chimneys, so many fingers, pillars of the smoke sky, altars of the Almighty Smoke. Rails along the ground, corresponding wires through the air. All one grim city made of stacks of city, of bundles of towns. In amongst it all runs the abstract provincial boundary. But overhead is the uniform sky. And that is smoke, smoke, smoke.

In Hamburg and Bremen in 1924, he notes that political “forces unknown are competing over the lumpenproletariat”, feeding with free beer and sausages, and propaganda – of both the red and brown varieties – unemployed workers who would probably otherwise starve. It is odd, he remarks, that these are two cities with a peculiarly conservative middle class, odd too that looking out on so much water has not broadened their minds. But no, the contradictions are unbridgeable: “In no German city is there such fierce hatred of the poor [as in Hamburg]. Nowhere is the obstinacy of the propertied classes stronger.”

There is little doubt about what kind of person Roth does not like. In a vignette from 1924 he escorts two pretty young gypsy girls alarmed by heavy city traffic across the street safely, tipping his hat graciously to them as they reach the pavement on the other side. “A gentleman with a large blonde moustache that went out into a couple of butchers’ hooks threw me an angry look from his sky-blue eyes, full of contempt and menace and inexpressible rage.” Something is brewing in Germany; it will not be long before it comes to the boil.

Then there is the student fraternity member (students in the 1920s and 1930s were more often right-wing than left-, which perhaps makes sense since they were usually the children of the privileged), wearing a sash on which can be picked out a motto such as “With God, for King and country”, “a slogan on two legs, nourished on beer and tradition, and kept in his paper life by the extraordinary long-suffering patience of German citizens”. And yet this intellectual cypher has an assured future:

Even so … he makes his way, called his career, protected from unsympathetic reality by laws and customs – to the top of the legal, political and medical professions. He pronounces sentences and prescribes castor oil. He becomes a professor and imagines he is spreading knowledge when he shares what he thinks he knows. Ideals from the nursery deck out his walls and hang in his brain. One day a young beer drinker becomes an old fart.

In 1927 Roth travelled to Albania, where he was afforded an interview with President Ahmed Zogu ( Zogolli), who in the following year was to transform himself into King Zog I. The president, a tall young man whom Roth is surprised to notice is blond, is accompanied by “a portly, clever, older gentleman”, the foreign secretary. The great German people are assured of the friendship of the little Albanian people, first in the national language, then, translated by the foreign minister, in French, and finally by President Zogu himself in German (he has spent some time as a youth in Vienna). The president says he requires nothing more from foreign journalists than that they tell the truth. The truth, however, or part of it, is that he has the blood of many enemies on his hands, but perhaps, Roth reflects, he is not unique among national leaders in having that distinction. If President Zogu were to refrain from killing his enemies they would very probably kill him. And who would benefit from that? Not the Albanian people, for “the rivals and enemies of Ahmed Zogu … are no more Western than the man himself. Of the nine hundred and twenty Western-educated men who have left Albania since Ahmed’s succession, of the seven politicians who have fled to the South Slav Republic [Yugoslavia] since 1925, of the twelve who since 1922 have lost their lives, I presume that none would want to exercise power in a different way than Ahmed Zogu – and I don’t condemn them.”

Roth cannot work himself up too much over the president’s policy of self-defence, which he notes in Albania is “a very broad concept”. And really, how different is it morally, he asks, from the policies of national self-interest (reasons of state) practised by civilised Western countries, which have also been known to result in many deaths? Of course Albania provides the journalist with plenty of “colour”: the sun scorches down on the street, the dust disintegrates into finer, thinner dust, the shopkeepers sit outside their booths for hours on end, the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer and (yes!) in the distance a cock crows. And the army, with its ill-fitting boots and useless ammunition, certainly has some comic opera aspects. But ultimately Roth has the courtesy to take Albania somewhat seriously – by registering a firmly critical judgment of the hopelessness of its political culture. Hospitality, he remarks, is a fine and noble custom. But in a country where it equates with shelter and is largely a response to the threat of vendetta that hangs over so many, perhaps a police force one could half-trust would be preferable.

May Albanians and others forgive me that I am not sufficiently gifted to admire unproductive conservatism in the way it should be admired. Unfortunately, alongside other habits that I revere, the Albanians have one that I merely understand: they are utterly intent on preserving old habits, not only stressing their Albanianism at the expense of their humanity, but also cultivating their tribalism at the expense of their nation … Like other small peoples, they have that kind of national feeling that causes the nation to die and keeps the national culture impoverished.

In the section on hotels, a piece from 1929 muses on the world as seen by the staff of these curious institutions where the trained eye can carry out an accurate credit rating a lot more quickly than any financial institution. Roth is returning to an establishment where he has stayed many times before, returning with pleasure as “[o]ther men may return to hearth and home, and wife and child”. The receptionist’s interest

is devoted to me as entirely as that of the astronomer in the first hour of the comet’s appearance over the horizon. Have I changed? Can I be said to be the same? His eye, delicate and precise as a telescope, takes in the material of my suit, the cut of my boots – and the assurance “I’m delighted to see you looking so well, sir!” – refers not so much to my state of health as to the apparent state of my finances. Yes, you’re the same as ever – he might equally have said. – Thank God you haven’t sunk so far that you might have to seek out another hotel. You are our guest and our child! And long may you remain so!

Alas, just a few years after writing this, Roth did start to sink when, after the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, he ‑ like all Jewish writers – found himself excluded from the pages of the Frankfurter Zeitung and abruptly deprived of the comfortable living to which he had become accustomed. He left Germany definitively and spent most of the rest of his life in Paris, a city to which he became very attached. Increasingly indigent and his health increasingly affected by his alcohol dependency, he nevertheless continued to write, finishing The Emperor’s Tomb, a sequel to his masterpiece The Radetzky March, and the moving fable of debt and redemption The Legend of the Holy Drinker, as well as contributing to the émigré German-language press of France and Czechoslovakia.

In his final years his thoughts often turned to the no longer existing state in which he had been born, “my fatherland, the only one I ever had, the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary”, which, in contrast with the chaos and threatening barbarism of the 1930s, acquired a retrospective glow it perhaps did not wholly merit. Equally, against German paganism’s glorification of war, hatred and violence, the Christian ‑ practically speaking Catholic ‑ message seemed to provide him with increasingly more sustenance: “Furlough in Jablonovka”, a piece posthumously published in the Neue Tage-Buch in Paris in September 1939, at a time when the Germans and Russians had already begun to devastate Poland, recalls a moment of respite during the First World War when Roth and his comrade Rainacher are billeted with the widow Josefova Gargas and her three-year-old twins:

The boys came in with their pumpkin lanterns. They sang. Stable and manger and donkey were nearby, if you could follow the singing. If you could believe them, the Saviour was born in Jablonovka, not far from Josefova Gargas’s hut, and not two thousand years ago, but sixty at most, and the oldsters still remembered the event. You could practically see the footprints of the Three Kings in the snow. The star was graspable. The Podolian plain was swaddled in faith. God was in Podolia, and Bethlehem was a hop and a skip away, much closer than the front.

Roth’s imaginative embrace of Christianity implied no disloyalty to his Jewish roots: he continued to write sensitively about the experiences of the Jewish poor and to vigorously defend the contribution to culture of Jewish artists and intellectuals. But he was in love with something rather larger than any particular ethnicity or religious or national heritage. True, it was a rather hopeless love for, as he acknowledged, the sense of Europe had started to fade in the years when a sense of nationhood awoke.

And yet: European culture is much older than the European nation-states. Greece, Rome, Israel, Christendom and Renaissance, the French Revolution and Germany’s eighteenth century, the polyglot music of Austria and the poetry of the Slavs. These are the forces that have formed Europe. These forces have combined to form European solidarity and the cultural conscience of Europe. Not one of these forces was bounded by a national border. All are naturally opposed to the barbarity of so-called national pride.

From his French exile Roth continually bombarded the Nazi regime, urging other European states first to isolate it diplomatically, then to stand up to its bullying before it was too late. In particular he excoriated the club-footed German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who had eviscerated culture and “caused official truth to walk with the limp he has himself”. He was perhaps lucky that he died a year before the Germans entered Paris. His wife, Friederike (Friedl) Reichler, who had been a long-term patient in a number of mental institutions in Austria, where she was being treated for schizophrenia, was murdered, in accordance with national socialist policy on the mentally ill, in July 1940.


Enda O’Doherty is a journalist and joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books. All the display quotations are from The Hotel Years with the exception of the last, which is from Report from a Parisian Paradise/The White Cities.



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