Review: The Hotel Years

Cultural disease diagnostician


By Joseph Roth
Granta, £16.99

Late in his short life Joseph Roth deliberately spoiled a pair of trousers which his better-off Viennese fellow-writer Stefan Zweig had bought for him. Loth to accept charity, he died an alcoholic early in 1939.

Best known for his novel, The Radetzky March, he had supported himself mainly by penning feuilleton pieces for German-language newspapers. Adept at spotting cultural disease, his decline was hastened by a cancer he diagnosed from the start. Its mark was the swastika.

Roth inspected graffiti on bullet-pocked walls and scabs on bodies politic hurtling between catastrophes. His pieces are pictorial: literary equivalents to sketches by Grosz or Chagall. Their range is broad: from the mud of peasant Galicia to the smoke binding undifferentiated cities of the Ruhr.

He locates social parables in a blond, black French soldier, or a secretary fallen into morphine-induced street-walking. The bourgeois angst of Zweig's carpet-slippered milieu interests him little. Disturbing expressionisms of the dispossessed are his patch.

Each new wave of refugees renders the natives less welcoming

His style is quick, dashed with colour and rendered vivid in English by Michael Hofmann in the selection of writings comprising The Hotel Years. In an explicit labour of love, the distinguished translator draws his favourite bits of Rothiana into a multi-hued fresco of a raucous time and place. The disparate morphs into a coherent whole, and a new classic is born for all of us struggling still to comprehend the Europe of an epoch that beggars belief.

Pathos, irony, prose poetry and bottled rage decorate Roth's depictions. Of poor wretches sleeping 4th class on a Volga steamer, he muses: "All the faces look like open gates through which one can see into clear white souls". Of an aristo whom revolution has chased into exile, Roth states: "Even though I knew him to be a leading antisemite and a figure in the exploitation of the peasantry, there was still something moving about him." The head never abandons its link to the heart. Yet he is scathing about political systems "missing the regulating consciousness".

Spies are ubiquitous. In Mussolini's Italy, Roth's host fears his own janitor. In a hotel, the porter insists on posting Roth's letters, which thus reach their destination late. (How much easier surveillance in an era of email!) Any presence of strangers causes alert; each new wave of refugees renders the natives less welcoming. Sound familiar?

Roth's period pieces show a crooked timber of humanity that remains evergreen.

Of Albania in 1927, he observes: "It is impossible to judge the circumstances of an Oriental state, whose history is oppression, whose ethics are corruption, and whose culture is a mixture of the native bucolic and archaic-romantic naivete and the recent importation of intrigue, by the criteria of a Western democracy."

This might be scripture for policy-makers brainstorming away our successor century's destiny.

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