The Hotel Years
New Directions, 2015, 192 pp., $14.95
“Why do you people always go wandering around in the world?” So asks a Russian peasant of Mendel Singer in Joseph Roth’s novel from 1930, Job. “You people” are of course Jews, but in Roth’s fiction it isn’t only his Jewish characters who are condemned to wander the earth. All of his creations are to some extent itinerants buffeted by history, tossed about by fate, frequently and inextricably in transit and in limbo. All are moving. There are the soldiers in the Austrian army who, when not performing endless military maneuvers on Viennese parade grounds, are consigned to far-flung outposts of the empire to skulk, semi-stateless, in frontier garrisons and taverns. There are the Russian spies, revolutionaries, and deserters who have slipped over the Russian border—“less the boundary of the all-powerful empire of the Czar than the bounds of our despotism” according to the secret agent Golubchik in Confession of a Murderer (1936)—and are on missions in Europe or on the run to the Americas. And then there are the Jews, like Mendel Singer, who flee pogroms and destitution for better lives elsewhere, anywhere. Some of Roth’s characters even wander into other Roth novels—Singer pops up again in Weights and Measures (1937)—making welcome returns like that other Roth trope, the ever-recurring strains of Strauss’s Radetzky March.
But Roth’s travelers never embark on one-way journeys. They ebb and they flow. Friedrich Kargan in The Silent Prophet (1929) changes his direction as often as he changes his philosophical outlook. Roth’s surviving soldiers must make long, arduous treks westward from Siberian prison camps. His Russians and his Jews grow disenchanted in exile (the hero of Tarabas (1934) comes to loathe New York, “a city of stone”; Mendel Singer, plagued by one misfortune after another, finds America “a death-dealing fatherland”) and risk treacherous trips back to where they started from. Invariably, his prodigals turn into lost souls who flounder once “home.” “Where can I go now…?” muses the protagonist at the end of The Emperor’s Tomb (1938). In the same vein, Franz Tunda realizes in Flight Without End (1927) that without a job, ambition, hope—without movement—he is “superfluous.” Perhaps most tragic of all, the increasingly apathetic Carl Joseph Trotta in Roth’s greatest book, The Radetzky March (1932), in time resembles “a man who has lost not only his homeland but also his homesickness for his homeland.”
Roth himself was always on the move—if never rudderless then certainly rootless. His nomadic life informed his masterful writing, too long available only in the original German. The German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki said that Roth “always made it easy for his readers and often made it hard for his interpreters.” Thanks to the efforts of redoubtable translator and poet Michael Hofmann, Roth’s oeuvre has steadily migrated into the English language. The publication in 1999 of Rebellion completed the set for fiction, but more and more of Roth’s non-fiction is seeing the light of day in translation. The latest is The Hotel Years, a collection of journalistic pieces written on the hoof and on assignment. It is top-heavy with work from the 1920s, when travel for Roth was exotic, thrilling, freeing—and his choice. Only a handful of articles are included from the more desperate 1930s, when travel was flight, work a necessity, and existence hand-to-mouth.
Hofmann has trawled through Roth’s three volumes of non-fiction, each a thousand pages dense, and cherry-picked “something topical, something lasting, something burning, something whimsical.” Most items are choice cuts from Roth’s travels for the Frankfurter Zeitung through France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Albania, and the USSR. Appearing in English for the first time, all are marvels in miniature: lightly sketched but boldly colored people and places, moments in time, fleeting joys and sudden upheavals, upswings and downturns. All are studded with Roth’s trademark metaphors, aphorisms, mots justes. So often the ransacking of a literary vault uncaches only scraps—patchy juvenilia, excruciating verse, rejected novels or, worse, The Original of Laura. Hofmann could very well have unearthed such dross. Instead, he has struck gold.
The opening section finds Roth reporting from “multi-faceted, tribal Germany”—a place he emphatically calls “the least understood nation in Europe.” In the first piece he homes in on a war veteran who cycles the streets selling newspapers with a dog sitting atop his hunched, shattered back. It sparks a memory in him of “when men were trained like dogs and were barked at as “Schweinehunde” and so forth, by others who were themselves bloodhounds.” Elsewhere, a woman is knocked down on the Kurfürstendamm, and in the mêlée a man walks off with her umbrella. At Bremerhaven, the Pittsburgh (which resembles the Neptune at the same port in Job) containing Eastern Jews and peasants, is about to set sail for America, departing “the continent of pogroms, of the police, the black market.” A tour of the run-down industrial Ruhrgebiet shows each city as a failed Coketown smothered by thick palls of factory smoke. Two of Roth’s postcards entice and then repel: Hamburg in 1924 is cheap, its banks reliable, but it is crippled by crime and unemployment; while on the Baltic island of Rügen in the same year—15 years before Isherwood took us there—we get sun, sea, jazz, cocktail bars “and even some swastika flags.”
In another section we follow Roth further afield. A trip to Sarajevo (“Innocent, accursed city”) 13 years on from its catalytic event, prompts much before-and-after comparing and contrasting—until Roth changes key in an impassioned, finger-pointing finale: “All the heroes’ graves, all the mass graves, all the battlefields, all the poison gas, all the cripples, the war widows, the unknown soldiers: they all came from here.” On a journey through his native region and “half-banished land” of Galicia, he views forgotten villages and unhealed battlefields while subverting stereotypes and evincing “the sad allure of the place scorned.” In the newly formed Soviet Union he sails on a Volga steamer and surveys the towns ravaged by the Civil War (“the saddest I have ever seen”), pities the rag-tag jumble of passengers in fourth class in the belly of the ship (not least the homeless children, the “so-called “bezprizorniy” who live off wretchedness and fresh air”) and is lulled by the mournful tunes of the barge haulers or “Burlaki” in whose hearts “destiny and song are woven together.” In 1927, after taking in Astrakhan and Azerbaijan, Roth heads to Albania. Despite the pomp and ceremony of marching soldiers, a big-scoop presidential meeting, and the exotic menace of “color-postcard vendetta-artists with revolvers for bellies, and rifles for umbrellas,” he finds the country “beautiful, unhappy, and for all its current topicality, boring.”
Later pieces written in exile see Roth either manfully ignoring mounting political tension, eroded liberties, and inevitable flashpoints (as in a long essay on Austrian playwright Franz Grillparzer) or confronting the crisis head-on. In “The Third Reich, a Dependency of Hell on Earth” (1934), Roth’s vitriol laces each line, in particular its killer opener: “After seventeen months, we are now used to the fact that in Germany more blood is spilled than the newspapers use printers’ ink to report on it.” A cold shadow falls across Roth’s study of his literary idol, Heine, written in the same year. For Roth, Heine was not only a poet but a prophet who “foresaw the course Germany would take. Read him, and save yourself the daily reports of events in Germany. Every new German calamity bears him out.” Heine’s stark warning from 1821, today engraved on Berlin’s Bebelplatz—“where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people”—went unheeded in 1933. But then, as Heine’s works were among those consigned to the flames, snuffed-out words only carry so much influence.
For a book entitled The Hotel Years, it would be fair to assume that hotels preponderate. In fact, they don’t. The section “Hotels” runs only to forty pages, with remaining sections containing scattershot references or isolated tales of one-nighters and lobby-loiterings. However, quality trumps quantity. It is in Roth’s hotel accounts that we get the full brunt of his powers of observation and illustration, his alchemical skill of transmuting pedestrian fact and commonplace occurrence into something newsworthy, even provocative. In “Millionaire for an Hour” (1921), Roth relates how every now and then he enjoys spending time in a top Berlin hotel—not as a paying guest but as a poor visitor, one in need of feeling “flush and expansive.” As he sits in the foyer in his one earthly pair of trousers, he weighs up the words and deeds, clothes and accoutrements of his “brother millionaires”: lawyers, politicians, spivs, carpet traders, and Russian counts. An old man smokes a “freshly guillotined cigar.” Deals are made: “cocaine, sugar, political systems, revolutions and women are on offer.” As soon as Roth exits, the fairy tale ends. There is no moral, no explanation for his masquerade. We take it for what it is: a plush tableau vivant, a stolen glimpse into another world, a glorious suspension of reality.
Later in “Hotel Kopriva” (1923) in the town of P., Roth takes us on a tour of less glitzy lodgings. The hotel caters to “single, rivalrous, anxious travelers” who are forced to shack up together and endure each other’s snoring. A far worse disturbance, though, is the constant blare of the dining-room gramophone which “scratches out marches, waltzes and two-steps with the inert implacability of a machine”—surely as frustrating as the hotel noise Brandeis must endure in Right and Left: “The sound of love and gramophones leaked out of all the rooms.” In “The All-Powerful Police” (1928), a snapshot of Fascist Italy, Roth is irked at discovering that the porter of his Roman hotel is a police spy, while in Tirana we sense his approval of the hotel owner shrugging off his savagery and using his holster as a receptacle for small change.
It is during Roth’s long stay in 1929 at an unnamed hotel in an unspecified city (which may or may not be Marseilles) that we see him at his most watchful and gushing. He notices the young couples, both “lawful” and “unlawful,” in the breakfast room—breakfast being “an asseveration of their love”—and the fat ladies who take civilized afternoon tea while their daughters are seduced by gigolos. We get thumbnail sketches of hotel staff, from patron to chambermaid, which, though brief, still brim with warts-and-all detail. It is in these hotel pieces that we also see Roth at his most revealing. He delights in stressing the worldly mix that passes through the hotel’s doors and thrives under its roof. The telephonist, we are told
is an Italian. The waiter is from Upper Austria. The porter is a Frenchman from Provence. The receptionist is from Normandy. The head waiter is Bavarian. The chambermaid is Swiss. The valet is Dutch. The manager is Levantine; and for years I’ve suspected the cook of being Czech. The guests come from all over the world. Continents and seas, islands, peninsulas and ships, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and even atheists are all represented in this hotel. The cashier adds, subtracts, counts and cheats in many languages, and changes every currency. Freed from the constriction of patriotism, from the blinkers of national feeling, slightly on holiday from the rigidity of love of land, people seem to come together here and at least appear to be what they should always be: children of the world.
For Roth, the hotel is more than a pit-stop: it is a surrogate empire, a melting pot of disparate nations held in peaceful union. “The hotel I love like a fatherland is situated in one of the great port cities of Europe”—so begins “Arrival in the Hotel” (1929).
Fortunately, this self-proclaimed “hotel citizen” and “hotel patriot” will always have a secure place in his new adopted fatherland. “No one asks me how long I plan on staying, an hour or a year, my fatherland is happy either way.” Roth would soon give up what semi-permanent home and security he had made for himself and embark on an increasingly uncertain journey, one which would encompass the last ten years of his life and see him at various stages enacting the role of both hardy wayfarer and restless wanderer. Home slid from view; in its place came a string of transient sanctuaries. “Other men may return to hearth and home, and wife and child,” he continues in “Arrival in the Hotel”; “I celebrate my return to lobby and chandelier, porter and chambermaid.”
Joseph Brodsky said that there is a poem on every page of Roth’s. Girls in white dresses wander the streets “like so many church bells, all smelling of jasmine, sex and starch.” An undertaker wears bicycle clips which make his “sinister” black trousers bunch at the ankles, “looking like umbrellas in fair weather.” In “Journey Through Galicia” (1924), Roth seems to imply that his observational knack is a reflexive act, the result of ungovernable curiosity:
I would like 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. My eyes move from the speaking features of my fellow travelers to the melancholy flat world without limits, the mild sorrow of the fields into which the battlegrounds have grown, to subsequent details.
That moving eye is at work on trains and steamers, cafés and hotels, but also while exploring on foot. And of course when Roth isn’t eyeing the present, both in his journalism and his novels, he is casting searching and wistful backward glances towards the sanctity of home and homeland, dreaming of a Heimat purged of nationalistic fervor within a Mitteleuropa imbued with tolerance and fraternity.
But while Roth is a master at freeze-framing a moment and replaying a memory, he offers little in The Hotel Years in the way of tentative peeks into the future—political projections, economic forecasts, the likely fates of individuals. In contrast, his novels are aswirl with dark prophesies and his busy correspondence is dotted with optimistic predictions—the former turning out to be depressingly true, the latter sadly too good to be true. “I’m convinced nothing will befall the cheeky chutzpah-Jews,” he wrote to Stefan Zweig in August 1932, and was equally sanguine in July 1935: “Hitler won’t last more than another year and a half, and then slowly but surely, we shall have a new German Empire.” Similarly in The Hotel Years, in the few instances where Roth tries to look ahead, he drastically underestimates the consequences. In Berlin in 1923 he watches two high school kids chanting “Filthy Yids!” on the street and not one passerby censuring them. “That’s how law-abiding people are in Berlin,” Roth writes. “And that discipline is heading for a tragicomic ending.” Would that it were only tragicomic. Most of the time, especially in the later pieces, we must make do with grim foreboding. In the bleak penultimate article, penned mere months before Roth’s death, a poor man struggling to stay afloat must report to the police. “He has a document with his name on it and where he comes from and where he lives. But what it doesn’t say is how long he can stay there, and where he’s allowed to go.”
The glamour of Roth’s bohemian life started to lose its allure when he ran out of money and options. Fellow exiled writer, Irmgard Keun, who lived and traveled with Roth between 1936 and 1938, described how when she first met him in Ostend she recognized someone “who was simply about to die of sadness.” That sadness could only have intensified with the Anschluss in 1938 and the painful realization that the Habsburg monarchy would never be restored. Was Roth, one wonders, as sad as old Zipper in Zipper and His Father (1928) whom he wrote about a decade earlier: “as sad as a room which has been emptied, as sad as a sundial in shadow, as sad as a stripped railway coach standing on a rusty line?” A deeper, palpable melancholy seeps into the work of Roth’s late period, far thicker and more debilitating than the earlier romantic variant, that rueful yearning for past ideals. “The day is so long because there is no melancholy to fill it,” he tells us in “Leaving the Hotel”—by which logic we can surely conclude that his last, dead-end days in Paris, all of them drink-sodden, must have felt very short indeed.
At one point in Roth’s second novel, Hotel Savoy (1924), the hero, Gabriel Dan, is in the bar being plied with schnaps by his cousin, Alexander, who makes him an offer. If Gabriel turns over his room to him, Alexander will pay his fare to Vienna, Berlin or Paris. Gabriel should be overjoyed: finally he can leave this monstrous hotel, simultaneously “palace and prison,” a place where girls strip downstairs in the bar and bankrupt guests die upstairs—and move on through “the gates of Europe.” But instead he feels the offer has come too late. “Alexander ordered one schnaps after another, but the more I drank the more melancholy I became, and the thought of traveling further and the thought of freedom vanished into thin air.” This description of a fictional character’s predicament in 1924 uncannily mirrors Roth’s plight in 1939. It is tempting to believe that were it not for his alcoholism he might have checked out of his Parisian hotel and joined the likes of Mann, Brecht, and Remarque in America. It’s an incongruous image—Roth, as prolific as ever, a nostalgic but also forward-looking vagabond churning out Exilliteratur in Santa Monica—but an undeniably alluring counterfactual. Instead, Roth’s hotel years came to an abrupt end in the Old World. Thankfully, his account of them, and of the turbulent cross-currents of his age, live on in exquisite collections such as this one.