Empire Falls

“The feuilleton,” Joseph Roth once declared to his editor at the Frankfurter Zeitung, “is just as important to the paper as its politics. . . . I don’t write ‘witty glosses.’ I paint the portrait of the age. That ought to be the job of the great newspaper.” Michael Hofmann, who has, over the past two decades, translated most of Roth’s major fiction, including his great novel The Radetzky March (1932), concurs with this boast. “Roth’s masterpieces,” he writes, “were not his novels but his feuilletons.”

Hofmann may well be right. These topical pieces—at their best they are indeed prose poems—combine the sharpness and immediacy of an August Sanderphotograph with the deep skepticism of the hopeless outsider. Born to Jewish parents in Brody, a small Galician town on the far border of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Roth wanted nothing so much as to be a cosmopolitan European. A leftist in his youth, who was to write sympathetically, if also sardonically, of the plight of his fellow Eastern Jews, he came, in his later years, to mourn the fading of the Habsburg Monarchyof his youth, with its order and aesthetic ritual.

The working life of this “maximalist of the short form,” as Hofmann calls him, was itself sadly short: It coincided almost exactly with the twenty-year span between the world wars. Roth began writing for the Viennese newspapers in 1919, when he returned from World War I. Soon he moved on to Berlin, which he despised, but which gave him secure employment on the Frankfurter Zeitung, and then in 1925 to his beloved Paris, where he was to die from severe alcoholism and acute depression on the eve (May 1939) of the next war—a war he had been gloomily predicting for more than a decade. In these years of restless nights in second-class hotels and intermittent travel—to Albania, to the fledgling Soviet Union, to Mussolini’s Rome—he wrote hundreds of short articles, averaging about one page a day. Hofmann, who has already published a number of excellent volumes of Roth’s journalism, including What I Saw (2003), here translates sixty-four pieces, mostly from the 1920s.

The title The Hotel Years is somewhat misleading: Hofmann’s selection does include a sequence of eight witty and delightful sketches on hotel protocol and personnel (headwaiters, doormen, cooks), and his travel pieces and character sketches often have hotels as their setting. But the most memorable of Roth’s feuilletons are, I think, the early ones that chart in telling detail the map of urban misery, chaos, and cruelty that characterized the defeated Germanic nations in the immediate postwar era. In Vienna, “a man returned from the war in the form of a hinge—invalid with shattered spine—moves almost inexplicably through Kärntner Strasse, selling newspapers. A dog sits on his back.” Or again, on a cold winter day in Leipzig, the reporter sees an undertaker, with “gleaming top hat” and “pomaded, uptwirled black moustache,” making his way to the cemetery—not, as once was the case, “on a calèche drawn by a couple of black stallions,” but on a bicycle. Hunched over, “he pedalled to the cemetery and back. . . . His sinister black trousers bore shiny metal clips, and were bunched at the ankles, looking like umbrellas in fair weather. This distinguished apparition couldn’t afford a tram ticket.”

Such incidents are never sentimentalized. In “The Umbrella” (1921), a woman slips on the rain-soaked pavement of Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm and is hit by a car:

People rushed over, the woman was picked up; she was badly shaken, nothing more—all this had to be established in a nearby café. But before it could be established, and while she was still lying in the road, covered with blood in the imagination of all the passers-by who had witnessed the accident, and possibly with severed limbs, a man had the presence of mind to pick up the lady’s umbrella and walk off with it.

This is followed by what looks like the mini-tale’s moral:

I had never supposed that people’s decency was a match for their self-interest. But that their meanness was even greater than their curiosity, that was brought home to me by this incident, which shows that it isn’t difficult to strip the pillow off someone’s deathbed, and sell the feathers at the next street corner.

If the story ended here, it would be a vivid piece of reportage about the miseries and chaos of modern urban life. But Roth now gives it a sardonic twist: “The woman who had escaped with her life now wept for the loss of her umbrella and was not at all grateful that her limbs were intact. As evidenced here, people come in two sorts: unscrupulous and plain dim.”

Hofmann’s translation doesn’t quite render the force of those final adjectives, niederträchtig oder beschränkt:despicable or dull-witted.” What choice, at the moment, Roth asks, between knaves and fools? The question has already been anticipated by the odd disclosure that the injured woman’s status “had to be established in a nearby café.” Not even the good deed of this crowd, Roth implies, is entirely disinterested. Curiosity, perhaps a little cognac: These are motivating factors, too. Reportage gives way to a dark hyperrealism.

Joseph Roth’s student identity card, ca. 1914. Courtesy Center for Jewish History/Flickr

If urban squalor is frightening, the new industrialization of the countryside can be even worse. Two of the finest pieces in The Hotel Years describe the reporter’s tram rides through the Ruhr Valley in 1926, a time when the region’s stepped-up production of heavy industry, including armament, was reaching its peak. Riding the tram on a rainy evening, the reporter watches the individual towns—Duisburg, Bottrop, Elberfeld—run into one another. Just when the tram seems to be leaving one town and hitting the open fields, just when the passenger finally sees a clump of trees or a bit of meadow, the next, equally smoky and hellish town appears. The new industrial strip! “It’s as though there are no spatial destinations here, only temporal ones, like the certain, final and irrevocable death of the last patch of native earth.”

Roth claimed not to be a political writer, but his feuilletons are laced with allusions to the growing anti-Semitism and nascent fascism of the period. “Germany in Winter” (1923) culminates in the following anecdote:

In the West End of Berlin I saw two high-school kids. They were walking along the wide, busy road, arm in arm, like a pair of drunks, and singing:

Down, down, down with the Jewish republic,
Filthy Yids,
Filthy Yids!

And passers-by got out of their way. No one stopped to slap their faces. . . . In Germany the convictions of high-school boys are respected. That’s how law-abiding people are in Berlin.

Roth understood, as did few of his fellow writers, that the newly virulent anti-Semitism of these years, so tolerated by traditional Prussian law, was the offshoot of ignominious defeat, followed by the paranoid fear, triggered by dire poverty, of Jewish immigrants from the East. Even the Baltic seaside resort of Binz, known as “the Sorrento of the north,” which boasted “twenty hotels and two hundred villas to let, a two-mile seafront promenade,” is described as “stuffed with make-up, powder, atropine, tennis racquets and sharp pleats, cocktail bars and tipsy customers; a spa hotel with dancing opportunities for black tie and evening gowns; and even some swastika flags.”

Swastikas in 1924? They are cropping up everywhere—in fraternity houses, resorts, and on the walls of suburban villas. And what about the newly fascist Italy? In “The All-Powerful Police” (1928), Roth notes that at his familiar Rome hotel, the once chummy porter has undergone a curious transformation. Breathing down the reporter’s neck, this porter demands the immediate surrender of his passport, insists on posting his letters (first scrutinizing the addresses on the envelopes), and later turns up at the café where Roth is meeting a friend:

Two tables away from me, with a floppy red and white necktie on his chest, a sleekly pomaded head craning forward to listen, a thin cane on the chair beside him, a hand with flashing pink nails dangled over the chairback, a cowardly smile that he thinks is engaging—there is the friend of my hotel. He has picked up that we are talking in a foreign language. What an important moment. In return for two lire fifty he will tell the police about it.

It is interesting that, in 1928, the Frankfurter Zeitung would still publish such pieces; the stock market crash of 1929 was to change all that. Meanwhile, fear and hatred—not just of the Jew but of anyone who was Other—was the great undertone of the Weimar years. Here is a passage from a surreal feuilleton called “The Emigrants’ Ship” (1923), describing the passengers aboard the Pittsburgh, departing from Bremerhaven for New York.

A family from Kowel is here, an old matron swaddled in black, two young daughters with cropped curls, and a twenty-year-old son, with broad shoulders and red hands dangling from his sleeves like giant appliances. . . . For two years now he and his family have been wandering through the sorry, moribund West of Europe, in search of his father, who left Kowel ten years before. . . .They were in Budapest, six months in constant dread of the expatriation that might come at any hour of day or night; finally it came and they were chased to Vienna, where they hung on for a year in a basement hole on Kleine Schiffergasse. Here too they were viewed as a burden on the state—the son engaged in unauthorized selling of clothes—and they drifted on to the wretched east of Berlin, to Hirtenstrasse, where the black market promises undreamed-of riches and doesn’t deliver. Finally a cousin got in touch from New York, a street vendor of oranges and lemons and he sent them steamer tickets and ten dollars apiece.

And since “no one has come to see them off,” the passengers “wave to strangers, to the luminous policeman, to the dockers and porters.”

Was this devastating take on émigrés in flight really written almost a century ago? In light of the daily news today about fence building and tunnel digging in Europe, it could hardly be more apropos. What Roth foresaw with such uncanny insight is that the tragedy of World War I was not an end point but a beginning.

Marjorie Perloff’s Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire is forthcoming from University of Chicago Press in 2016.