NOVEMBER 12, 2015
FROM A STRICTLY FORMAL PERSPECTIVE, there is nothing so very “modernist” about the writing of the Austrian author and journalist Joseph Roth (1894–1939). His epic novel about the demise of the Austro-Hungarian empire, The Radetzky March (1932), deploys a descriptive verisimilitude we tend to associate with an earlier era; his journalism likewise displays all the functional hallmarks of the rapporteur. And yet he finds himself an honorary member of the modernist pantheon, rather as an attentive minute-taker might end up immortalized in the paperwork of some historically momentous convention. His work is so intimately preoccupied with modernity — with the trauma and dislocation that its irruption inflicted upon a whole continent — that no account of the cultural history of the era would be complete without it.
Roth’s later works marked him as an artist de son temps. The Emperor’s Tomb (1938), an altogether more stylistically pared-down text than his magnum opus, provided an ominous snapshot of a Europe on the brink of cataclysm. It also engaged, in passing, with the problem of reconciling a nascent mass market consumerism with the haughty ethics of high culture. When its protagonist is roped into a business venture in the manufacture of arts and crafts ephemera, his elderly mother scoffs: “Once you start making valuable-looking things out of worthless material! Where’ll it end? […] No one can persuade me that cotton is as good as linen, or that you can make laurel wreaths out of pine cones.”
That interfacing of the old world and the new is Roth’s literary métier. His special knack for teasing the historical import out of the humdrum is abundantly demonstrated in The Hotel Years, a collection of 64 dispatches written between 1919 and 1939, translated into English for the first time by Michael Hofmann. Roth saw these feuilletons as being of a piece with his novelistic work. In a letter to Benno Reifenberg, his editor at the Frankfurter Zeitung, in April 1926, he extolled the virtues of the form: “The feuilleton,” he insisted, “is as important as politics are to the newspaper, and to the reader it’s vastly more important […] I paint the portrait of the age.” The bulk of the articles in The Hotel Years date from the 1920s, and they do precisely that: they hold up a mirror to a Europe in flux — economically, politically, and culturally.
“Of Dogs and Men” (1919) tells of a man who has returned from the First World War, a newspaper seller on Vienna’s Kärntner Strasse. He is an invalid with a shattered spine; a trusty dog sits on his back, “a clever, well-trained dog, riding on his own master, and making sure he doesn’t lose a single paper.” Roth sees in this bizarre reversal of the natural order of things a terrible indictment — a symbol of mankind’s regression at the hands of patriotic fervor: “When he remembers what happened when he relied on other men, a man is happy to put his trust in a dog. […] We have been through the war that was the last hurrah of cavalry, and at the end of it dogs ride around on men.”
Roth, who was born in an East Galician town in what is now western Ukraine, harbored a sentimental nostalgia for the multiethnic monolith that was the Austro-Hungarian empire. As well he might: the nationalisms that brought down the Dual Monarchy would then tear Europe apart, twice. As an articulate excoriator of nationalism, he understood very well what made it tick. A vignette in “Arrival in the Hotel” offers a poignant testament to the emotional pull of nationhood: exalting in the cosmopolitanism of a Marseille guesthouse (“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 […].”), Roth finds himself getting emotionally attached to the hotel, taking inordinate interest in its daily comings and goings,
as though I stood one day to inherit shares in it.’ In the unlikeliest of settings, this bustling guesthouse with its transient populace, he appears to have found his own imagined community. Our inveterate internationalist has made contact with his inner chauvinist, declaring with genial irony: “I am a hotel citizen. A hotel patriot.”
Later on, in “Leaving the Hotel,” the flutter of romance has passed, the spell is broken, and the building is just a functional space again: “When my suitcases are gone, others will take their place. When my soap is packed away, someone else’s will nestle by the basin. […] By the time I look round it one last time before I go, it will already have ceased to be my room.” Le Corbusier’s famous dictum that a house is a machine for living in is perhaps nowhere more starkly true than in the case of the hotel.
There is a sense of melancholy here that transcends regular touristic detachment. Foreign correspondents have, by necessity, to move about a lot, but Roth’s deracination was, over and above that, historically contingent. Roth, a Jew, fled Germany when Hitler came to power in 1933; he died in Paris in 1939. We sense in these pages that he felt himself to be in exile long before 1933. Writing in the 1920s, he saw, as clearly as anyone, what was coming: the specter of National Socialism appears as a series of portentous flickers in The Hotel Years. Consider this, from “The Baltic Tour” (1924), an ostensibly innocuous piece of travel writing about the island resort of Rügen:
They have electricity, gas, running water, telephone, hairdressers, baths […] twenty hotels and two hundred villas to let, a two-mile seafront promenade, is 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.
It reads like a glossy brochure until you get to those last five words. The “even” is telling: the paraphernalia of Nazism are not only of a piece with the latest mod cons and au courant pastimes — they represent the very pinnacle of the zeitgeist. Fascism appears here, discomfortingly, as a natural accompaniment to all that is cosmopolitan and new. Only the provincial locals, in their backwardness, “have not had their heads turned by swastikas, and what there is by way of nationalist propaganda is brought along by the visitors.” The passage exemplifies the prescient ambivalence toward modernity that is at the heart of much of Roth’s writing.
The smallest changes in the quotidian landscape act as terrible harbingers. In “Germany in Winter” (1923) Roth describes an undertaker in Leipzig who travels, not by automobile or horse-drawn carriage, but on a bicycle. The mode of transport disarms his ghoulish aura: “All his metaphysical dread was wasted.” In a similar vein, a big brute of a train conductor in Chemnitz is seen wolfing down dainty liqueur-filled chocolates left behind by a wealthy female customer. Again, his gravitas is shot. The reason? Hunger: “What to a passenger was a frippery, to him is a necessity.” Germany, as a nation, was sick, and, “Anyone who has sat at the bedside of a sick patient will know that the hours are not all pathos and anguish. The sick man will talk all kinds of nonsense, ridiculous, trivial, unworthy of himself and his condition. He is missing the regulating consciousness.”
Roth has a sharp eye for the black comedy of poverty, the shambolic pathos of things falling apart. Reporting from the poverty-stricken towns of the southeastern USSR (“Down the Volga to Astrakhan,” 1926), he recalls, without further elaboration, that “in Samara a goat refused to let me enter my hotel.” Such absurdities bear witness to a world turned upside-down. In these years Europe as a whole lost its “regulating consciousness” as entire populations were degraded morally, and radicalized politically, in the economic mire. The people of Hamburg, he observes, traditionally had little time for the political dogmas of left and right, but by 1924 they were filling out civic halls, enticed to political meetings by free food and schnapps: “in these assembly halls, where people used to go to smooch and drink, they are now daubing swastikas and Soviet stars on the grimy walls.”
Many of these dispatches report from Europe’s unprepossessing backwaters. Returning to his native Galicia (“Journey through Galicia: People and Place,” 1924), he finds the place seemingly unchanged from the days of the Emperor Franz Joseph. The peasants are still “devout, superstitious, anxious,” and the religious images persist. Only the uniforms and insignia have changed. This is a place where “Things don’t grow. They warp and distort. […] [T]he Gothic is very much alive.” Yet the sense of isolation is deceptive: despite “the sad allure of the place scorned,” there are bookshops stocking the latest literary titles from France and England, connecting this provincial periphery to the cultural metropole and, by extension, the future.
The same pattern plays out in a series of dispatches from Albania. This is, he says, an “Oriental state”; to judge it by the criteria of a Western democracy would be as “fatuous to be exercised about the burning of witches” in medieval times. Asked by his editors to report on the phenomenon of the vendetta — the custom of the blood-feud was then alive and well in Albania, a source of grisly fascination to western European readers — Roth finds that, even in insalubrious Tirana, tribalism is giving way to bourgeois culture:
Already the owner of my hotel has taken to using his holster for keeping small change in, and on his sideboard the first swallows of civilisation are starting to roost: Giesshubler mineral water, whisky vermouth, Fernet-Branca. Together with the gold fillings and the New York slang, the half-education and the mandolins of the returnees from the States, together with the Fords in the streets suggestive of crushed barrel-organs, they constitute the transition from so-called “national culture” to the demand for an “autonomous republic.”
And therein lies the paradox: that it is precisely in the process of the transmuting into a modern, Wilsonian nation-state that the true “national culture” — backward and folkish — is lost or, at any rate, subjugated. For his part, Roth is characteristically equivocal. One moment he is quietly ridiculing as “false and childish national pride” an Albanian general’s remark that centuries of oppression at the hands of the Turks were worth it because they contributed to the survival of the Albanian language; the next he is acknowledging, however grudgingly, a progress of sorts. At its vanguard is a mass of material stuff — “stiff collars, cravats, postcards, razor blades, gold fillings, Ford automobiles and lawyers.” Consumerism and lawyers: capitalist democracy in a nutshell. The strange cultural heterogeneity of the moment is perhaps nowhere better exemplified than in this throwaway aside: “the barber’s brother,” we are cheerily informed, “is a bona fide and quite successful warlord.”
The nexus between the provincial and the cosmopolitan is a central theme in Roth’s work. The action in The Radetzky March is set in an obscure outpost of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the better to render the geopolitical lag between the motive forces of history and their consequences in the lives of ordinary people — and, implicit in that, the sheer queerness, the historical singularity, of the concept of nationhood. Some 70 years of peace have not completely effaced this preoccupation. There remains in Europe today a deep ambivalence about the nation-state. In contemporary Germany, for example, it is widely acknowledged that localism and regional pride exert a far greater pull than national feeling; this also happens to be the country that is most deeply invested in the European Union project. There is, in other words, a certain affinity for supra-national entities that connects Roth’s Habsburg nostalgia to 21st-century Europhilia, underscored by a consensus that the experiment of the modern nation-state has not served people all that well. (The recent surge in far-right chauvinism in Europe — a Front National here, a Pegida there — is, in truth, a single-issue phenomenon. Its deployment of nationalist tropes is largely symbolic and atavistic; it is categorically not a nationalist movement on a par with those that blighted the 20th century.)
Joseph Roth drank himself to an early grave, weary and demoralized, in 1939. But it would be quite wrong to remember him as a broken man. His was a voice of uncowed conscience and irrepressible humanism, his body of work a damning j’accuse against the folly of the age. The dispatches in The Hotel Years constitute a compelling vindication of his claims for the feuilleton’s literary possibilities. Of his Galician jaunt he writes, “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.” So much the better, because it is precisely in these micro-portraits — of busy hotel clerks, corpulent chefs, hapless newspaper vendors — that the abstractions of political history are brought to life. Roth’s focus on ordinary people was both historically urgent and, with its looping of the specific and the general, artistically progressive. In “Retrospect of Magdeburg” (1931), he reflects on the problems of encapsulating the “typical” German existence within a straightforwardly linear narrative. Roth concludes that “the describing of singularities within this profusion […] the chance thing, plucked from a tangle of others, may most easily make for order.” It was this technical accomplishment that made him, if not quite modernist, at any rate quintessentially and authentically modern.