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Joseph Roth’s ‘The Hotel Years’ Is A Mirror Of Our Times

Although Joseph Roth’s “The Hotel Years” first appeared in 2015, the beginning of 2017 seems, unfortunately, to be the perfect time to open the text. The book is a collection of short pieces that Roth, one of the preeminent journalists of his time (at one point, the Frankfurter Zeitung was paying him at the staggering rate of one Deutschmark per line), wrote for various publications in the 1920’s and 30s. Divided into eight different sections (excluding the single story opening and closing sections), “The Hotel Years” covers the range of Roth’s journalistic output – from a number of stories about Albania during a time of “vendettas” and Italian aggression to some slightly less momentous occasions, such as reflections on a man reading a newspaper. In addition to churning out almost a page per day as a journalist, Roth was also a prolific writer of fiction, writing 21 novels and novellas as well as shorter fiction. While Roth is most famous for his fictional family saga “The Radetzky March,” “The Hotel Years” gives us a (mostly) non-fiction, intimate look at the man and his time.

Reading the book now, after the events of 2016, the stories have taken on a darker, more prescient, more tragic tone. Since the book’s publication, we have seen the continued ascendancy of far-right movements across Europe – we now know that the trends of the first half of the 2010’s were not aberrations. We have the rise of the fascist party Golden Dawn in Greece; the steady dismantling of Polish democracy at the hands of the ruling Law and Justice Party; the sneakily consequential defeat of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats at the hands of the fascist Alternative for Germany party in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania; a surging National Front in France. And of course, here at home, we have the election of Donald Trump –  an unpredictable, potentially fascist President (the jury is still out, but the rhetoric is telling) who has courted and abetted the rise of ethno-nationalism in the United States.

This is a daunting list, but, for a reader of Roth, it should hardly be a surprising one. Our own rightward shift (or fall) finds its direct antecedent in the European interwar period that is the subject of “The Hotel Years.” The collapse of the Hapsburg Empire, the defining moment of Joseph Roth’s life (“My strongest experience was the war and the collapse of my fatherland, the only one I ever had,” he would write) was partially the result of nationalist ideology. Each of the empire’s various ethnicities (the Germans, Magyars, Slavs, Slovaks, and so on) had, by the time of the First World War, national aspirations. As J.M. Coetzee points out in his review of Joseph Roth’s “Collected Stories,” “The mistake of the imperial government, we can see with hindsight, was to take these aspirations too lightly, to believe that the advantages of belonging to an enlightened, prosperous, peaceful, multiethnic state would always outweigh the pull of separatism and…prejudice.”

Replace two phrases in Coetzee’s diagnosis — “imperial government” with “European Union” and “multiethnic state” with “multinational union” — and we have the Europe of the 21st century. The fuel that has lighted the resurgent fire of European ethno-nationalism may be the migrant crisis, but that is only the most recent catalyst for a more pervasive, deeply rooted problem — that is, the problem of nationalism in an increasingly globalized order.

Roth, by virtue of personal history and disposition, felt the nationalist thrust of his time more keenly than most. The writer was born in Brody (now in western Ukraine) at the end of the 19th century — in the eastern reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire right at the time of its collapse. Roth, whose first name was Moses (which he later dropped for his middle name, Joseph), was, in many ways, the quintessential Jewish writer of the interwar period. Not because of his subject matter, not because of his religious feeling (indeed, partially because of his lack of religious feeling) but because of his rootlessness, his cosmopolitanism, and his distinctly European erudition, which likely owes a great deal to the fact that Roth was born in Brody, then the capital of Eastern European Jewish thought.

Like many of his peers (Kafka, in particular, comes to mind), Roth was a threefold misfit — a Jew, a German speaker living outside of Germany or Austria, and an assimilated Jew (assimilation for the Jews was a precarious business, cut off from their co-religionists but also at an arms length from the society to which they had assimilated). It was precisely this lack of belonging, however, that made the Empire a perfect place for an author like Roth. He appears to have been a wanderer by disposition, and a wanderer finds more room in an empire than a single nation. What’s more, due to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Jews were just one ethnic group among many. Because of this multiethnic makeup, the Empire experienced less of the anti-Semitic prejudices that plagued the European nation-states of the time (no country or empire however could claim to be entirely free of them). It was also a place in which a Jew from the East could receive a German education and therefore gain access to the higher European institutions (After receiving his education in Brody, Roth would attend, and later drop out of, the University of Vienna where his experience as an Ostjude (Eastern-Jew) amongst a largely prejudiced Western Jewish population would lead him to various attempts to reinvent himself as a Western Jew).

Nowhere does Roth’s rootlessness reveal itself more than the “Hotels” section of the book, in which we are presented with eight pieces about an unnamed Hotel in an undisclosed location. The anonymity of location corresponds to Roth’s own cherished anonymity (“If I stayed longer I would be unworthy of the great blessing of being a stranger,” he writes) and to his pining after a pan-European ideal – that the hotel is in Europe is important, that it is in Europe and nowhere else is of decisive importance.

The Hotel is more than a representation of Roth’s pan-European longing; it is an embodiment of it. In his description of the staff (“The waiter is from Upper Austria. The porter is a Frenchman from Provence. The receptionist is from Normandy. The head waiter is Bavarian…”), we can see that this Hotel is the cosmopolitan Utopia dreamt of by so many intellectuals of the time. Utopia, as always, is an elusive place — and one has to wonder whether Roth’s Hotel ever truly existed, or if this report is simply a projection (regardless, it ranks among the greatest string of pieces in the book).

This Hotel utopianism comes in stark contrast to the time in which it was written. The collapse of the Empire would thrust Roth into a world that he was constantly seeking to reform, that is, to return to an irretrievable past (In 1938 he attempted to persuade the Austrian government to reinstall the monarchy – needless to say, he failed spectacularly). His old world nostalgia would manifest itself in his writing, both in terms of subject matter and in terms of his formal conservatism (Roth was both ideologically and literarily not a modernist). That being said, in “The Hotel Years,” this collection of feuilletons (an unfortunately out of favor journalistic style marked by its literary freedom and short, subjective form), Roth does occasionally exhibit certain modernist tendencies, or at least, certain passages seem reminiscent of more adventurous writers.

Most strikingly, Roth’s pieces frequently display a Kafka-like suspension of the rules of our world (anyone who has spent extensive time traveling will certainly have felt a similar kind of alienation and confusion). This suspension extends to the rules of bureaucracy as well as the rules of time and physics. Consider the following passage from the absurdly comic “Hotel Kopriva,”

Everyone is between arrival and departure. The “Hotel Kopriva” is always between trains. Its eighty rooms and hundred and twenty beds whirl round and round. The “Hotel Kopriva” doesn’t exist. It merely seems to exist. The gramophone tumbles upstairs and down. The sample cases fly through the air. The manager rushes from room to room. The room-service waiter runs to the train. The porter is knocked for six. The manager is the room-service waiter. The porter is the manager. The room-service waiter is the porter. The room numbers are departure times. The clock is a timetable. The visitors are tied to the station on invisible elastics. They bounce back and forth. The gramophone sings train sounds. Eight makes a hundred and twenty. A hundred and twenty rooms trundle through eighty beds.

and this passage from “Melancholy of a Tram Car in the Ruhr” (non-arrival is an especially Kafkian conceit):

We reach our destination. It looks like where we began from. It’s as though there are no spatial destinations here, only temporal ones.

In addition to his occasional Kafkian bent, Roth also displays a keen eye for the surreal. (Both in terms of its surreality and sense of doom, “The Hotel Years” can be seen as an interesting predecessor to “Kaputt,” Italian author Curzio Malaparte’s travelogue/reportage from the Eastern Front during World War Two – a surreal European journey of a different sort). We have the incredibly strange, visually evocative scene of “Of Dogs and Men,” in which Roth observes “an invalid with shattered spine” selling newspapers in Vienna while a dog rides his back (“We have been through the war that was the last hurrah of cavalry, and at the end of it dogs ride around on men”), and, in “Journey through Galicia: People and Place,” we’re treated to an image straight out of Dali – a statue of Christ without the cross (blown to pieces during the First World War).

Apart from the strong feeling of surrealism (can there really be a reflection on the aftermath of war without it?), the overwhelming sense one gets from “The Hotel Years” is nostalgia, or to borrow a Portuguese word (a pan-European move that I imagine Roth would approve of), a sense of saudade. Saudade, one of those myriad “untranslatable” words, can be translated as a sense of great melancholic longing and nostalgia for something you once had, but feel you will never have again. Or, as Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo wrote, “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.” And it does seem as if Roth’s saudade is inescapable. The patrons of his Hotel, Roth included, are all, proudly, “patriots of an epoch” — destined to lose their country, and therefore destined to miss it. There is a tinge of the hopeful, however, when Roth declares “God helps those who are abandoned.” He is referring to an émigré to America who receives a bit of good luck, but it seems obvious that he also includes himself in the “abandoned” – forsaken by an era that, by its very nature, was always already lost.

If I have one complaint about Roth’s writing it is that his nostalgia can sometimes tip into false, or at least rosy coloring, into a certain naiveté that accompanies anyone who turns away from time. The “Hotel” and “Pleasures and Pains” chapters in particular conjure an image of the interwar period as “the good ol’ days.” I don’t mean to imply that the interwar period was all misery (how could I possibly know?) but only to remind readers that the same years, of course, saw crippling economic devastation, the continued degradation of the after-effects of World War I (Roth largely ignores The Austria-Hungarian Empire’s role in this degradation), and the rise of some of the most evil regimes known to human history.

On that last point, Michael Hoffman, who in addition to translating and editing “The Hotel Years” has previously translated 14 Roth titles, has masterfully organized the book (as for the translation, I cannot read German and therefore I cannot speak to its felicity. I can, however, say that at no point does one feel that the language is stilted or has otherwise passed through some filter). Thanks to Hoffman’s editorial choices, we’re given a nagging feeling of dread. Throughout the book, Nazi Germany pops its wicked head in and out of various pieces, hinting at the disaster to come. Hinting, until the penultimate chapter, “Ending,” in which the whole of Europe seems to come crashing down upon Roth. In “Ending,” we fittingly see less nostalgia than we do bitterness and anger. The section comprises pieces ranging from 1927-1939, and in these final pages, we can seemingly hear Roth ask, exasperated, “how could we have squandered this Europe that we had?” The “Ending” of the section’s title is threefold: the end of the book, the end of Roth’s life (he would drink himself to death in Paris in 1939), and the final end of Europe as it once was (Roth would coincidentally, and perhaps mercifully, die before World War II put the final nail in the coffin of his beloved Europe).

It seems perhaps a little trite to parrot Roth’s assertion that his journalism has given us a portrait of an age – but it is only trite because it is true. With “The Hotel Years,” Roth has done far more than just give us the portrait of just his age however, he has also given us a portrait of our own. Reading “The Hotel Years” is like staring into a mirror – the same anxieties, the same hatreds, the same longings, the same forces at play. When writing about Germany, Roth stated that what the country was missing was “the regulating consciousness.” Now, in a time when global politics seem to be driven by pure id, “the regulating consciousness” again appears to be missing. Where Roth saw a line towards a “tragicomic ending,” we see only tragedy. The whole book is touched with a sense of the tragic – we know how the story ends, not just for Roth, but for Europe. Our story, I hope, is not as dire as all that – but then again, it’s difficult to see the portentousness of our own time as it is lived. Fortunately, we have Roth as our guide.

Jake Romm is the Forward’s culture intern. Contact him at [email protected]


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