Traveling With Joseph Roth, Always the Outsider and Ever the Exile
Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France, 1925-1939
By Joseph Roth, translated with
introduction by Michael Hofmann
WW Norton & Company, 224 pages, $24.95.
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From 1919 to 1939, Europe dwelt in the eye of a storm. Nothing was normal. The sky was yellow, the air still but menacing. Whole countries lay smashed and twisted. The memory of war and the fear of another hovered about like a foul mist, unshakable, clinging to people’s clothes, penetrating their secret thoughts.
Wandering this strange landscape was Joseph Roth, a curious and compelling figure. Roth came of age as a soldier serving the Austrian emperor, took up his pen at the conclusion of the Great War, and died in 1939, just as the European conflagration was resuming. Roth spent the inter-war years observing, writing and ultimately ranting, as Hitler rose to power in plain view of a remarkably quiescent Europe.
“Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France, 1925-1939” is the penultimate in a series of Roth’s works that have found their way back into print and have been translated into English in recent years. (Only a book of letters is yet to be published.) The volume is a miscellany of non-fiction from and mostly about France, which Roth made his base of operations from 1925 until his death. Roth’s writings about Provence constitute most of the first half of the book. The rest is a mixture of reporting, reviews, biography and personal essays, most of which were printed contemporaneously in German journals and newspapers. The American edition was translated by Michael Hofmann, who has added an illuminating introduction.
The pleasures awaiting a reader of “Report from a Parisian Paradise” are many. Chief among them is the opportunity to get to know Roth better. Roth, always the outsider and the exile, was a bundle of contradictions: He was a Jew who opened his heart to Roman Catholicism and an admirer of the dual monarchy who wrote for left-wing journals. A reader of his novels might suspect Roth had a dour soul, but a different Roth is evident on the pages of “Report from a Parisian Paradise.” Here Roth is gentle, sometimes joyful, often sad, but always an acute and imaginative observer.
Part of Roth’s appeal is his instinctive sympathy for the earth’s less-powerful: the silk workers of Lyon; the fishermen in Marseilles; Paris’ child refugees; prostitutes in the underground bar that Roth dubs “Paradise”; the stagehand, the policeman and the cabdriver who gather in a little bistro late at night. Roth writes about enjoying walking at dusk to where the poor live because, he says, “It’s only among the poor that one can get a sense of what evening is … The enormous fatigue of the day pours from their hard hands,” and there is nothing feigned about it.
An equally good reason to get to know Roth is the intriguing puzzle of the Jewish Roth’s unapologetic and unselfconscious appreciation of the Catholic faith. Roth is a Jew. He talks about Jews like a Jew, he rails against erupting antisemitism like a Jew, and he never converted. He wrote with eloquence and concern about his fellow Jews in “The Wandering Jews,” whose short section on Paris is excerpted here. Yet in his writings Roth also expresses a deep affinity for Christianity. He appreciates the beauty and glory of Avignon’s religious architecture, he describes a fresco of the crucifixion with tender sympathy and, in a “wonderfully bright church,” he finds images of saints that are “fresh, healthy-looking, and life-affirming.” These passages feel as distinctly un-Jewish as Roth’s writings about Jews feel Jewish.
Roth’s commitment to universalism explains some of this seeming contradiction. He puts in the mouth of an old boatman what is undoubtedly his own sentiment: “The Mohammedans say Allah. The Jews say Jehovah. We say the Almighty. But it’s all one and the same.” Yet there seems to be something more at work here. The figure of Christ himself appeals to Roth, and the reasons are evident in Roth’s passionate response to a provincial bullfight. Roth rages at the locals who torture bulls for amusement, and even his habitual empathy for peasants and the working class pales beside his compassion for the bull, who became for Roth “the embodiment of all martyrs of history.” As Roth sees in the bull’s eyes “a glimmer of that luminous pain that burned in the eye of Christ,” the Christ that excites Roth’s imagination — Christ the tormented, Christ the persecuted — comes into focus.
Another of this book’s delights is its beautifully crafted prose. Metaphor and anthropomorphism are Roth’s natural tools, and he wields them with the deft hand of a master. The cities of Provence he visits are fully animated. Touran is “not
nestled but rather squashed in between rocky hills,” and its houses “while seeming rooted to the spot are in perpetual motion, frantic with fear, cowed in anticipation.” Tarascon, on the other hand, is “like a successful, friendly, agreeable witticism among the lofty chapters of world history, a smile lost among notions of grandiloquence. “Equally eloquent — as well as hauntingly prescient — are Roth’s political writings: “Europe, inasmuch as it breathes and lives at all,” he writes, “chatters or is silent, and only from a few isolated graves is truth spoken. It is about to become a cemetery … a mass grave.”
Yet for all of its pleasures, “Report from a Parisian Paradise” is less than the sum of its parts. The fault lies not with Roth, but with the German editor who compiled this collection. The book is cobbled together out of pieces that war with, rather than complement, each other. The selections about Provence have a dreamy, timeless feel that jars against the of-the-moment reviews and political essays. Chapters devoted to now-obscure writers or politicians — so obscure that the editor laces the text with footnotes explaining who they are — deaden the force of Roth’s masterful insights into Europe’s predicament. An attempt at chronological order fails to unify the work.
Still, Roth’s luminous spirit rises above the vehicle. We leave Roth shortly before his death and the outbreak of war with this description of himself: “Here I am,” he writes, “sitting with my wanderer’s staff. My feet are sore, my heart is tired, my eyes are dry. Misery crouches beside me, ever larger and more gentle. Pain takes an interest, becomes huge and kind, terror flutters up and doesn’t frighten me. “When we find him thus, we don’t want to leave him.