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A Hotel Citizen: On Joseph Roth’s The Hotel Years

By Dustin Illingworth.

hotelyears

Joseph Roth, The Hotel Years, translated by Michael Hofmann (New Directions, 2015)

As a literary mode, the feuilleton—that sui generis first-person form that served as a kind of catch-all for cultural criticism, foreign reportage, and belletristic trifles—has fallen on hard times. Once a staple of 20th-century newspapers, it would seem the topical force of the feuilleton has since been absorbed into the immediacy of forms governed by the hurdy-gurdy of digital dissemination: the inescapable think piece, the confessional blog, Twitter’s claustrophobic echo-chamber. And while these avenues have each democratized opinion in compelling ways, something of the moral breadth and reflexive dynamism of the original seems to me irrevocably lost. It is fair to say, I think, that the literary merit of the feuilleton was indissolubly bound to its elastic capacity, as that malleability allowed for a range of tonal registers and discursive intents from high seriousness to absurdist gesture, from vicious parody to a gorgeous cosmopolitan poetics. In borrowing the strengths of the essay, the travelogue, the news report, and the polemic, the feuilleton became a vehicle for a new kind of hybridized subjectivity within contemporary discourse. If it was sometimes accused of superficiality or dismissed as trite ephemera, the masters of the form—say, Heinrich Heine or Alfred Polgar—challenged such short-sightedness. They knew intuitively that, far from a mere literary bauble, the feuilleton was a potent platform for the celebration, interrogation, and production of an emergent mass culture.

Joseph Roth—journalist, novelist, arch-humanist, exiled Jew, inveterate alcoholic—proved uniquely, dazzlingly suited to the form, becoming perhaps its greatest practitioner in a prolifically productive, if tragically truncated, career. Born in 1894, in the Austro-Hungarian city of Brody, Roth came of age between the two great wars; given this tumultuous milieu, it is perhaps unsurprising that his lasting subjects became the abattoir of Europe’s recent past and, often with uncanny prescience, the life of the nightmare to come. The sixty-four pieces gathered in The Hotel Years therefore comprise both a lasting testament to Roth’s journalistic acumen as well as a compelling snapshot of a vanished Europe in which the specter of Hapsburgian ethnic diversity looms as a kind of comparative ideal in the face of Europe’s burgeoning xenophobic nationalism. But as much as these vignettes sketch the composite features of an age, they also constitute a rich and fascinating portrait of the paradoxical man behind the writing: tragedian and clown, misanthrope and philanthropist, reporter and poet. Typically self-deprecating, Roth described his work as “saying true things on half a page”; after devouring The Hotel Years, it seems to me more accurate to say that in these lushly concentrated pieces the 20th century zeitgeist is mapped, challenged, and, finally, illuminated.

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It was within the eminently transitory experience of hotel life that Roth was best able to function, a kind of limbic headquarters from which he might record the profanity and poetry of Europe’s disintegration. In lobby and restaurant, room and station, the jingoism of the Continent was mitigated by a kind of necessary pluralism, a state of affairs in which Roth found obvious comfort and inspiration: “[The telephonist] 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.” In this melting pot of staff and travelers (“Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and even atheists”), a sort of post-national commune was formed in which people were free to come together as what Roth romantically called the “children of the world.” The hotel emerges here as something of a makeshift home for the nomadic journalist, a stillness, however transient, to savor: “Other men may return to hearth and home, and wife and child; I celebrate my return to lobby and chandelier, porter and chambermaid.”

But if Roth locates a kind of panoramic humanity in his fellow hotel denizens, the coiled menace and tepid parochialism of the outside world lurk at the edges of virtually every one of these pieces like black smoke seen from a distance. The book is broken into eight sections that loosely corral Roth’s gorgeously sprawling material into broad regional and metaphysical categories (Albania and Elsewhere, Pleasures and Pains, and so forth), which, taken together, comprise both a cinematic tour of interwar Europe as well as an augury presaging the darkening curl of a fascist future. In Germany’s speechifying professors and anti-semitic youth, for instance, Roth sees a national sickness, a spreading fever. “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.” The lack of this “regulating consciousness” hovers over much of the text, a form of pan-European insanity manifesting wherever Roth steps off the train, from the pallor and flies of Astrakhan, to Galicia where “things don’t grow” but rather “warp and distort.”

In the midst of these paralyzed (and paralyzing) locales, the richness of Roth’s human insights create a kaleidoscopic tapestry, one that elevates the material beyond what in lesser hands might be mere polemic or coarsened caricature. In terse and seemingly tossed-off lines, people and places spring to life as if pulled up on strings: the fraternity student is “a slogan on two legs”; the Reichsbank building, “a stone slap in the face.” If the life of Roth’s teeming world is abbreviated, it is also thickened, condensed, each detail opening like a paper flower dropped in water: Albania is “a background of filth, cockroaches, dark nights, broken oil lamps, fat spiders, malaria attacks and murky seaweed tea.” This seems to me more than reportage or setting of scene; rather, it bumps up against a kind of novelistic world-building. Though Roth was unquestionably a superb reporter, there has always been something of the journalist manqué about him. This is not a slight against his considerable talents of observation; rather, his language is so rich, his characterization so devastatingly apt, one often finds Roth’s reality hopelessly, wonderfully embellished, a narrative mode that privileges intuitive truth at the expense of an expected objectivity.

That the English reader is able to experience Roth’s self-described “rainbow-coloured soap bubbles” through the translations of the peerless Michael Hofmann ensures that these burnished and breathtaking pieces reach us with the aesthetic immediacy Roth intended. Hofmann, who has previously translated 14 of Roth’s books, enables his subject to inhabit the full range of his authorial personae: elegant aphorist, cynical cosmopolitan, urbane humanist. And though the breadth of Rothian subjects explored here is exceptionally varied—balconies, Weimar instability, inflation, style, train travel, Hitlerism, street crime—the sections I found myself returning to most often were the passages in which Roth abandoned his journalist’s imperative and embraced a kind of impressionistic incantation: “The color of the age is white, laboratory white, as white as the room where they invented lewisite, white as a church, white as a bathroom, white as a dissecting room, white as steel and white as chalk, white as hygiene, white as a butcher’s apron, white as an operating table, white as death”; or depicting the farrago of Hotel Kopriva’s functions: “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.” Roth, the eccentric verbal magician and lover of local peculiarity, comes alive here through Hofmann’s remarkable artistry.

Bemoaning the loss of the Dual Monarchy (if he had an idée fixe, surely this was it), Roth mourns the disappearance of that easily overlooked but essentially unifying symbol: “The hyphen is gone.” But he goes on to qualify that statement: “If one looks more closely, it is still there. Only it is called something else. It has become a line of separation. Instead of conjoining, it dissevers. In a word, it is a frontier. The hyphen is an armed frontier.” Roth spent his life occupying, condemning, and aestheticizing that frontier and the cultural violence it gave rise to. Regardless of where he boarded his train—Paris, Berlin, Vienna—his destination was never in question: the end of Europe, if not the world. He at times reminds one of a poet on the Titanic, capturing the glint of the moon on the gleaming black water, even as he rushes to join it. He died of alcoholism in 1939, just 44 years old. But much like the feuilleton form itself, the shortness of Roth’s life belied its heft and sparkle. Given the keenly oracular nature of his talents, it would have been easy for these pieces to read like postcards from the apocalypse, nihilistic dirges from a damned continent. That we come away, instead, with a deeper understanding of the human fabric caught within the jaws of an historical nightmare makes this book not only profound, but profoundly moral. This is perhaps the lasting wonder of “The Hotel Years”: that in the anonymity of the hotel lobby, Roth found a way to consecrate a vanishing universal. It feels sacred; something like an offering. “I am a hotel citizen, a hotel patriot,” he said in 1929. After finishing the book, one feels compelled to add: a hotel saint.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

dustinillingworth

Dustin Illingworth is a contributing editor at 3:AM Magazine. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Times Literary Supplement, LA Review of Books, The Millions, Electric Literature, Georgia Review, and various other venues. He is a staff writer at Literary Hub, and a managing editor at The Scofield. He tweets about books at @BelaborThePoint.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 7th, 2015.