Six weeks ago I had never heard of Joseph Roth (1894 to 1939) and now I cannot see going forward with The Reading Life without him in a place of great honor. So far I have read The Zandusky March, The Emperor's Tomb, Hotel Savoy, Leviathan, and his short story " The Legend of the Holy Drinker". (There is background information on Roth in my prior posts.) Roth loved newspapers and wrote 100s, maybe 1000s of observational essays for papers in Vienna, Berlin, and in his final years, Paris.
What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920 to 1933 is a translation of an earlier German collection of his essays. (It is hard maybe impossible to know how many pieces he wrote as the Nazis burned as many Jewish and Liberal newspaper archives as they could, along with a lot of the paper's readers and staff.). Michael Hoffman in his very interesting introduction says there are those who know Roth's work well who look upon his feuilletons as his best work.
Roth was an observer, a walker and a rider in the urban trains of Berlin (he could not afford a car). He had contempt for much of German ideology, seeing Nazism not as an aberration as German apologists like to but as a natural development of Prussian culture. Prussia dominated Europe since around 1900. Chancellor Hindenburg boasted he had never read book. Roth says what can one expect of a country that would elect a leader who celebrates ignorance (this made me think of the portion of Americans who would happily see Sarah Palin as president). The quotation below expresses this truth very well.
Roth went all over Berlin. Everywhere he saw the misery, pain, and loneliness of Berlin. He saw the attempts of people to hide in consumerism, cafes, drinking, and sex. Roth clearly liked or maybe loved hanging out in bars and cafes beyond the realm of polite society. I can see him in Rick's Cafe in Casablanca with Stefan Zweig (Zweig, his patron for the last ten years of Roth's life) by his side. Zweig is buying. Roth could in one minute talk to men of great culture and learning about the poetry of Rilke and then converse with a prostitute about her last client's preferences. No much got pass Joseph Roth. Roth was very deeply read in German literature. In one brilliant essay he explains that the vast majority of the artistic and intellectual accomplishments of Germany in the 20th century were by Jews. The thoughts in some of these essays go very deep. Of course Roth senses something very bad coming for the Jews of Germany as Hitler rises to power (Roth left Germany in 1933).
There are thirty two essays in this volume as well as some very interesting period photographs.
There is also a collection of essays he wrote for French newspapers (he lived in Paris from 1933 to the end of his life in 1939) and I will read that as soon as a Kindle edition is produced.
I totally endorse the reading of these essays and I will be rereading and referring to them in future years. I hope to read all of Roth's work. It looks like all his fiction has been translated, I will start with the titles in e book format.
Please share your experience with Roth with us.
Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth