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Joseph Roth: The Hotel Years

Joseph Roth, Frederic Raphael tells us in a Times Literary Supplement (January 13th) review of The Hotel Years: Wanderings in Europe between the wars, a new collection of the Austrian exile’s journalism published by Granta, was the first novelist to mention Adolf Hitler’s name in print, in 1923. “The view from the street, if not yet the gutter, allowed him to see it all coming,” Raphael remarks.

Roth is best known for his 1932 novel The Radetsky March (1932), an elegy for the vanished, stable world that disappeared forever with the death of the old emperor Franz Joseph, who had been emperor of Austria-Hungary for sixty-eight years. A few years after his death, as a result of what Raphael calls the “vindictive dissection” presided over at Versailles, the territory split into many pieces, some becoming Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and others part of Italy, Poland and Yugoslavia.



Roth’s attitude to his patria is not a simple one. Certainly he missed it after it was gone but as an obscure Galician Jew he would have been far from welcome in its ruling circles, as he certainly knew (though the emperor was known as a friend of the Jews). Another Austro-Hungarian writer, Gregor von Rezzori, from Czernowitz in Bukovina, wrote of his home town (today Chernivtsi in Ukraine) as a place where “a dozen of the most disparate nationalities and at least half a dozen bitterly feuding faiths all liv[ed] in the cynical harmony that is built on mutual aversion and common business dealings”. Nevertheless, from the perspective of what followed, in Germany and soon in “rump Austria”, the Austro-Hungarian past was a golden time, which did not stop Roth, or others, being as amused by as they were nostalgic for its stolid virtues of order and duty. In this passage from The Radetsky March, Dr Max Demant remembers his late father, a faithful servant of the emperor:

His uniform, the uniform of a “long-serving accountancy sergeant”, with gold corners on the cuffs, black trousers and infantry shako, hangs in the cupboard like a human being cut into three pieces but still alive, its gleaming buttons polished every week. And the black, curved sabre with the ribbed handle, also cleaned every week, hangs horizontally above the never-used desk, fixed on two nails, with its casually dangling golden tassel that resembles the closed bud of a sunflower ... On the Emperor’s birthday, the post office worker Demant puts on his official uniform, with cocked hat and sword. On that day of all days he doesn’t play tarock [a card game]. Every year, on the Emperor’s birthday, he makes a resolution to begin a new life and not get into debt. And so he gets drunk. And comes home late at night, stands in the kitchen with drawn sword, and commands an entire regiment. The pots are platoons, the teacups are units, the plates are companies. Simon Demant is a colonel, a colonel in the service of Franz Joseph I. Then the boy’s mother, in lace bonnet, pleated nightdress and loose bedjacket, has to climb out of bed, come downstairs, and calm her husband.
One day, the day after the Emperor’s birthday, his father suffered a stroke in bed and died. It was a merciful end and a spectacular funeral. All the postmen for miles around followed the coffin. And the dead man was kept alive in the loyal memory of his widow, the model of a husband, fallen in the service of the Emperor and the K-and-K [Kaiserlich und Königlich – imperial and royal] postal service. The two uniforms, that of the non-commissioned officer and that of the postal worker Demant, hung side by side in the closet, and were beautifully kept up by the widow with camphor, clothes brush and brass polish. They looked like mummies, and each time the closet was opened, the son thought he saw his father’s body hanging there in duplicate.

The collection’s title, The Hotel Years, refers to Roth’s years of wandering and living, as it were, from hand to mouth, after 1933, when he left Germany for the last time.”Hand to mouth” may need some qualification: Roth stayed, when he could manage it, in expensive hotels; and he had been, until the advent of the Nazis, a cherished and highly paid columnist (a writer of feuilletons) for the Frankfurter Zeitung. But he was an alcoholic and, like fellow exile James Joyce, spent money like water. He was lucky to have the very successful and wealthy Stefan Zweig as a benefactor, though he didn’t always show a lot of  gratitude.

Roth saw the Nazi cataclysm coming at an early stage. He wrote of seeing two drunken schoolboys in the comfortable west end of Berlin, staggering and loudly singing anti-Semitic and anti-democratic songs.

And passers-by got out of their way. No one stopped to slap their faces. Not out of political indignation. But because in any other country the irritation of a kid bothering the street with his half-baked politics would have provoked someone to a pedagogic measure. In Germany the convictions of high-school boys are respected. That’s how law-abiding people are in Berlin.

The Hotel Years joins two previously published collections of Roth’s brilliant journalism, What I Saw (on Germany) and The White Cities (on France). He was lucky enough to die in Paris from the effects of his alcoholism in 1939, a year before the Nazis arrived.

17/1/2015