Creating a World: On Joseph Roth’s ‘The Hotel Years’


Joseph Roth was a master of the feuilleton, a peculiar form of journalism that many contemporary readers may not be familiar with. Short, subjective, and eclectic, the feuilleton was especially popular in European newspapers in the early 20th century. Roth described it as “saying true things on half a page,” and despite its seemingly casual nature, he did not consider it inferior to other forms of journalism. “The feuilleton is as important as politics are to the newspaper,” he wrote, “and to the reader it’s vastly more important.” In his confident, controversial way, he added, “What people pick up the newspaper for is me. Not the parliamentary report. Not the lead article. Not the foreign news….I don’t write ‘witty columns.’ I paint the portrait of the age.”

The Hotel Years brings together 64 of Roth’s feuilletons, nearly half of which were published in the Frankfurter Zeitung. Each of these little essays is a pleasure to read, and regarded collectively they present an invaluable portrait of life in Europe between the two World Wars. Though tone and temperament vary throughout the book, the quality of writing does not. Roth is perpetually engaging, whether he is decrying the Third Reich, criticizing clichéd notions of Russia, enumerating the unpleasant realities of travel, or simply commenting on the quirks of a hotel cook.

In a letter to the Frankfurter Zeitung in 1926, Roth remarked on his “habitually satirical mode” and described himself as “wholly incapable of allowing any enthusiasm in me more space than my skepticism.” These qualities are apparent in many of the feuilletons gathered here; they are works of satire, driven by Roth’s bristling sense of irony and his unsparing eye for detail. He was a keen observer of everyday life, and he had an ingenious knack for capturing a person or place with a few brief sentences. His essays reveal an obsession with physical descriptions and a fascination with the habits and appearances of the people he encountered, as demonstrated in “The Dapper Traveler:”
The traveler is clad in a discreet gray, set off by an exquisite iridescent purple tie. With complacent attention he examines his feet, his leather shoes, and the fine knots in the broad laces. He stretches out his legs in the compartment, both arms are casually on the arm rests to either side. Before long the gray traveler pulls out his mirror again, and brushes his dense, black parted hair with his fingers, in the way one might apply a feather duster to a kickshaw. Then he burrows in his case, and various useful items come to light: a leather key-holder, a pair of nail scissors, a packet of cigarettes, a little silk handkerchief and a bottle of eau de cologne.
So much attention and enthusiasm are given to these kinds of details that it often seems as though Roth is creating a world rather than describing the one that already exists. Taken out of context, in fact, many of the pieces in The Hotel Years could pass as fiction. They are strikingly similar to the work of Robert Walser, the eccentric Swiss author whose books have become rather fashionable in the past few years. (Berlin Stories, a collection of Walser’s short prose pieces, includes feuilletons that were published in the Frankfurter Zeitung.) Some resemble sketches for novels, travel notes, diary entries. It is remarkable that they were published in newspapers — not because they are uninteresting or poorly written, but because they are so different from the kind of work one expects from a journalist. In an essay on the German city of Magdeburg, Roth explains his writing in the following way:
What can I do, apart from writing about individuals I meet by chance, setting down what greets my eyes and ears, and selecting from them as I see fit? The describing of singularities within this profusion may be the least deceptive; the chance thing, plucked from a tangle of others, may most easily make for order. I have seen this and that; I have tried to write about what stuck in my senses and my memory.
There is, of course, a transitory nature to this kind of writing. It is short and often very specific, tightly bound to the time and place in which it was written. Roth traveled across Europe, lived in hotels, and wrote essays that were inspired by what he refers to as “the great blessing of being a stranger.” He is whimsical and frivolous at times, prone to exaggeration, and indulgent of superficial details that fail to leave the reader with any lasting impressions. But many of his essays endure, as mere ephemera do not. “Where the World War Began,” for example, is a particularly haunting piece that looms in the mind long after reading it:

We drive through the streets, along the river bank — there, that corner there is where the World War began. Nothing has changed. I am looking for bloodstains. They have been removed. Thirteen years, innumerable rains, millions of people have washed away the blood. The young people are coming home from school; did they learn about the World War, I wonder?

As the preceding passage shows, there is a melancholy eloquence to The Hotel Years. Joseph Brodsky believed that there was a poem on every page Roth wrote. Although this may be an exaggeration, it does not seem unfounded — even when reading Roth in translation. For this, much praise is owed to the prodigiously talented poet, critic, and translator Michael Hofmann. Without him, the reader of English would hardly know Roth at all. The Hotel Years is the 14th of Roth’s books that he has translated. (Among the others are The Radetzky March, commonly considered Roth’s masterpiece, and Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, a significant work of scholarship that serves as an essential companion to all of Roth’s other writing.) Hofmann’s commentary is insightful and especially helpful in establishing a context for Roth’s life and work. In the introduction to What I Saw — a collection of feuilletons written in Berlin during the years of the Weimar Republic, and the first book of Roth’s journalism to be published in English — Hofmann describes Roth as “a maximalist of the short form.” In these reports from Berlin, as in the pieces collected in The Hotel Years, “What is small is inevitably made to seem vast, and vast things are shrunk into a witty perspective.”

For Roth, writing was not merely a way to make a living, it was a way of life. When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, he left the country and never returned. “Very few observers anywhere in the world seem to have understood what the Third Reich’s burning of books, the expulsion of Jewish writers, and all its other crazy assaults on the intellect actually mean,” he wrote at the time. “Let me say it loud and clear: The European mind is capitulating. It is capitulating out of weakness, out of sloth, out of apathy, out of lack of imagination…” Six years later, at the age of 44, Roth died in Paris from the effects of alcoholism. It is frustrating to think of what he might have written had he lived longer, but not because the body of work that he left behind is lacking. As the present publication of The Hotel Years proves, much of Roth’s writing has been neglected. Although he has come to be remembered mostly for his novels, his journalism is equally as impressive.