What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933

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A Year in Reading: Catherine Lacey

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This is the first year I kept an almost accurate list of what I read and, as I look over it now, I am surprised at the number of books I read and hated. Is it sacrosanct to so gleefully abandon a bad book in an airport or on a public bench? I will not mention them here because I am incapable of speaking briefly on the subject of bad books. Instead, here are a few of the memorably good ones.

Winter in Chicago—I read Sempre Susan by Sigrid Nunez hunched over my kitchen table one night, wholly absorbed. An account of the year or so Nunez lived with Sontag while dating David Reiff, Sontag’s son, Sempre Susan is an ideal memoir. I tried to recommend it to my friend Kathleen but it turns out she had been the one to recommend it to me!

In a friend’s apartment full of books in languages I could not read I found an old friend: Today I Wrote Nothing by Danil Kharms. Still just as wonderful.

A hawk book double feature—I bought the beautiful British edition of H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald at Shakespeare & Co in Paris and read it on a train. It was so piercing and perfect. Like Sempre Susan, it is a memoir focused on a single subject—in this case the husbandry of a hawk—as a way to write about broader, more slippery subjects like grief and family and solitude. H Is for Hawk led me to another hawk book—The Peregrine by J.A. Baker, a book my partner Jesse and others had been suggesting for years. Little happens—a man observes peregrines in the wild over time—and yet everything happens. It is one of those books that reminds you so emphatically that you belong to a planet of which humanity is a very small part.

Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams. Again a reread. Williams is a national treasure. These stories are especially good when read aloud— like prayers, but better.

My friend Brenda gave me a copy of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights several months before the Nobel. What a thrilling and impossible book. It was like watching a figure skater do endless triple axels.

After a chance meeting with the writer Elnathan John, I read his first novel, Born on a Tuesday. It is gripping, terrifying, and clear. A force to be reckoned with. Not unlike Elnathan himself.

I came across a copy of Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton and enjoyed it very much. Shapton has this consistent aesthetic language across both the visual and the written; I find it very soothing.

A writer I met this year, Ayşegül Savaş, told me about Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Leger; I read it and immediately bought a copy for my friend Brenda to repay the Tokarczuk recommendation. Ayşegül & Brenda are two of my most trusted book suggesters. I put their titles at the top of the list and though they’ve never met there is, increasingly, a conveyance of books between them.

Another Brenda recommendation—Embers by Sandor Marai—was also passed along to Ayşegül. I then went on to read Portraits of a Marriage, also by Marai, which was just as captivating.

I read two unpublished books by Jesse Ball you might be lucky enough to come across in future years.

While in Berlin I read Joseph Roth’s What I Saw (another book from Brenda) which was about Berlin in the 1920s. Also I read After the Wall by Marc Fisher, an account of the years immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall. They’re both wonderfully chatty but informative accounts of daily life in Berlin during the early and late 20th century.

An insane thing happened—I read an old interview with Vito Acconci in which he mentions Curzio Malaparte, a name I’d never heard before and that afternoon, while I was on a walk in the sculpture fields at the Omi International Arts Center, I came across a copy of a book called Malaparte by Michael McDonough that was contained within a small cube-shaped structure. The book covered the life of Curzio Malaparte and this strange home he built in Capri. I sat down and read it in full.

The Melancholy of Resistance by Lazlo Krasnahorkai was an apt companion in recent months, these doldrums of #resistance. I had tried and failed to read this book in the two years since Jesse gave me a copy, and finally the time was right. You have to be ready to lie down and be walked over, I have found—it was pleasing and discomfiting at once.

Another Ayşegül recommendation—Happening by Annie Ernaux. In fact, she recommended The Years by Ernaux, but Happening is the one that I found that day at Myopic Books in Chicago—my beloved used bookstore. Happening is about the near impossibility of getting an abortion in 1960’s France. I will soon read everything by Annie Ernaux I can find.

I read and continue to read relatively few works by Americans—which I recommend highly. Our books are often disseminated far beyond our borders and often for no good reason. I think there is a special heaven for translators in this country. I recommend you hug the next translator you meet. I also recommend abandoning books you dislike, even pushing them into recycling bins if you must. Such carnage this year. Hopefully 2020 will be kinder.

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

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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.

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