Conspiratorial Hapsburger

Michael Hofmann

  • Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth, translated by John Hoare
    Chatto, 183 pp, £9.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 7011 2879 8

When Joseph Roth was asked once to write about his earliest memory, he described how as a baby he had seen his mother strip his cradle and hand it over to a strange woman, who ‘holds it to her chest, as though it were some trifling object of negligible dimensions, speaks for a long time, smiles, showing her long yellow teeth, goes to the door and leaves the house. I feel sad, unspeakably sad and helpless. I “know” that I have lost something irrecoverable.’ This is an outrageous story: but one may admire it for that, for its mischievous invention, and for its limited awareness of such gestures and proportions as a baby might truly have observed. It brings to mind what Roth said about his revered Heine: ‘Maybe he did make up the odd fact, but then he saw things the way they ought to be. His eye was more than visual apparatus and optic nerve.’ Roth, too, was endowed with an eye like that: it specialised in seeing things that had vanished off the face of the earth.

The loss of his cradle wasn’t the first in a life of losses – Roth’s father disappeared before he was born – but it was the earliest he could register. The robbed child would later see his birthplace batted about between Austria, Poland, the Ukraine and the USSR. The Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, ‘the only fatherland I ever knew’, would be torn to pieces. Except for a few months in a flat in Berlin – ‘and who,’ he asked, ‘in all the world comes to Berlin voluntarily?’ – the adult Roth would never have a place of his own. Instead, he lived in, and transferred all other loyalties to, hotels, calling himself a ‘Hotelpatriot’, and comparing the welcoming expression of a porter to a father’s embrace. (His cradle of the Thirties, the Hotel Foyot in Paris, was demolished in 1937.) The cradle-robber also took his youth, for Roth looked and felt old practically all his life: ‘like a thousand-year-old man returning from Beyond,’ he once said. Last but not least, the cradle episode prefigures his relationships with women: in his life and in his books, their behaviour is unpredictable and hurtful, and when it isn’t, his apprehension, pessimism and guilt soon make it so. The cradle is an emblem of the losses and hungers, personal and historical, magical and institutional, at the heart of Roth’s writing.

Joseph Roth was born Moses Joseph Roth, in 1894, in the small town of Brody, north-east of Lvov, in what was then Austria-Hungary, and is now the Ukrainian Socialist Republic of the USSR. He grew up with his mother, supported by his uncles, and in 1913 went to Vienna to study German. Initially a pacifist, he joined up in 1916 and served on the Eastern Front, mainly, it seems, in a literary capacity, writing for army newspapers and censoring mail. Although most of his subsequent writing would have it otherwise, he was neither an officer nor a prisoner-of-war. He did, however, have a complicated time getting back through the various small wars that erupted after the Great War, and he wasn’t back in Vienna until December 1918. He found work on Viennese newspapers of a socialist hue, and began to specialise in feuilletons – personal, impressionistic, belletristic articles.

In 1920 he moved to Berlin, a refugee from inflation, and wrote for papers there and in Prague and Frankfurt. His association with the Frankfurter Zeitung, the antecedent of the present-day Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, began in 1923, the year his first novel Das Spinnennetz (The Spider’s Web) was serialised in a Viennese newspaper. In 1924, the Frankfurter ran his second, Hotel Savoy. It was published in book form by the Schmiede-Verlag, publishers of Kafka and Proust, and he counted it his first novel. He took to the life of a wandering reporter, visiting France and Russia, Poland, Albania and Germany for his papers, and writing them up in long series of articles. He drank, and cultivated a casual grand manner. To an accompanying hack he claimed to be writing for ‘posterity’, and when an angry wire from Frankfurt came along, had to endure his friend’s sarcastic inquiry: ‘Was that posterity?’ His observations were often acute: at a Social Democrats’ Congress, all the delegates looked German, ‘even the Lithuanians’ – Social Democracy being endemic in Germany. He lamented the fact – true to this day – that because there are no politicians in Germany, the politicians are all civil servants. The Austrians fared even worse: ‘As ghastly as a Prussian is in a moment of “merriment”, that’s how ghastly an Austrian is all his life. Degenerate boches.’ As for himself, he was ‘a Frenchman from the East’. This cultural and political edge was blunted somewhat in the Thirties, when Roth became a rather more quixotic figure, a Royalist and a Catholic, a conspiratorial Hapsburger, and the compiler of a book called Der Antichrist, a personal ‘Index’ on modern life.

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The following novels by Joseph Roth are also available in translation:

Job: The Story of a Simple Man, Chatto, 248 pp., £7.95, 1983, 0 7011 3907 2
The Emperor’s Tomb, Chatto, 168 pp., £7.95, 1984, 0 7011 2826 7
Confession of a Murderer, Chatto, 224 pp., £8.95, January 1985, 0 7011 2881
The Radetzky March, Penguin, 336 pp., £2.95, 29 March 1984, 0 240 06463
Flight without End, Dent, 230 pp., £2.95, 0 460 01359 9
Weights and Measures, Dent, 150 pp., £2.50, 0 460 013319
The Slient Prophet, Peter Owen, 220 pp., £9.95, 1976, 0 7206 0536 9