Friday, December 14, 2012

Joseph Roth and the unnamed dead

Not crime writing, you say? Here's more from Joseph Roth's What I Saw: Reports From Berlin 1920-1933. These selections are from "The Unnamed Dead," about the photographs of the anonymous dead displayed at police headquarters:
"This is the hidden side of the city, its anonymous misery. These are her obscure children, whose lives are put together from shiftlessness, pub, and obscurity, and whose end is violent and bloody, a murderous finale."
OK, that's a bit melodramtic, the sort of thing a TV reporter or newspaper columnist might come up with during charity appeal week. But Roth probes further:
"It shouldn’t be in the corridor of the police station at all, but somewhere where it is very visible, in some public space, at the heart of the city whose true reflection it offers. The windows with the portraits of the living, the happy, the festive, give a false sense of life—which is not one round of weddings, of beautiful women with exposed shoulders, of confirmations. Sudden deaths, murders, heart attacks, drownings are celebrated in this world.

"It is these instructive photographs that should be shown in the Pathé Newsreels, and not the continual parades, the patriotic Corpus Christi processions, the health spas with their drinking fountains, their parasols, their bitter curative waters, their terraces from Wagner myths. Life isn’t as serenely beautiful as the Pathé News would have you believe."
Or how about:
"These dead people are ugly and reproachful. They line up like prickings of conscience."
Do you know any newspaper columnist literate, honest, and insightful enough to write a sentence like that? Any editor courageous enough to print it? Any newspaper that would publish such a sentence without an earnestly self-debasing and self-congratulatory "Note to readers" about how we are aware the words might disturb some readers, but they are of such imporance that we are publishing them in the interest of serving the public?

And is humor permissible when discussing the dead? Probably not in your local newspaper, and if it is, the reporter will tell you that he or she is being grimly humorous, in case you don't get it. No, for that sort of thing, you have to turn to real life, to crime fiction, or to Joseph Roth:
"Futile to wait for cranes, like the legendary cranes that once revealed the identity of the murderer of Ibycus. No cranes swarm over the waste ground off Spandauer Strasse—they would long ago have been roasted and eaten."
*
I first encountered Berlin's unnamed dead in Rebecca Cantrell's novel A Trace of Smoke. After I read Roth's piece, I asked Cantrell if she had used it as a source. "Roth was absolutely a source for that," she replied. "As soon as I read it, I knew I had to use it in the book.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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18 Comments:

Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

I told you it would make a great resource! :-)

December 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Aha!

December 14, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Prompted by your comments on and excerpts from Roth, I "look forward" (although that phrase is not quite correct) to the print media's reports on the Newtown CT incident. What newspaper reporter will be bold enough to write the story in the tradition of Roth? What newspaper will be bold enough to publish the most appropriate stories? What editors will resist turning the horrible incident into a political, social soapbox? The only big newspaper I still read is the WSJ, and I used to read the CS Monitor, but I wonder--which newspaper is most likely to provide the best coverage of this story?

December 15, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Postscript: Note, for example, the NYT's early handling of the recent slaughter in CT:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/15/us/politics/obamas-reaction-to-connecticut-shooting-sets-stage-for-gun-debate.html?_r=0

Why is the crass political angle on such a human story so irresistible to some reporters/editors?

December 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I don't know if anyone could write about the catastrophe in the Roth tradition. He wrote sketches, observations, feuilletons, not news atories. What he wrote did not demand the immediacy that this or any breaking news story did.

As to who will provide the best coverage, I suspect that as time passes, most newspapers will provide reasonably good coverage.

December 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

As for the Wall Street Journal, a headline in its online edition uses the word "kids," evidence that it's not averse to a bit of heartstring-tugging.

December 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What's odd and vaguely off-putting about that New York Times is that it's speculation: Obama's reaction could set the stage for a guns debate.

Of course, the WSJ has a similar story, though its headline gets more directly to the heart of the matter: "Obama Brings Gun Debate to Fore."

December 15, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Consider this:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/15/world/asia/man-stabs-22-children-in-china.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&_r=0

I will not be surprised when some pundit or politico does and compare and contrast piece (i.e., between CT and China) that makes its predictable points.

Is there a "Joseph Roth" essayist or reporter out there now who seeks to chronicle effectively and with style the changes in our society?

December 15, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

CORRECTION: "does a compare and contrast" rather than "does and compare and contrast"

Postscript:
Perhaps China has entirely too many knives. Perhaps China ought to pass stricter knife-control laws.

2nd postscript:
If you like nonfiction (journalism) in the style of crime fiction, you might like Gabriel Garcia Marquez's _News of a Kidnapping_. Drugs, kidnappings, and criminals abound in a superb account. The author was an accomplished news reporter before he became a Nobel laureate as a writer of fiction. He has, alas, probably written his last words. When I last checked, he was very near death's door in Columbia.

December 15, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Here it is:

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/12/15/not-just-sandy-hook-china-s-terrifying-knife-attacks.html

So, that did not take long at all. Someone has done the obligatory compare and contrast piece. There will surely be more. But what is the point? Is it only me when I think that news reporting has become banal and lazy. Where on earth are the fresh angles and the accurate, objective reporters? When did news reporting become opinion writing?

December 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That New York Times piece certainly seems to have the China matter sussed out:

"Most of the attackers have been mentally disturbed men involved in personal disputes or unable to adjust to the rapid pace of social change in China, underscoring grave weaknesses in the antiquated Chinese medical system’s ability to diagnose and treat psychiatric illness. "

December 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What exactly does "underscoring" mean in this context? It's clear what is being underscored, but for whom is it being underscored?

A similar phrase, found often in newspaper stories, is "raises questions."

December 15, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Substitute "U.S." for "China," and you are well on your way with a thesis for a different and perhaps relevant story for Americans' consumption, one that does not get side-tracked into gun-control squabbles.

December 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, but mental-health squabbles are not necessarily any more edifying than gun-control squabbles.

Nor an I sure that American leaders are ready for such a discussion, much less to admit that the rapid pace of change necessitates such a discusison, especially since change, in this case, is not necessarily for the better. Admitting that things are bad has not been a traditional path to success for American politicians.

If this country had a Joseph Roth, I suspect he'd be commented on the reaction to the Connecticut shootings rather than to the shootings themselves.

December 15, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Ah, the idea of change is a problem. But I'm reminded of the frog-in-water analogue. Sudden change is always resisted. Slow change is hardly ever recognized--until it is too late. Joseph Roth, I suspect (based on your comments and excerpts) understood that the Germans were in slowly heating water and did not have the sense to jump out of the pot. How else could you account for such a national meltdown in ethics and common sense. Note: I'm now speaking of pre-WW2 Germany--ala Roth's observations--versus 2012 USA. I have not read widely enough to know of a Roth-like commentator in our current national nightmare (and our slowly heating saucepan), but perhaps one will emerge.

December 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know, but I think Americans may be all for change that does not affect them.

December 15, 2012  
Blogger Richard L. Pangburn said...

Thanks for the quotes and the good discussion here.

The media frames the national narrative. In the U.S. right now, the senator from Ketucky with Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, et al, are yelling in unison the argument to cut spending, and they don't mean the military-industrial complex spending. They want medicare and social security dismantled.

They tell about it long enough and people will think it is true, something like osmosis.

Back in 1956, only 4% of Americans approved of mixed black/white marriages. Today that approval stands at 86 per cent, thanks to liberal media and the striking down of previous slogans and stereotypes.

Back during a Lincoln/Douglas debate, Douglas charged that freeing the slave would lead to your sons marrying black women.

Lincoln replied that, no, just because you will not own a black woman does not mean that you have to marry her. You could just leave her alone, he said.

January 07, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Richard, nice to see you note that Fox News and Rush Limbaugh are part of "the media." I suspect that many conservative pundits prefer to imagine that "the media" are all liberal and thus a convenient target.

I noted, too, that the top Republican Party officials turned introspective last week as a result of their loss in the 2012 presidential election. A number of GOP big shots were quoted in the article I read, but did any of them say: "We may be out of touch with mainstream America" or "We may have a bad platform"? Of course not. But at least two did talk about improving "our brand." No talk of serving the American people better, just of improving our brand.

January 07, 2013  

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