Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What Joseph Roth saw

They're not crime, but Joseph Roth's newspaper reports from Berlin, collected under the title What I Saw: Reports From Berlin 1920-1933, are essential for readers and authors of the city-is-a-character school of crime writing. They are also very much more than that. A few examples, the first from the introduction by translator Michael Hofmann:
“`Berlin is freezing,' he said, `even when it’s sixty degrees.'”
*
“Nor can I imagine nights in dives without...the police spy, in mufti but uniformed, incognito and unmistakable...”
*
“Reese’s is an establishment you visit. The others are bars you drop in. When you go to Reese’s, you first take a deep breath. And generally you go after 8 p.m. And the band is called `orchestra.'”
*
“(I)n the world of dives, even housebreakers’ tools have their nicknames. A picklock is a little alderman, a crowbar is a jimmy, and a drilling tool—which admittedly has become almost obsolete as a tool of civilization—is a ripper. A man who works with rippers cannot gain my respect. He’s a dinosaur. A self-respecting man earns his living with explosives, oxygen and dynamite. A ripper—get away!”
*
“Anyone called upon to supervise misery will view criminality differently. All state officials should be required to spend a month serving in a homeless shelter to learn love.”
*
“Grotesque-looking figures, as though hauled from the lower depths of world literature. People you wouldn’t believe. Old graybeards in rags, tramps hauling a motley collection of the past bundled up on their crooked backs. Their boots are powdered with the dust of decades...Some of these people have walked all their lives.”
*
“I don’t know if people in hell look as ridiculous as they do here.” (From an essay on Berlin's bathhouses.)
*
“The great historical error of the younger generation in Germany was that it subjected itself to the Prussian drill sergeant, instead of joining forces with the German intellect.” (Roth wrote that in 1933.)
*
“I challenge the Third Reich to come up with a single example of a gifted `pure Aryan' poet, actor, or musician who was kept down by the Jews and emancipated by Herr Goebbels! It’s only the feeblest dilettantes who flourish in the swastika’s shadow, in the bloody glow cast by the ash heaps in which we are consumed.”
Now, before you say that the above reminds you of Cabaret and Berlin Stories, know that Hofmann refers to the Weimar Republic as “popularized by the somewhat superficial and touristic versions of Christopher Isherwood.”

A review of What I Saw says “Roth writes as if Walter Benjamin had teamed up with Monsieur Hulot,” and that seems about right. I don't know if writing like Roth's is even conceivable today. Certainly the United States can't have experienced upheavals like that of post-World War I Berlin, at least not since its own Civil War. And it's hard to imagine newspaper editors with the courage and reporters with the imagination to portray the grotesqueries that Roth did. And humor when portraying such grotesqueries would be verboten under the journalistic decorum that prevails today.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

Labels: , , ,

30 Comments:

Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

Oh, this sounds great, and what a fantastic resource! I loved the bit about rippers ("Get away!").

December 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

These pieces are like nothing I've ever read. Not many writers could have had an eye for the humorous, the grotesque, and the horrible the way Roth did.

December 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Resource, you say? Are you researching Berlin or planning a visit there?

December 12, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Thanks for sharing the Roth excerpts. As for the notion that this country has not experienced the kinds of upheavals so notorious in Europe, I would offer this caveat: Not yet! I despair about the future--yes, despair--and I very much fear something(s) like Roth experienced so long ago and so far away. How is that for being a nattering nabob of negativity (a label which I owe to good old Spiro Agnew's comments way back when).

In any case, I must include Roth on my "must read" list, an eclectic assortment of writers that grows far beyond my capacity to read in my constantly diminishing remaining years. Yeah, I know, that is more negativity.

I think I need to return to my reading of Dickens. That will rehabilitate my mood.

December 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., a Berlin-like dystopis could well be coming, but I'm an optimist. I believe that it may not come for another few years, yet. Of course, if I lived in Camden, New Jersey, I might deel otherwise.

I am awash in good reading. I read the preface and the first chapter of Bleak House last night.

December 12, 2012  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

No trip planned (other than NoirCon in 2014!). Just sounds like it would be a perfect resource for someone writing fiction with that setting.

December 12, 2012  
Blogger Dave Whish-Wilson said...

"These pieces are like nothing I've ever read. Not many writers could have had an eye for the humorous, the grotesque, and the horrible the way Roth did."

Perfect description of Roth's MO. While he was in good company in the period, with artists like Grosz and Masereel (he is more like Masereel, although he can be bitterly satirical like Grosz when he wants to), Roth's novels mine the same ability to perceive the absurd in the human condition, and the beauty there too. I love all of his novels (praise Granta for reissuing them), but the quietly tragic poetry of the Legend of the Holy Drinker, mirroring Roth's own drinking himself to death in Paris, is a fine example of his humanising, without condescending, a character 'down low.'

Thanks for posting this...

December 12, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

I defer to the Roth readers among you. Which Roth is a good starting point for someone knew to Roth (e.g., yours truly). Peter, you have hooked me with the excerpts--I am a sucker for well-crafted sentences, even in translation--but I gather that I have choices here: either Roth's fiction or his nonfiction. I await the pointers.

December 12, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Postscript and Correction:
Make that "new" rather than "knew." E'gads! If I knew how to type on this here new computer, I might almost sound like someone intelligent enough to read Roth.

December 12, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Fascinating. Sounds like a Christmas gift for Pop, whose Masters in 20th c. history culminated in a thesis on Nazi Germany. (I don't recall what the focus was.) Researching a Masters on this subject at a Jesuit university (Loyola Marymount) apparently generated a lot of interesting discussions!

Also sounds like it would make a complementary book to the recent Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power, by Andrew Nagorski. So, first-hand accounts by an insider and outsiders. I've only read Roth's The Radetzky March and it is superb.

December 12, 2012  
Blogger Dave Whish-Wilson said...

The Radezky March is his most famous novel, and it is superb, the most 'novelistic' of his works. In his smaller pieces he most often charts the travails of a smaller set of characters. He's often described as a novelist who charted, with some nostalgia, the gradual breaking down of the Austro-Hungarian empire, looking at many places in the eastern regions where he grew up, the villages, shtetls etc. They are all quiet, thoughtful meditations on the human condition, and you might start anywhere, as there's a pretty consistent tone across all of his novels...

December 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., once we are correcting our own mistakes, I admit that, while "dystopsis" sounds like it might mean something, probably something that should be entrusted to the care of a specialist, I meant to type "dystopia."

December 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dave, I wanted to buy but could not find The Wandering Jews because of its description as a narration of waves of migration set in motion by World War I. That idea of dominoes tumbling from east to west, eventually crushing people when they fell, is irresistible. It makes history come alive, you might say.

I also read numerous references to his nostalgia for the Austro-Hungarian empire, and since I much prefer breakdown to its current anodyne substitute change, that aspect of Roth appeals to me as well. Many thanks for getting me reading Roth.

December 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, Kelly, so you’re writing fiction set in Berlin? Good luck. Sure, I’m still in the initial flush of my Roth enthusiasm, but I have to think that those pieces could be lessons in setting for an author, no matter what setting he or she is writing about.

I visited Berlin many decades after Roth was there, and only pieces of the wall remained. But, even though the city has been much altered and much cleaned up since the 1920s, Roth’s descriptions seemed familiar. I loved the museums in Berlin, but even there, much was huge and outsize. I’ve said that Berlin is not the city I’d recommend to someone who wants to travel to calm his nerves.

Speaking of fiction set in Berlin, Rebecca Cantrell, who writes a series set there in the 1930s, speaks very highly of What I Saw. And I’ll see you at Noircon in 2014. Suggestions are already pouring in for its programming. Well, I’ve made one, anyhow.

December 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

a fine example of his humanising, without condescending, a character 'down low.'

Dave: Right. That’s what has so impressed me about these pieces. Few authors, much less newspaper reporters, would find themselves in such a setting of colorful misery as Berlin in the 1920s, and if they did, they and their editors would lack the guts, the literary chops, or both, to portray grotesque without lapsing into condescension or do-gooding. Or maybe that last is more an American tendency than anything else.

December 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I’m new to Roth as well. What I Saw is the first of his work that I’ve read. I looked into him because Dave Whish-Wilson, who has commented in this thread, cited him as an influence, and I like what I’ve read of his (D.W.-W.’s) writing.

December 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I wonder if your father may already have read the book.

Roth’s declaration about Germany subjecting itself to the Prussian drill sergeant rather than the German intellect hit home. Germany, needless to say, has never enjoyed most-favored-nation status in my family, but I’ve studied art history, and I know how much scholarship in that and so many fields is grounded in Germany. And when I had to buy a critical edition of the Hebrew Bible for a course I took (briefly) in biblical Hebrew, it was an edition that had been prepared in Germany.

I recall also:

a) reading somewhere recently about two Germans wandering an exhibition on the accomplishments of German scientists who had fled the Nazis, and one says, mournfully, to his friend, “That could have been our century.”

and

b) I.J. Parker, who is of Bavarian birth, commenting here that Bavarians don’t much like Prussians.

What Germany did to others in the last century was barbaric. What it did to itself could make you cry.

December 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., you call youself "a sucker for well-crafted sentences, even in translation." I've read high praise for Michael Hofmann's translations of Roth, and I see no reason to dissent. The pieces in this book read beautifully.

December 13, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I wonder if your father may already have read the book

Very probably, huh? I suspect that when I mention it to him I will receive a (brief) lecture on the book... And then he'll quiz me on The Radetzky March...

What [Germany] did to itself could make you cry.

Naturally, this discussion brings to mind films... Two older movies that introduced Americans to the horrors of Nazi Germany--of what it was doing to others and itself--are MGM's Escape and The Mortal Storm, both 1940.

When I say "introduced" it was really little more than that and, of course, was accomplished in a mild way. But by 1940, Americans in Hollywood at least had heard many first-hand accounts of what was happening in Germany as so many expatriate filmmakers sought work in the US film industry. Louis B. Mayer, head of studio operations at MGM, shepherded these two films (both based on popular novels) through completion as he felt some obligation to inform Americans of what "non-Aryans" were experiencing in Germany. I think that the explicit mention of "Jews" did not become widely used in American films until after the US entered the war; by then just about everybody in the US knew something about the horrors of Nazi Germany.

They're both good, melodramatic films--MGM's top stars of the time appeared in each (including the incandescent Margaret Sullavan in The Mortal Storm)--and are interesting artifacts of the period in that both depict several "good", repentant Germans in ways that would be eliminated in favor of more rigid stereotypes after the US entered the war.

Bavarians don’t much like Prussians

And Germany's mainly Protestant north (stereotyped as dour and thrifty) and mainly Catholic south (stereotyped as fun-loving and beer-swilling) have a long history of varying degrees of friction.

December 13, 2012  
Blogger Dave Whish-Wilson said...

Thanks Peter, as an aside re Roth's quote about following the drill sergeant, and I can't find the precise source for it at the moment, but there's an illustrative but probably apocryphal early 20C German story of a madman who entered a village in Prussia, and donned a policeman's uniform, and proceeded to boss people about. Naturally, because they were Prussian, despite some of his orders being quite ridiculous, they fell to and did what they were told, because they were trained to do as they were told (in the country, at least - as Roth details in his work, big cities like Berlin had a thriving contrarian culture.) I seem to remember that Nietzsche also suggested that German cavalry drilling was an expression of the purest German identity, with its uniformity and disciplined movement, and that Canetti mentions something along the lines of the German crowd symbol issuing from the army, and that the army in turn has always taken its identity from the German forest, its long rows of uniform and uniformly spaced trees (very unlike our raggedly beautiful Australian forests, where every tree is distinctly individual.)

I was lucky enough to spend a fair bit of time in Berlin researching my first novel, The Summons, which is largely set there in 1933, and in what is now Poland. Berlin Alexanderplatz is also a terrific book, but Kelly, if your research is focussed not so much on Berlin but Germany of the Nazi period, I always suggest to people Victor Klemperer's I Shall Bear Witness and To the Bitter End - thoughtful diaries/memoir written by a man trapped in Dresden for the duration of the Nazi period, an academic kicked out of his job because of his 'racial profile', and a really clear and humane look at day to day life as it became increasingly absurd and ultimately deadly.

December 13, 2012  
Blogger lisa_emily said...

Wow, what a surprise to read about Roth here on his blog. I read Radetzky March and was enthralled by its story of the decline of the Hapsburg Empire. I also read recently a memoir by Franz Schoenberner, Confessions of a European Intellectual. This takes place in the years up to WWII and captures an intense view of the changes in Germany in the '30s. I think the book is out of print and may be hard to find.

December 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, comments like yours --and s bit of knowledge of what 1940s films noirs were called before they were called films noirs-- go a long way toward rehabilitating the term melodrama to intellectual respectability.

December 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dave: That story about the Prussian villagers has the truth of an absurd old folk tale about it, doesn’t it? And what would Nietzsche have written and thought had a lived another thirty-five or forty years and not gone mad?

December 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lisa_ Emily, I’ll occasionally veer off-topic here, but Roth makes it in through the front door. The word pictures he paints of Berlin in What I Saw are of great relevance to crime writers. Once Roth is in the door, who can blame anyone if I sneak in an occasional mention of Radetzky March?

December 13, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The answer to "what Roth to read?" is all you can find. I'm an old lady and am delighted that "youngsters" are discovering this magnificent writer. "The Radetzky March" is one of my desert island books. Michael Hofmann is a gifted translator. His father was another brilliant German writer.

December 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the note. I must admit that until a few days ago, Joseph Roth was just a name to me and one I might have confused with Henry Roth if put to the test. I'm glad to have discovered him.

And Michael Hofmann's translations certainly read beautifully. He is a poet, I understand, which may have something to do with this.

December 13, 2012  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

It would be interesting to read Roth and follow his book with Shirer's Berlin Diary, which covers about the same period from a journalist's viewpoint.

December 16, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, if you follow the thread here and at my other recent Roth post, you'll see that I received a number of recommendations of journals, memoirs, essays, and diaries on the period. And Rebecca Cantrell, who used Roth's essay on "The Unnamed Dead" as a source for her novel A Trace of Smoke--and who lives in your state--recommended a few more in a discussion we had on Twitter.

December 16, 2012  
Blogger Lauren said...

I'm fussy, but yes, Hofmann is brilliant.

(And I can only second the recommendation for Berlin Alexanderplatz. The television series is also something of a masterpiece.)

Victor Klemperer's diaries also make for wonderful reading, as Dave has stated. For the sake of completion, I can also recommend Peter Hayworth's Otto Klemperer, His Life and Times (2 vols) as the best biography of cousin Otto!

December 28, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I read the first chapter of Roth's The Wandering Jews last night. The introduction suggested that readers of Roth's fiction might be surprised by that sharpness and even vehemence of his observations in his nonfiction (if I remember the introduction correctly.)

I agree. The languid pace of Radetzky March surprised me after What I Saw.

I am still holding up about forty-four chapters into The Man Without Qualities. My secret is to read just a few chapters each day, among other reading.

December 28, 2012  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home