Saying true things on half a page

What I Saw, by Joseph Roth

What I saw is a collection of short pieces of journalism by Joseph Roth, translated and ably introduced by Michael Hofmann, and containing Roth’s experiences of Berlin between the years 1920 and 1933 – the years of the Weimar Republic. The pieces are typically between three and five pages long, often focussing on one location or experience and drawing from it a short but memorable series of observations. It is a form of journalism not uncommon in Continental Europe, but is I think rarer in the English speaking world.

Short pieces of this kind are known as feuilletons. Roth was a master of the form, although famous now for his work as an author (I have only read his Hotel Savoy, which I recommend without reservation), Roth was a lifelong journalist with a passionate belief in the importance of newspapers. The feuilleton is a short piece, but it is not a slight piece. It is intended to amuse, but also to provoke and to enlighten. For Roth, the feuilleton was serious journalism, for all the subjects might be comic or mundane. As Roth himself said:

I don’t write “witty columns.” I paint the portrait of an age. That’s what great newspapers are there for. I’m not a reporter, I’m a journalist. I’m not an editorial writer, I’m a poet.

Today probably the most famous writer of feuilletons is Umberto Eco, who has a fondness for the form (and a talent for them, his collection How to Travel with a Salmon is essentially a collection of feuilletons for example).

Roth moved to Berlin in 1920, then to Paris in 1925, but continued to spend time in Berlin until 1933, when Hitler took power. His feuilletons of this period, collected in this volume and arranged by subject matter rather than chronology, capture then the Germany of the Weimar years, a Germany that he knew was fragile and beset with difficulties but one where the horrors of the future were of course yet unknown.

The pleasures of this collection lie in Roth’s skill as a writer, and in his keen observational eye which brings to life matters as disparate as night shelters for the homeless, department stores, a cafe frequented by intellectuals, Jewish refugees from the East, photographs of the city’s dead at police headquarters and much more. Roth was catholic in his choices of subject matter, recording the city and the lives of those within it, this collection is a fascinating record of what it was like to live in the Berlin of those times.

In the course of his columns, Roth takes us through the full range of Berliner life, including here on a journey through its late night dives:

Kirsch the burglar and Tegeler Willy and Apache Fritz are sitting at a table together, while the policeman stands and watches. At the bottom of the well-like passage , Elli’s sitting on someone’s lap, because she’s got new stockings today. If you’ve got new stockings, you’ve got to show them off. Her little blonde ringlets are combed down into her face. They hang there a little stiffly, like starched ruffles. I really think she wants nothing more from the world than to have half a kümmel inside her, and the knowledge that there is another half to come. Let her have it, please. My friend buys her some bread and butter. Now I think she’s happy beyond dreams. New stockings, a kümmel and some bread and butter. It really is an angels’ palace.

And later, in the same article:

Max says to the man in the cap: ‘I need a woman and a claw-jimmy.’ The claw-jimmy won’t be a problem. As early as tomorrow. But a woman – apparently that’s not so easy.
In case of any misunderstanding, Erna screeches: ‘I’m spoken for!’ Erna loves Franz. Erna got a gold filling a week ago, and she hasn’t stopped laughing since. She can’t just let her mouth hang open like a hungry crocodile’s! Oh, no! So if the world is to see her gold filling, Erna will just have to laugh. Erna laughs at the saddest things.

Here Roth brings not only the feel of the dives to life, but also their inhabitants, their small dreams, their vulgarity but also their humanity. Roth is a compassionate writer, it is only the harbingers of the new regime for whom he has no sympathy. Here he describes a bidder at an auction, a man who nearly comes to blows with a rival over a wood carving and a copper vat:

The man is not buying out of sentiment. He is, rather, an exemplar of the new times, in a short fur coat, cigar jammed between metal teeth, all calm and calculating: a schemer, a man working his percentages, confident of victory. God knows what his hands will make of those pots and plates and carvings, how the horrid monsters will change in his storehouses. Twentieth-century man can turn ducats out of all sorts of trash.

What is interesting with Roth’s journalism, is that although it is often full of humour, of warmth and affection, it is not frivolous. Roth was, I understand, highly paid for his pieces, certainly he himself took them very seriously (as the quote I opened this piece shows). His intent is not merely to amuse, but also to show us what he sees around him, to let us see through his eyes. As such, the humanity of his gaze is itself a part of his journalism. For Roth, journalism is not necessarily about objectivity, it is about reportage, it is about sharing a personal understanding so that we might understand too.

Frequently, his pieces while on the surface merely descriptive, contain on closer review social comment. In one piece he describes a park, talking of its benches, trees, park wardens. He describes those who use the park, few in the morning as the locals are at work then – just a handful of unemployed men, later some teenage girls, and come three in the afternoon mothers with their small children who play in the sand. It is a piece of careful observation of the inconsequential, and then we come to the following passage:

Even in Schiller Park the leaves drop from the trees in a timely fashion, in the autumn, but they are not left to lie. In the Tiergarten, for instance, a melancholy walker can positively wade through foliage. This sets up a highly poetic rustling and fills the spirit with mournfullness and a sense of transience. But in Schiller Park, the locals from the working-class district of Wedding gather up the leaves every evening, and dry them, and use them for winter fuel.
Rustling is strictly a luxury, as if poetry without central heating were a luxury.

Roth is still describing the park, the gathering of the leaves is one of the activities that occurs there, as is the children’s play or the habits of the park wardens. That said, Roth is also commenting on how poverty can destroy the sense of the aesthetic, how the appreciation of beauty can itself simply be another luxury. Roth is making an important point, in an article less than three pages long. That, in essence, is the point of a feuilleton. Similarly, in a piece on the Berlin pleasure industry in which Roth describes the various nightclubs of the city, he moves on to discuss the commercialisation of entertainment:

Yes, I had the sensation that somewhere there was some merciless force or organization — a commercial undertaking, of course — that implacably forced the whole population to nocturnal pleasures, as it were belabouring it with joys, while husbanding the raw material with extreme care, down to the very last scrap. Saxophonists who have lost their wind playing in the classy bars of the West End carry on playing to the middle class till they lose their hearing, and then they wind up in proletarian dives. Dancers start out reed thin, to slip slowly, in the fullness of time and their bodies, in accordance with a strict plan, down from the zones of prodigality to those where people keep count, to the third where people save their pennies, to the very lowest finally, where the expenditure of money is either an accident or a calamity.

Again, we move from the merely descriptive, to an analysis of wider forces, but we never leave behind how those forces impact on the lives of the people of Berlin.

Roth does not simply deal in the apparently trivial, he also engages with the Republic itself and with politics (though he treats politics with no more seriousness, nor any less, than he does the discussion of a railway junction). Roth writes pieces discussing how the city comes to a stop for the death of the president in 1925, or on the empty slogans of election campaigns. He satirises modernity, though too he celebrates it and sees something wonderful in human progress. This seems like an ambivalence, but rather I think he is a supporter of modernity when it is in service of human values, and suspicious of it when it seems to traduce those values.

The lives of our fathers’ generation were lived in such poor taste. But their children and grandchildren live in stupendously bracing conditions. Not even nature itself affords as much light and air as some of the new dwellings. For a bedroom there is a glass-walled studio. They dine in gyms. Rooms you would have sworn were tennis courts serve them as libraries and music rooms. Water whooshes in thousands of pipes. They do Swedish exercises in vast aquariums. They relax after meals on white operating tables. And in the evening concealed fluorescent tubes light the room so evenly that it is no longer illuminated, it is a pool of luminosity.

And in another piece:

Because the invention of the airplane was not a declaration of war on winged creatures, quite the opposite: It was fraternisation between man and eagle. The earliest miner did not barge his way sacrilegiously into the depths, he returned home to the womb of Mother Nature. What may have the appearance of a war against the elements is in fact union with the elements; man and nature becoming one. There is exhilaration in skyscrapers as much as on mountaintops.

Roth then is a satirist, but he is also something of a poet. Above all these things, however, he is a journalist and it is as that I think he would most have wished to be remembered.

The final piece in the collection is very different to what has gone before. Written in 1933 and titled “The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind” it is a furious piece written in reaction to book burnings carried out by the newly elected Third Reich. Roth writes proudly that German writers of Jewish descent have been defeated, and with them the “banner of the European mind”. Proudly, because with defeat comes no possibilty of collaboration, proudly because what they stood for was the European ideal, the ideal of the intellectual and that the life of the mind has meaning. For Roth, the Nazis are profoundly anti-intellectual, and in expelling the Jews they expel the best of German culture for German intellectual life has been in large part the product of its Jews.

For Roth then, the coming of the Nazis is a defeat for civilisation itself, the German Jew is inseparable from German culture, and in their quest for a pure German nation the Nazis are destroying that which made Germany a country worth living in. His piece is filled with horrifically prescient imagery, poison gas is used repeatedly as a metaphor, and it contains a roll call of defeated authors, poets and playwrights “fallen on the intellect’s field of honour. All of them, in the eyes of the German murderer and arsonist, share a common fault: their Jewish blood and their European intellect.” For Roth, the Nazis were not simply attacking the Jews, they were attacking the very principles that underpin European culture itself. Roth sees no possibilty of coexistence, no means by which the intellectual and the Nazi can live together, their arrival means the death of all he stands for as a Jewish intellectual:

It is 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….

Roth, more than most, understood that when you begin by burning books you end by burning people. The final essay in this collection is a passionate defence of the importance of the intellectual, of the European ideal, of the Jew as a central component of European civilisation.

Looking above, I have quoted Roth a great deal in this piece, it’s hard not to, he’s a gifted writer and eminently quotable. In keeping with that, I end with a final quote on the role of the Jew in Germany, from The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind:

Many of us served in the war, many died. We have written for Germany, we have died for Germany. We have spilled our blood for Germany in two ways: the blood that runs in our veins, and the blood with which we write. We have sung Germany, the real Germany! And that is why today we are being burned by Germany!

What I Saw

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7 Comments

Filed under Berlin, Hofmann, Michael (translator), Personal canon, Reportage, Roth, Joseph

7 responses to “Saying true things on half a page

  1. I’m glad you did quote Roth so much – his writing is very memorable. Makes me think about journalism today and all the hand-wringing about newspapers being driven out of business by the internet. If newspapers contained fresh, original writing like that, I would gladly pay money for them, regardless of how much free news I can get on the internet. So much of it is samey, celebrity-driven non-news, though. Would love to see some more creative writing with voices that, like Roth’s, sound unique and make you see the world in a new way.

  2. I’m glad that worked for you Andrew, I thought I’d got the balance a bit wrong to be honest, the trouble was there was so much I wanted to quote, he’s such a good writer.

    There is a separate volume of Roth Feuilletons, titled The White Cities. It’s his pieces from France between the years 1925 and 1939.

    I suspect there are voices like his still, but they’re lost in a welter of columns about nothing in particular, Eco still keeps his end up though and my impression is in Italian journalism (and therefore perhaps some other countries) it’s still around. If Kevin sees this, he may be able to give us pointers on the English speaking front, his knowledge of journalism goes some way beyond mine.

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  5. I found this New York Times review of this book online and thought others might be interested: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=950DE1D81E30F931A35751C0A9659C8B63

  6. I see what you mean Max, yes there are definite parallels there. I think you’d like (really like) Diary of a Man in Despair.

  7. Yes, it’s one that’s definitely on my radar now. I’ll be picking it up.

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