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Spring 2003

The Main Course

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Nadine Gordimer

What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920–1933
by Joseph Roth,
translated by Michael Hofmann.
Norton, 2002,
$23.95 cloth.

Those of us who cannot read in languages other than our own are at the mercy of translators, as are the original authors. In the case of the great German-language modern writers who are essential to our sense of the world, there was Ralph Mannheim, and there is Michael Hofmann. Mannheim was, Hofmann is, outstanding in that they are able to give us unmistakably what must be the voice of the writer—a feat that clearly comes from an almost holy commitment to the original, and a personal imaginative literary skill used with the respect of love of the writer's work.

Michael Hofmann’s introduction to Joseph Roth's What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920–1933, is necessary. With wide referential knowledge, at home in all the literature of the period, Hofmann sets the reader in the historical, political, social, and cultural context of what Roth was seeing in Berlin in the last years of the Weimar Republic—which was born, he quotes Peter Gay, “in the defeat of the ’14-’18 War, lived in turmoil,” and died in the disaster of the rise of the Nazi regime. Hofmann's wit and candor as presenter are part of the sharp pleasure of this first collection of Joesph Roth's journalism to appear in English.

Roth was a journalist all his life, by preference a feuilleton writer, defending the form with his usual flourish against pompous categories in culture: “I’m not a garnish, not a dessert, I’m the main course” in the menu of journalism. Now, I don’t agree, as Hofmann seems to, with critics of Roth’s time, that Roth used his genius in his journalistic writing and his talent in his novels and poems. The Radetzky March and The Emperor’s Tomb, brilliantly devastating, ironic novels following through generations the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian empire, should have put him on the honor roll of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. I did not see his name among any proposed in the literary countdown that took place before we tipped over into the new millennium. Yet these are works in which are to be found the inevitability of conflicts that have arisen in what were once parts of Emperor Franz Josef’s empire, following the collapse of another collective—the Soviet empire—in our time killing and setting in train an endless procession of the displaced homeless, desperate to cross frontiers. Roth’s genius is in his novels and stories. To them are apt Gramsci's words (from another context): the fictions “enable us to understand the movement and flux, to appreciate the amount of effort and sacrifice that the present has cost the past and that the future is costing the present as a synthesis of the past…projecting itself into the future.” The short pieces in this collection are part of the enablement—deft side glances that belong with, although they didn't get into, the great works of fiction, the keen lyrical vision which belongs with the poetry.

It’s clear that Roth both loved and hated Berlin. Love-hate is a most tantalizing approach, and it catches one with flashes of grim significance in the midst of enjoying the pleasure and humor he finds in the ordinary as he walks the streets of Berlin. “What I see…What I see is the day in all its absurdity and triviality. A horse, harnessed to a cab, not knowing that horses originally came into the world without cabs…. I see a girl, framed in an open window, who is part of the wall and yearns to be freed from its embrace, which is all she knows of the world…” And then a glance away from playful innocence: “A war cripple who finds a nail file…Of course the beggar starts filing his nails-what else is he to do?…the trifling movements of filing his nails are enough to lift him about a thousand social classes, symbolically speaking.” Profoundly disillusioned by the brutality of power and great events that had battered him as well as his fellow humans, Roth writes in the capital of a country that was germinating Nazism between 1920 and 1933: “Confronted with the truly microscopic, all pathos is hopeless, completely meaningless. The diminutive of the parts is more impressive than the monumentality of the whole. I no longer have any use for the sweeping gestures of heroes on the global stage. I'm going for a walk.”

It takes him through some dark places. From the Jewish quarter (its inhabitants soon to be doomed) to the shelter on Fröbelstrasse for the homeless, relics of the First World War and the poverty and unemployment it brought about; to the louche dives, where you'd expect to meet Mack the Knife, around the Alexanderplatz station in the East End. And to the Reichstag, as “An Apolitical Observer” before whom the Victory Column angel “soars up into the azure, naked and slender, as though sunbathing,” and of which he observes: “If I could go up the Victory Column now, I would hear the Almighty laughing at the folly and wickedness of this world, which lives by political parties and dies by picric acid.” (Picric acid was used in the manufacture of explosives.)

Is wit born of disillusion? In the great city of the Weimar Republic pursuing material extravagances to forget war and defeat, Roth takes an escalator and creates a delightful sociopolitical critique out of its movement. “If the very large department store looked to begin with like a work of hubris, it comes to seem merely an enormous container for human smallness and modesty: an enormous confession of earthly cheapness. The escalator seems to me to typify this. It leads us up, by climbing on our behalf…carries each shopper aloft, as though he might change his mind”—about possession as a substitute for values? While Berlin was never a Brownshirt city, its future was then being foreshadowed by Hitler in a Munich beer hall. Already in 1924 there had been “a little forest of papers equipped with the inevitable swastikas, which are carved deep…on the branches of sentences…Here the roving eye will look in vain for a clearing of common sense.”

Alienation—Roth's condition in his time and place, Europe in the interregnum between two wars, the rise of fascism, racism and dictatorship—can stun a writer’s sensibility or bring it to the tingling nerve ends of hyper-awareness. It’s not only what Roth sees; it’s what he sees through. And often he sees unknowingly into the future we inhabit beyond his time. For example, the concern we now have over what we term the environment, the despoiling of nature: “At the edge of the city, where I have been told nature is to be found…it seems to me too much has been printed about nature for it to remain what it used to be. On the outskirts of our cities, in place of nature, we are presented with a sort of idea of nature…our relationship to nature has become warped. You see, nature has acquired a purpose where we are concerned. Its task is to amuse us. It no longer exists for its own sake. It exists to satisfy a function…We have Baedeker-ized nature.” It’s as if he foresaw theme parks, and beach buggies churning up the sand where turtles breed.

There is an enchantingly half-wry, half-loving piece on the literary-artistic coterie at the famous Romanisches Café and the Café des Westens—a coterie to which Roth himself surely belonged even if as a circumstantial and natural outsider. “Red Richard Without a Kingdom” (1923) is really about a waiter, a “newspaper-waiter” who had in his command the racks of all the world newspapers which Berlin culture-cafés had available at patrons’ request. It’s about the underdog, not the top-dog writers, journalists, publishers, theater impresarios, and artists whom he served with both refreshment and print. “Richard…absolute ruler over all printed words, domestic and foreign…so to speak enjoyed droit de seigneur, the right to deflower the newest editions.” He “wore his hunchback as a physical sign of intellectual distinction, the crookback as emblem of wisdom and romanticism…his physical defect had the effect of levelling class distinctions, and raised the waiter at least into the ranks of the straight-backed newspaper writers.” (As the beggar raised rank in the act of filing his nails.) There is even, reproduced in the book, a sketch of red-haired, hunchbacked Richard by a famous German artist of the period, Walter Trier. Joseph Roth knew how to insert his values slyly into how he saw what he saw—in this piece, while apparently making fun both of a poor man’s pretensions and the immortals round the tables. Red Richard “was a special creation of the Almighty's literary advisers,” and selected as newspaper waiter by the PR boss in heaven. He has seen generations of writers come and go. Seen them wind up in prison or on ministerial chairs. Become revolutionaries and private secretaries. “And all of them left owing him money.”

And it all ended up in the burning of the books. Roth could have written in 2003 what he writes in 1933 (“Auto-da-Fé of the Mind”) of the failure of the intellect to counter barbarism. “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. The technical apotheosis of the barbarians, the terrible march of the mechanized orangutans, armed with hand grenades, poison gas, ammonia, and nitroglycerine….all that means far more than the threatened and terrorized world seems to realize. It must be understood. Let me say it loud and clear. The European mind is capitulating. It is capitulating out of weakness…out of lack of imagination…as the smoke of our burned books rises into the sky…”

All we need do is add to the European mind those of the United States of America and a great part of the entire world. With the twenty-first century's resources of the intellect, its all-powerful technological innovations, plus its learning experience available from the not-distant past, all we, the “threatened and terrorized,” today have to offer against capitulation is to threaten and terrorize in return. Fascism rose out of the chasm between rich and poor as the aftermath of a war; the abyss between rich and poor nations in the new millennium is great, and has increased, not lessened, in recent decades of intellectual and scientific achievement.

What Roth sees and hands on is a unique essence, conveying the fragility of what is truly human in us, the ridiculous and the tragic. These he saw in the streets, passing close, each to the other.

Nadine Gordimer, a South African novelist, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. She died on July 13, 2014, at the age of ninety.


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