Swans Commentary » swans.com July 2, 2007  



Joseph Roth's What I Saw


by Michael Doliner


A Book Review



Roth, Joseph: What I Saw, W.W. Norton & Company, New York-London, 1996, ISBN 978-0-393-05167-6, 227 pages


(Swans - July 2, 2007)   I have been reading Joseph Roth. Roth was, until recently, a relatively little known novelist and journalist born of Jewish parents in Galicia in 1894. He drank himself to death in 1939. Between times he traveled all over Europe writing journalism, mostly for the Frankfurter Zeitung, and novels of a peculiarly original stamp. At least one novel, The Radetzky March, is considered a masterpiece. His star is now rapidly rising and, among those in the know, already well risen.

It is doubtful that Roth could have escaped a modern journalism school with a diploma, for his lack of objectivity is in almost every sentence. What makes Roth's writing so interesting, and ordinary journalism so tedious in my opinion, is that Roth inhabits everything he writes. Usually, but not always, Roth's observations seem sensible and at the same time bizarre. Here is Roth talking about the new very big department stores in Berlin and contrasting them with the merely big ones:

Of course the merchandise appears to be cheaper. Because where there are so many things close together, they can hardly help not thinking of themselves as precious. In their own eyes they shrink, and they lower their prices and they become humble, for humility in goods expresses itself as cheapness. (p. 121)

It is hard to imagine a modern journalist daring to personify the goods in a department store. But when we think about it, Roth's perception easily becomes our own. Roth not only got away with it, he was, according to his translator's introduction, the mainstay of the Frankfurter Zeitung, who paid him one Deutschmark per line, a truly awesome sum.

The collection of Joseph Roth's personal journalism, aptly named What I Saw, is Michael Hoffman's fine translation of a collection of pieces Roth wrote from 1920 to 1933, mostly in Berlin. It is the time of the fragile and doomed Weimar Republic. We all have an image of this period perhaps derived from the films Cabaret and The Blue Angel, from Brecht's plays, and from Otto Dix's portrait of Anita Berber. It might be summed up in the line, "Life is a Cabaret," a decadent end-of-the-world attitude in which one is compelled to party to death in the midst of a voluptuous literary flowering. Roth does not contradict this image but adds surprising Rothian observations of the everyday to it. He did not embrace the zeitgeist and some of these observations seem to run against the grain. For instance we are in the habit of seeing all the effects of modernity as an ever-increasing dehumanization and withdrawal from nature. But here is Roth:

Because the invention of the airplane was not a declaration of war on winged creatures, quite the opposite: It was fraternization 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. (p. 112)

Almost everywhere Roth supplies observations that we want to hear. I, at least, don't have any impulse to question their truth. That is not the point. Roth's very human perspective, informed by all he has seen and been, gives him something with which to respond to life. Interestingly, the one piece that seems to be an exception to this is With The Homeless. Here his prose becomes dry and factual, his sentences short, his observations generalities. But because of its proximity to the other pieces it seems to me that even here Roth is recounting his own experience. It's just that he experiences the homeless as a faceless crowd. Those who stand out for Roth are almost always from the lower strata, but his humanity does not express itself merely in soft-heartedness and empathy. Some people appear to Roth as complete human beings with a place in the world and others, those caught up in industry for the most part, don't. Although he pities the homeless, this doesn't allow him to deny his experience of them as a shapeless lump. In most of the other pieces his responses contrast sharply with the human emptiness, the desiccated factuality that we praise by calling it "objective." His is, of course, the eye of a novelist. I imagine Roth sees the world as a blur of industry constantly on the move through which one can occasionally see a person sitting in a café and reading a newspaper. Roth mixes the end-of-the-world sensibility of the Weimar Republic with sympathy for human frailty. He sees skyscrapers as expressing a desire to hobnob with the Gods, and then, notices that those skyscrapers will contain "a great entertainment palace, with cinemas, dance hall, bar, Negro bands, vaudeville, jazz." He explains: "Because human nature will not deny its weaknesses, even where it is seemingly in the process of overcoming them." (p. 113)

Roth does not overlook what he calls "Berlin's Pleasure Industry," but, as always, sees it in his own way. He goes to clubs only in a "fit of incurable melancholy" that he neither blames on the clubs nor expects them to cure. He makes the rounds from the richest to the poorest clubs and notes the changes as he descends the class ladder.

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 belaboring 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. (p. 174)

But unlike almost everybody else, Roth does not see the Third Reich as a consequence of the decadent Weimar Republic. The Third Reich, Roth asserts, is "a logical extension of the Prussian empire of Bismarck and the Hohenzollerns." (p. 210) As usual he sees it from his own idiosyncratic perspective, that of a Jewish-German intellectual. Bismarck had already defeated the German Spirit when he turned the Universities into barracks and the professors into drill sergeants. The intellectuals had felt themselves to be internal émigrés long before Hitler came to power. For Roth, in 1933, the burning of books, especially those of German Jewish authors, was Hitler's cardinal crime. For some time before that the Jews had been collaborating in their own defeat. Roth notes that Jews voted for Hindenburg who had proudly claimed that he had never read a book. Surprisingly, Roth sees Hitler's book-burning atrocity as actually a good thing. For now the Jews must admit their final defeat. Roth is proud to admit his defeat at Hitler's hands and finds it an advantage for Jewish intellectuals that Hitler left them no option for collaboration. Those who compromised were diminished thereby. The defeated had the nobler fate.

Roth's politics seem to contain an abrupt about face. The young Roth was known as "der rote Roth," Red Roth, but after a trip to the Soviet Union in 1926 he became disillusioned with communism. His later monarchism, many of his critics claim, was more an expression of despair than of politics. In spite of this turn, Roth seems to have maintained his sympathy for people from the lower rungs of society or off the ladder completely. However, I suspect this sympathy was not because they were from the lower rungs, but because it was there that he found what he considered full human beings. They were not swept up in the mad dash. He seems to consistently find those who "work hard and play hard" ludicrous, though even here I detect a note of human sympathy.

Although Roth was himself a true cultured European intellectual, his characters aren't. The central character in one of his earliest novels, Rebellion, is Andreas Pum, a wounded veteran of the first World War. Pum's highest ambition is to obtain a permit to play his barrel organ in the street. A sudden catastrophe results in his rebellion. The Radeetzky March is about the Von Trotta family, peasants who had nobility thrust upon them. His last work, The Legend of the Holy Drinker, is about a Parisian clochard who maintains his dignity in the face of outrageous good fortune. In the present collection of feuilleton pieces the personage Roth seems to like best is Richard the hunchback newspaper waiter in the Café des Westens. (Apparently Berlin cafés had waiters who delivered newspapers to the customers.) I am no expert on Roth but I suspect he saw in the Soviet Union that communism was not going to put an end to the modern way of life that Roth found too pointlessly energetic and deforming of his own very human perspective.

Reading Roth inoculates one against a too facile comparison of our times with others. Roth reveals the Weimar Republic precisely in what he saw. It is his personal sensibility that is interesting, and in a way it is the subject of all these pieces. His despair is over the progressive loss of possibility for this simple human response. He had no profession other than that of being Roth. His characters share this with him. Here is Roth on a newspaper waiter who is not Red Richard:

In the Romanisches Café, the adopted home of Berlin's bohemians, there is a well-grown newspaper waiter. He has all the papers, the Weiner Journal, the Prager Tagblatt, even the La Plata newspaper. But he doesn't have a hunchback! My gaze slithers down his boring vertiginous back and finds nothing to catch on to. (p. 136)

From Roth's very personal perspective this man without a hump is lacking, incomplete, and that is all there is to say about it. It is as if Richard occupies a certain place and the other waiter can only imitate him.

It would certainly be good if someone did for us what Roth did for Berlin, which is simply to live and see through his own eyes. It is strange that this seems to have become progressively difficult. The thought occurs to me that Roth's feuilleton may be the counterpart of Hunter Thompson's gonzo journalism, though no two sensibilities could be more antagonistic. We too see a finality, but each age must have its own idiosyncratic end of the world. For Roth this end might have been epitomized in the assassination of Walter Rathenau. Rathenau was assassinated on June 24, 1922 and Roth visited his house, made into a museum, two years later on the anniversary. His admiration for Rathenau, an eminently cultured assimilated Jew who was an intellectual, a powerful industrialist, and the German Foreign Minister, is unalloyed. "I walk past the place where he met his end. It is not true that a murder is just a murder. This one here was a thousandfold murder, not to be forgotten or avenged."

Roth's end of the world was the death of the European Geist in which the idea of "the human" lived. We now nod towards this idea without really knowing what it is. Long dead, it is trampled underfoot in a thousand unnoticed actions such as those of a guard who pushes down on the head of a prisoner to force him into a car. This, of course, is just the beginning of the endless humiliations in our prisons and concentration camps. In the midst of much greater horrors it goes unnoticed. Only to an earlier age would it be seen as an atrocity. We might contrast this action with the behavior of Socrates' jailer who came in, praised Socrates for his bravery and gentleness, and then went away, leaving Socrates to call for the poison when he was ready to take it. Even in the carrying out of a death sentence human dignity is preserved.

If Roth's end of the world was spiritual and literary, the loss of human dignity that rests in each respect for each being's unique union of the godlike with the frail, ours, in this technological age of "human resources," is bound to be material and systemic. Since the purpose of our systems is to soften life and obscure its cruelties, it stands to reason that, where the Berliners knew they were at an end, we will continue to deny it until a physical or financial or social crackup. Denial that allows for comfort to continue as long as possible is our vice just as decadence was theirs. The Berliners knew they had trampled underfoot their culture and their dignity and therefore their sense of themselves. Americans will deny that they have trampled down their good opinion of themselves, and likewise their own dignity. I would not be surprised to see a farcical decadent American flowering if the American fragile hold on insanity slips, but I would be surprised if it contained a verdant literary undergrowth.

Were it possible for some modern Roth to supply Americans with a human perspective, in contrast to the present scientific-statistical one, much good might still be done. But it is hard to imagine Americans who have enough time out of their busy days to obtain it.


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About the Author

Michael Doliner has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.



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Published July 2, 2007