'A chronic nomad'; Joseph Roth
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 8 December 2015)

Joseph Roth, a novelist and a journalist, didn't use the term multiculturalism, but he lived it. It was what he learned in Brody, the small town where he was born in 1884. At the eastern end of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, the townspeople - Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Jews and Gentiles - were all subjects of the Habsburg emperor, Franz Joseph I. Their different identities co-existed within the empire.

In the First World War Roth fought in Franz Joseph's army, against Russia. His life's key event was the war and the way it destroyed the empire. Roth had no affection for monarchies but many years later he said "I loved this fatherland. It permitted me to be a patriot and a citizen of the world at the same time. I loved the virtues and merits of this fatherland, and today I even love its flaws."

In 1932 Roth wrote Radetzky March, an enthralling novel about the empire dying of exhaustion. It's the sort of historical novel where great events enter the narrative only when they intrude on the human lives the reader is following. Everything happens in an obscure outpost of empire, where the emperor and his enemies are like distant noises heard over the horizon. After a long time the empire's news reaches a town like Brody, in the form of tragedy.

Today, Austria exists as a small corner of empire, awash in nostalgia. When I visited Vienna in the 1980s a guide led our group into the underground crypt of a church. We found ourselves gazing at rows of coffins, each containing the bones of a long-dead Hapsburg. The guide briskly took us through history by pointing to the coffins, turning our grim surroundings into a metaphor for the death of a dynasty.

Roth died in 1939, just before the beginning of the Second World War. His reputation remains alive, as demonstrated by the recent appearance of The Hotel Years (New Directions), a collection of 64 pieces he wrote in the 1920s and 1930s. He was a wandering correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung, writing several articles a week. Michael Hoffman has expertly translated his pieces, as he has for 14 other Roth books.

Roth was a chronic nomad who rarely had a permanent home. He lived out of two or three suitcases.

Writers have long made use of hotels in their work. Early in the 20th century Marcel Proust visited Le Grand Hotel Cabourg, in Normandy. He re-named the town of Cabourg as the more exotic Balbec when he depicted it in his masterwork, Remembrance of Things Past. Today the Promenade outside the hotel's doors bears Proust's own name. In 1911 Thomas Mann stayed at the Grand Hotel des Bains, on Venice's Lido, its atmosphere inspiring the background of Death in Venice. Patti Smith, in two touching books of memoirs, has celebrated the grotty charm of the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, where she found her destiny in the 1960s.

Roth wasn't interested in burnishing a hotel's legend. His budget allowed no more than generic hostelries and he was more interested in the staffs, his fellow customers and what he could learn by talking to people in the neighbourhoods. He exults in the cosmopolitan staff of a Marseille hotel. "The porter is a Frenchman from Provence. The receptionist is from Normandy. The head waiter is Bavarian. The chambermaid is Swiss. The valet is Dutch." As for himself, he invents his own designation: "I am a hotel citizen. A hotel patriot."

He understood that fanatic forms of nationalism were moving across Europe. As a Jew he left Germany for Paris as soon as Hitler became chancellor and sometimes we sense that (like any other multiculturalist) he's searching everywhere for human variety. There were people he hated, aside from the Nazis. He despised the fraternity lads who proved their courage and expressed their nationalism by killing each other in duels.

Otherwise, he was delighted by the potpourri of languages and races he encountered. He was a European of the old school, detached and endlessly curious. On the road, he learns the condition of a nation in the lives of ordinary citizens. He's in a station in Chemnitz, Germany, in the winter of 1923, when even the civil servants are unpaid and hungry.

"I saw a conductor eating chocolates. He had found a box of pralines in a compartment. This man was wolfing down frivolous liqueur-filled confectionary, and lost all the gravity he was supposed to have as an aspect of his profession. The conductor was eating a young ladies' cinema nibble with a rigid, humourless expression. Six months ago, this conductor wouldn't have been tucking into chocolates. But today he is hungry." If a passenger throws away a fragment of food, he grabs it. "That's where Germany is right now."

His travels take him as far as backward Albania, where in 1927 he meets President Ahmed Zogu, a year before he turned into King Zog and reigned for 10 years, surviving 55 assassination attempts before dying in exile in 1961. Roth acknowledges that Zogu is considered a brutal dictator but tries to forgive him since Albanians would hardly tolerate anything else.

People laugh because he puts so many images of himself on stamps and walls but that's the only way a president can establish himself "in the mostly brief and ungrateful consciousness of the electorate." Touring the capital city of Tirana, Roth notes: "A policeman with snow-white gloves stands in the middle of the road, in case of traffic." Roth once called his newspaper pieces "rainbow-coloured soap bubbles" but he also thought he was "sketching the portrait of an age."

In The Hotel Years his eyes are sharp, his prose astringent and witty. Still, the story he tells is melancholy, and not only because he died from alcoholism at age 44. The Europe he describes, richly various at all levels, has vanished beneath an ocean of franchise outlets and carefully staged tourist attractions. Roth's work remains brilliant, but speaks to us from the distant past.

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