So my project is now one year old: for 12 months I’ve managed to re-read, at the rate of one a month, a book from each year in my list of “Books Read” that started in 1977. So far, though, I haven’t chosen anything in translation. And so, turning to 1989’s list, I looked at what might fit the bill: short stories by Chekhov and I.B. Singer? The Double Bass by Patrick Susskind? No, it had to be Joseph Roth (1894-1939), the somewhat obscure Austrian writer whose short novel Hotel Savoy I first read in 1989 and re-read this month.
Actually, to call Roth “Austrian” is a bit of a stretch: his birthplace, Brody, is now at western end of Ukraine and was in Poland between the two world wars. But before that it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and it is that empire whose existence and disappearance is at the heart of Roth’s output. His major novel, The Radetzky March (which I’ve also read), is about three generations of an Austro-Hungarian military family; other novels and stories look back on the lives of more humble empire functionaries.
After fighting on the Eastern Front in World War One, Roth made his living as a somewhat rootless journalist: one of his translators, Michael Hofmann, says he “lived out of two suitcases in six countries”. Hotel Savoy (1924) seems to have been Roth’s first full-length published novel, and began life as a serial in a German newspaper. It certainly has journalistic elements, including, on the first page, a sentence that sounds like the opening of a report from a rather self-important foreign correspondent: “After five years, I stand again at the gates of Europe.” This is Gabriel Dan, the narrator, writing about his arrival at the Hotel Savoy, where most of the novel’s subsequent action (such as it is) takes place.
Gabriel has been a prisoner of war in Siberia, and is one of thousands of ex-soldiers and refugees moving westwards in the aftermath of war and revolution. While others continue westwards, he stays in the hotel in this dreary nameless Polish town (“a town of rain, a comfortless town”); visits his well-off but unsympathetic Jewish relatives; and gets to meet the hotel’s various employees and inhabitants, from the knowing lift-boy to ageing circus performers, dancing girls and visiting businessmen. “One might arrive at the Hotel Savoy with a single shirt and leave it as the owner of twenty trunks” is a comment, with variations, that recurs several times in the novel. Indeed, many of the hotel’s inhabitants seem to be waiting for their luck to change, stuck where they are because they have no money.
In part 2 of the novel two quite different agents of change turn up: the first is Zwonimir Pansin, a wartime comrade, who arrives at the station at a time when the narrator is there hoping to get work as a porter. Zwonimir, a Croat and “a revolutionary from birth”, is perhaps the novel’s most vividly sketched character; he has a galvanising effect not only on the narrator but also the hotel: “Zwonimir makes independent excursions inside the hotel, goes into empty rooms, leaves notes with greetings and knows everyone within three days”. The other arrival is Henry Bloomfield, a rich American “whose arm was long and could reach across the Great Pond [and who] had a finger in every factory in the old town of his birth”. Bloomfield/Blumenfeld returns to revisit his father’s grave and (perhaps) spread his wealth around; he hires Gabriel as his secretary to help deal with all the petitioners besieging him, but in the end leaves the town much as he found it. Worse, in fact: there’s an outbreak of typhus and revolution is in the air. And on the final pages the Hotel Savoy itself is burned down.
Did I enjoy this re-reading? I remember very little of it from my first reading, and I was initially put off by the way Roth wavers between present-tense and past-tense narration. But it seemed to settle down into its own fragmentary rhythm, and, yes, it was good. There was a palpable feel of an insecure early-1920s middle Europe about the novel, and I liked Roth’s occasional unexpected images:
Once again it is time for the returning soldiers. They come in groups, many at a time. They come in shoals, like certain fish at certain times of the year.
Things are going badly with these people, and their sorrow towers before them, a great wall. They sit enmeshed in the dusty grey web of their cares and flutter like trapped flies.
More than one English translation of Hotel Savoy is available: I went back to the 1986 translation by John Hoare that I read first time round, which is not always elegant (but then maybe the original isn’t, either). There is also a translation of Hotel Savoy available by Jonathan Katz – I’ve no idea if that’s any better. The Hoare volume, a library borrowing, also includes a couple of interesting short stories by Roth: Fallmerayer the Stationmaster and The Bust of the Emperor. These are later Roth products, and are somewhat more polished, but the latter story in particular, about Count Mortsin, a Polish aristocrat who refuses to believe that there is no longer an Emperor to show his allegiance to after the Great War, is unexpectedly moving.
Meanwhile, I began 2018 by reading Mike McCormack’s fantastically good Solar Bones (I think it would easily win the title of Greatest Novel Ever Written That Is Set in County Mayo); went on from there to Monsieur Monde Vanishes by Simenon; and then took some time to get through Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (good but not as convincing as I thought it might be), while also dipping into Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Odyssey – about which I reserve judgement…
On to February!