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Man in a Suitcase

Why we should be rereading Joseph Roth in 2017

Joseph Roth in 1918

Roth’s novels of the 1920s describe the Europe that appeared in the aftermath of World War I, a continent characterized by economic uncertainty, population movements, and political extremes.

If you’re looking for an author who sums up where we are in 2017 then maybe you should pick a name from the past. Joseph Roth for example. The German-Austrian-Jewish writer may well have been dead for three quarters of a century, but has lost nothing in terms of contemporary relevance. On the contrary, the turbulent inter-war world he wrote about seems markedly similar to own.

It was pure coincidence that sent me back to Roth. I got to hear about a new Croatian translation of his 1924 novel Hotel Savoy (Croatia being the country where I happen to live) just as I was booking a room in the real-life Hotel Savoy, a now crumbling monument to Belle-Époque grandeur standing in the middle of the Polish city of Łódź. The opportunity to reread Hotel Savoy in its original setting was simply too good to miss. Starting with that book and moving on to some other Roth favourites I hadn’t touched for years, I was struck by how woozily familiar they seemed to someone sitting at the back end not of the 1920s, but of 2016.

Age of Unease

Roth is best known today for his 1932 novel Radetzky March, a rich evocation of life in the multinational Habsburg Empire prior to its collapse at the end of World War I. As a consequence he is often pigeonholed as something of a Habsburg nostalgic, a re-creator of lost worlds, and his grittily prophetic novels of the 1920s (Hotel Savoy included) are too often overlooked.

Roth’s literary output of the 1920s describes the Europe that appeared in the aftermath of World War I, a continent characterized by economic uncertainty, population movements, and political extremes. His first novel Spiders Web (1923) takes place in an impoverished Berlin overrun by right-wing activists and shrilly mendacious newspapers; Hotel Savoy deals with rootless migrants bringing unrest to a Central European town; Flight Without End (1927) follows an ex-Austro-Hungarian officer traversing a ‘new’, fragmented Europe in a fruitless search for a place to put down roots; while Right and Left (1929) is a chillingly prophetic account of how easy it is for people to switch their political identities, and how the factionalism of the left frequently opens doors for the far right. Published before the full onset of the Nazi revolution, these novels were intended as documentary accounts of European society in an age of unease, and as warnings of how it might all end up.

Our own post-Brexit, post-Trump universe of political populism, shifting identities and self-destructive radicalism is an eminently Rothian one. ‘Welcome back to Roth-land’, he might drily remark were he able to see the state of apprehension we are in today.

Indeed there was no shortage of people telling us we should reread Roth in the autumn of 2016. It’s just that they were referring to the American author Philip Roth, whose 2004 novel The Plot Against America revolved around the election of a pro-fascist president in the United States. For clues as to how Europe went bad in the 1930s and how it might go bad again, maybe we should go back to his Austrian namesake.

Moses Joseph Roth was born in 1894 near Brody, a small, predominantly Jewish town in what was then the Austrian province of Galicia, and is now in western Ukraine. He went to study in Lviv in 1913 but moved on to Vienna University after one term. He never graduated, signing up to serve with the Austrian army in 1916 (he was briefly on the Galician front before being moved to a desk job in the press bureau), going on to start a brilliant career as a newspaper feature writer at the war’s end. He moved to Germany in 1923 but was always a wanderer, living out of a suitcase - whether as foreign correspondent of the Frankfurter Zeitung or simply because he found it impossible to lead a settled life. Moving to France in 1933, Roth died of alcohol related problems in Paris on May 27 1939. As lifelong friend and fellow Paris exile Soma Morgenstern remarked, Roth needed to drink in order to write, and to write in order to drink.

Savoy brown

With their baggy suits and parade-ground uniforms, Roth’s characters seem to belong to the world of sepia photographs rather than the twenty-first century. But his writing style is direct and timeless, his talent for human observation universal, his sense of political foreboding suddenly relevant once more.

His books are filled with people who find that the forces of history and economic change have pulled the rug from under their feet. People find that their incomes have dried up, they go on to lose what little they have left due to bad investments, sudden inflation, or volatile exchange rates. People who adapt their identities to the new times thrive, those who remain faithful to the old moral and social codes en up losing everything.

“Do we have any idea what’s going to happen to us tomorrow?” asks Abel Glanz, a hustler from the pages of Hotel Savoy. “The day after tomorrow comes the revolution. The day after tomorrow the Bolsheviks will be here. Our old nightmares have become everyday occurrences. Stash away a hundred thousand in the cupboard today and when you go back to it tomorrow you’ll only find fifty thousand… When money is no longer money, what on earth can you do?”

Hotel Savoy, December 2016

Hotel Savoy is one of Roth’s early works, a short novel written at speed and brought rather clumsily to an apocalyptic conclusion. However it’s a typical Roth novel when it comes to creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and threat. Austrian soldier Gabriel Dan drifts back to Central Europe after wartime captivity in Siberia, and takes up residence in the Hotel Savoy in an unnamed industrial city (which, we know from the descriptions, is based on the textile town of Łódź). With the factory-owning elite living on the lower floors and a population of ex-soldiers, cabaret girls and drifters on the upper floors, the hotel is a microcosm of society in the wake of a great upheaval. With the city streets taken over by striking factory workers and vast numbers of returning POWs, an aura of pre-revolutionary foreboding comes to dominate the novel’s pages.

Creaky parquet

The Savoy itself now offers rooms with desks and televisions, but hasn’t otherwise changed a great deal since Roth’s time. The tiny two-person lift (operated in the novel by enigmatic lift-boy Ignatz) is still there, and is still operated by a uniformed staff member – “you can’t go in there alone” shrieked the receptionist when I tried to ascend unsupervised. Otherwise its not a very good hotel: I only go there because of Roth, and the rather foolish idea that I might understand his books better by pacing the creaky parquet of the Savoy’s gloomy brown corridors.

I couldn’t find any references to Roth in Łódź, and certainly not in the hotel he sort-of immortalized. The city’s textile mills, built by the industrialists caricatured in the novel, were nationalized after 1945 and went bust in the 1990s. The most famous of the red-brick mills is now the Manufaktura shopping and entertainment centre, dubbed a ‘capitalist Disneyland’ by a colleague from the Łódź Art Museum. The only sign of a mass demonstration I saw during my visit was a 100-metre-long queue for free cans of Coca Cola, given away by elves at the back of a huge red lorry emblazoned with a portrait of Santa Claus.

If you want to revisit the Łódź described by Roth then you’d do better to head for the Grand Hotel just round the corner from the Savoy. It’s the Grand that has the sweeping staircases, chambermaids in white lacy aprons, house-plants the size of trees, and plaques on the wall recalling which famous actress stayed in which room. If Roth had written Hotel Grand instead of Hotel Savoy, I might have had a better time.

As an East European Jew who spent large chunks of time living in hotels and who finished his life in exile, it’s no surprise that Roth so frequently placed themes of rootlessness and wandering at the heart of his novels. The unsettled protagonists of Hotel Savoy and Flight Without End personified the general state of insecurity experienced by Europeans – and especially German Europeans – scarred by the post-war chaos, political violence and the hyperinflation of the early Twenties.

One of Roth’s chief preoccupations was the status of Jewish communities in Europe and the patterns of Jewish migration, something addressed in his long 1927 essay The Wandering Jews. For Roth, Jews were the chief bearers of the European liberal tradition, and in an era of increasing anti-Semitism, he expected more people to speak out on their behalf. He also noted how little sympathy there was – even among Western European Jews themselves – for Jewish migrants from the Eastern Europe in which he himself grew up. The redrawing of borders and the outbreak of revolutions in the wake of World War I had speeded these migrations up, providing right-wing movements with new targets. In one sense, the essay was intended as a wake-up call to liberal Germans who were too slow to see the problems of Jewry as their own.

Habsburg retro

Roth’s 1930 novel Job, which begins in a Jewish shtetl in the nineteenth-century Russian Empire and ends in 1920s New York, was Jewish in subject matter but universal in theme. It was as taught and as contemporary as any of his previous books, but had more room for spiritual themes of suffering and redemption. It was also something of an international breakthrough, and was even filmed by Hollywood – although the title was changed to Sins of Man and the central character Mendel Singer was turned into a Catholic Austrian peasant from the Tyrol.


Roth’s next novel, Radetzky March, represented an even greater departure. It was twice as long as anything he’d written before, and was also a wholly historical novel, set entirely in the Habsburg past, with no intrusion from contemporary politics. Hence Roth’s reputation today as a purveyor of Habsburg retro, fondly brushing the parade uniforms that play such a prominent part in what remains his best-known novel.

The story takes in three generations of the Trotta family: Josef Trotta, a common soldier ennobled after saving Emperor Franz Josef I’s life at the Battle of Solferino; his son Franz von Trotta, a state bureaucrat driven by a sense of service and duty; and his grandson Karl Josef von Trotta, a frivolous, empty-headed young man with a weakness for gambling and expensive women.

With a plot driven by archaic codes of honour, class divisions and military incompetence, it is hardly a glowing portrait of the Habsburg Empire. And yet it still comes across as elegiac rather than condemnatory. The novel’s first readers would have recognized immediately that the stuffy, contradictory and unjust world of the monarchy was still superior to the world they had ended up living in in 1932. Following the Wall Street Crash of 1929. European banks had started going bust, and the Great Depression was on its way. In both Germany and Austria conservative politicians were increasingly turning towards fascism; the political left and centre too divided to offer resistance.

By the time he wrote Radetzky March, the left-liberal intellectual Roth was beginning to give up hope in Europe’s capacity to deliver democracy and social justice. The warnings contained in his earlier novels had gone unheeded, and worse lay around the corner. At least the autocratic Habsburg Empire had allowed its subjects to live in relative peace and security, and its demise was beginning to look like an even greater tragedy than it had seemed in 1918.

Radetzky March was only on sale in German bookshops for a few months. In January 1933 the Nazi’s came to power and threw Roth’s books on the bonfire. His chances of earning serious royalties were over.

European twilight

Roth himself had gone to live in France on January 30 1933, the same day that Adolf Hitler was appointed German Chancellor. Roth was not one of those who believed that Hitler was a clown who would soon be voted out of power, or that Nazi rhetoric would be mellowed by the experience of government.

“We are heading for a great catastrophe” he wrote to fellow Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig in 1933. “Quite apart from our personal situations – our literary and material existence has been wrecked – we are headed for a new war. I wouldn’t give a Heller for our prospects. The barbarians have taken over. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns”.

In Paris Roth was close to the circle of Otto von Habsburg, son of the last Habsburg Emperor Karl, and was sent on a mission to Vienna in 1938 to persuade Chancellor Schuschnigg that a return of the monarchy would help prevent Austria’s slide towards Nazism. The Austrian police ordered Roth out of the country before he got anywhere near the people he intended to meet.

The Emperor’s Tomb

Roth’s last-ditch enthusiasm for the Habsburg monarchy was partly born out of his disillusion with everything else. According to his English translator Michael Hofmann, It is not “necessarily the case that he was in transit from one set of beliefs to another; rather, he held them all in unresolved suspension”.

Former socialist firebrand Roth felt particularly betrayed by the German left, which fragmented into groups that were either too radical or not radical enough; and which sought refuge in the erroneous belief that the fall of liberal democracy would lead to a socialist revolution rather than a right-wing dictatorship.

The last full novel Roth published before his death was The Emperor’s Tomb [Die Kapuzinergruft in the original German], a parallel retelling of the themes included in Radetzky March. This time Roth takes the story right up to 1938, when a feeble, post-imperial Austrian Republic is taken over by Nazi Germany.

Lead character Franz Ferdinand Trotta (a cousin of the von Trotta family featured in Radetzky March), is a one-man distillation of all the themes that tormented Roth in the Twenties: he loses his pre-World War wealth and position but is unable to learn a profession or get a job; he re-mortgages his mother’s house and then invests the money in doomed businesses; he despises the new politicians of the right but is blithely unable to commit himself to any kind of activity that might oppose them. Trotta ends the novel by visiting the tomb of Emperor Franz Josef I in the vaults of Vienna’s Capuchin Church. For the Trottas, as for Roth, there was simply nowhere left to go.

© Jonathan Bousfield

A Croatian version of this article appeared in Jutarnji list