The Hotel Years: Wandering in Europe Between the Wars is a selection of short essays written between the wars by the Austrian-Jewish novelist Joseph Roth, selected and translated by Michael Hoffman. Giving a broad but penetrating overview of life in several European countries in the aftermath of World War I, it’s a series of beautifully constructed portraits of individuals encountered, as well as autobiographical musings from the author of The Radetsky March.
The non-linear nature of the book, its bitesize chapters having first been published as standalone essays, makes it easy to dip in and out of. While each chapter’s independent of the last for context or plot, all contribute their puzzle piece to the picture of a shattered Europe, and together build up a penetrating picture of life for people from many different backgrounds in the wake of a total conflict. Each chapter’s almost a novel in its own right – you find yourself completely invested in each and every tale or description, the same way you might get lost in Tolstoy.
Through sensitive compilation of the essays – grouping pieces about each country in eight parts – Hofmann gives us a virtual tour of Europe, through Germany, Austria, USSR and Albania and elsewhere. As well as an account of travels around the continent and, for readers, a journey back in time, it’s also an exploration of human emotion. The pictures painted by Roth of societies and individuals evoke pity, excitement, sorrow, irritation, laughter, hope and despair, sometimes in the most unexpected combinations. Individuals he’s observed become a way of understanding society more widely, or to pose (and sometimes answer) philosophical questions.
Early on, in ‘Of Dogs and Men’, he describes a scene in Vienna: ‘A man returned from the war… invalid with shattered spine… A dog sits on his back… A sign of the times, in which dogs ride men, to protect them from other men… Is there anything so sad as this sight…?… We have been through the war…, and at the end of it dogs ride around on men’. Roth analyses the plight of one battered individual to raise questions about the value of the war and its impact on normal people. He’s deeply troubled by the way the war has changed Europe and asks probing questions about its origins.
In a later essay, ‘The Opened Tomb’, he describes a cinema newsreel with a montage of the Romanov family on one of their last outings – the Czar striding, ‘wearing a richly stitched and braided tunic’. It’s followed, he notes, by images of May Day parades during Trotsky’s time as leader of the Red Army. For Roth, this is all the wrong way round: historical progress demands ‘first the scenes with the red multitudes’, led by ‘a man with no military education’, and then the last Czar, embodying the authority and wealth of the Empire: the country seems to have moved backwards rather than forwards. For Roth, and perhaps for other Europeans, the greatness of the Russian Empire is now a distant memory ‘shrouded by dust’: there’s concern and uncertainty for what’s to come.
Hofmann’s ordering of the essays leads readers from significant questions about morality to moments of comedy in which Roth demonstrates his wry humour. Of particular focus are his encounters with fellow travellers who provide a source of irritation for him, but one of amusement for readers.
Towards the end of the book, an essay called ‘The Lady in the Compartment’ describes an encounter with a woman and her heavy suitcase that disturb his train journey. Feeling obliged to help the woman lift her suitcase (much heavier than expected) to and from the luggage rack, he embarks on an internal rant: ‘What was she doing with such a heavy suitcase anyway? … Why was she so beautiful that her helplessness was multiplied tenfold? And why was she a lady, and not a gentleman, a boxer, a sportsman, who might have picked up the suitcase with superb ease? … What if I should fall and crush the beautiful lady? It would have been unfortunate, but I don’t think I would have felt any guilt’. Given Roth’s ponderings on the state of humanity, episodes like this are a slight relief for the reader – along with his insight into the essence of human-ness and the cruelty of war, he’s also a man who can laugh at his irritation with people’s habits in public places.
It’s this constant movement between thought and emotion which keeps you absorbed throughout. As well as piecing together parts of a freshly broken Europe, Roth engages with readers at an everyday level. His encounters with ordinary people, eliciting comedy or mere curiosity, are vividly evoked: even though today’s Europe would be unrecognisable to Roth, there are some aspects of society, life and humanity which prevail.
Roth’s skill in writing across such different spheres – and Hofmann’s skill in translating and compilation – make The Hotel Years one not to be overlooked.
Joseph Roth’s The Hotel Years: Wanderings in Europe Between the Wars is available from Granta Books at £16.99.