Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Joseph Roth and his Berlin reportage

As noted in an earlier post, I have been looking around the last few weeks for some books set in Berlin. I got some excellent recommendations (thanks, everyone) and then on the plane from Paris, I suddenly recalled that I had a book of Joseph Roth articles somewhere in my book room (yes, I have an entire room full of books which isn't something I am proud of. I've been trying to fob them off on anyone/everyone for the past year to free up more space which I am NOT replacing with more books!).

What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933
Once I was back home, I scanned all the shelves until I found it. Perfect and exactly what I wanted to read after a whirlwind trip through Europe and in the mood for something historical set in Berlin: What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933 is a collection of journalistic pieces that Roth wrote for several German newspapers while he was living in Berlin. They are absolutely fascinating and chronicle the daily lives of average Germans: its immigrants, its poor, its working class, prostitutes, pimps, and homeless.

It's amazing to me how I can read something (I bought the book when it first came out because I've been a fan of Joseph Roth since the reissue of his 1932 novel, The Radetzky March) but then pick it up eight years later and have nearly forgotten it all. I was left with impressions, mainly of what a superlative writer Roth was. Take paragraphs such as this one:

Evening comes, an overhead light goes on. Its illumination is oily and greasy; it burns in a haze like a star in a sea of fog. We ride past lit-up advertisements, past a world without burdens, commercial hymns to laundry soap, cigars, shoe polish, and bootlaces suddenly shine forth against the darkened sky. It's the time of day when the world goes to the theater, to experience human destinies pm expensive stages, and riding in this train are the sublime tragedies and tragic farces, the passengers with heavy loads. (Translated by Michael Hoffman).

Joseph Roth, 1894-1939
More than just the beautiful writing, Roth is interested in the underclasses of Berlin life: not its influential citizens or its bedecked women, not its upright Burgers or society ladies. He is interested in the shop girls, the maids, the omnibus drivers, the rag pickers - and at a time when these stories were so often swept aside. Not only was he a top notch journalist, he had the heart of a truly compassionate truth-teller. The characters he presents are individuals with passions, emotions, pains and loves.

To me, this is the best part of travelling: discovering (or rediscovering) writers whose work you may not know but whose connection to a city or country or region suddenly open up that place and make it a real land full of real individuals, contextualizing its history, giving a glimpse of the lives out on its streets or behind its stone walls.

Lucky for me, I have another Joseph Roth collection (which contains one of the most fascinating short stories I've ever read and one I most certainly do remember: his last story, written just before his death in Paris, called The Legend of the Holy Drinker).

No comments:

Post a Comment