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NPR Arts & Life

A Master Class In Journalism From A 1930s-Era Workaholic

Many writers have done some of their best work under threatening and even hostile circumstances: James Baldwin worked tirelessly during the tensions of the civil rights movement; Roberto Bolaño wrote his masterpiece 2666 under looming sickness and death. Joseph Roth, the Austrian journalist and novelist, sketched a portrait of his age while his native Europe was wracked by war and suffering.

Throughout his short, tragedy-filled life (his wife was killed by Nazis), Roth was always on the go, never truly finding solace anywhere. "I have no home ... wherever I am unhappy is my home," he once wrote in a letter to his publisher. But there were bright spots. When his novel Job, "the story of a simple man," appeared in 1930, Roth began seeing success beyond his work as a journalist. His novel The Radetzky March traces the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian regime and today remains his foremost international achievement. His nonfiction, similarly, demonstrates a writer with a striking blend of intelligence and humor.

Roth mostly lived out of his suitcases and often worked with little rest, which are two of the reasons he was among the highest-paid reporters of the German-language press during the 1920s. "I have covered many miles," wrote a world-weary Roth in a letter to a friend. "The years I have put behind me are the roads I have traveled." This bleak outlook characterized much of his oeuvre. In 1933, the year Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Roth fled to Paris. He continued to travel and write incessantly for various newspapers, but he died sick and penniless in 1939.

The Hotel Years, translated by Michael Hofmann, offers a glimpse into Roth's penetrating mind, as well as his enormous journalistic range. He reports on geography, history, war and its effects, politics, exile, and communism. In 64 sketches, or feuilletons, Roth takes readers on treks through Germany, Austria, Russia, Albania and other countries. Wherever his assignments required that he explore, he went. This volume assembles a bulk of those sketches brilliantly.

As Hofmann writes in his introduction, organizing the pieces that make up The Hotel Years -- while they don't adhere to any rigid structure — was an exercise in rhythm and pace. "There is no duty, no mission," he writes, "no set subject, no period, no place." But each sketch taps into a definite consciousness, that of a man aware of the difficulties his generation faced.

"The Currency-Reformed City," one of the shorter pieces, is about the strained European economy and what came about with the introduction of the Hamburg Gold Mark — a scrap of paper that, among other things, was sold on the black market to combat inflation. "In no German city," Roth writes, "is there such fierce hatred of the poor. Nowhere is the obstinacy of the propertied classes stronger."

In "Germany in Winter," Roth describes what he saw as the decline of Germany. The odd little gem is a first-person meditation on winter, his encounters at train stations abroad, and his conversations with locals. "In Leipzig I saw a man from a firm of undertakers," he writes. "He looked like a first-class funeral." Then, "In Chemnitz station, I saw a conductor eating chocolates." And later, "In Dresden I spoke to a policeman. I slipped him five Czech crowns, and they loosened his tongue." Roth was always after the story, and he did whatever was necessary to get it.

Still, for all of the enlightening ruminations on crime and class, people in glass cages and the destruction of cafes, some of Roth's most enjoyable pieces are literally about hotels and his time in them. He shows us elevators, cleaning ladies, and lobbies like a poet with a sharp critic's eye. "The broad mirroring glass is already variegated with the grey of the day ahead," he writes in "The Hotel," "while a few lamps hang from the ceiling like isolated stars." From start to finish, The Hotel Years is a master class in journalism, and a reminder that when a writer can play multiple small notes, he creates a full composition that carries the depth of meaning.

Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR Books. He's on Twitter: @itsjuanlove

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