Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction, Yiddish Literature, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality historical novels are some of my Literary Interests

Friday, December 6, 2013

What I Saw - Reports from Berlin 1920 to 1933 by Joseph Roth - two articles - translated and introduced by Michael Hoffman

Last month most of my reading, as my participation in German Literature III, I read a number of works by Joseph Roth (1894 to 1939).  I said in a post I did on the American holiday of Thanksgiving that I was thankful that I will not die never having read Joseph Roth. I intend to read as much of his work as I can. It looks like there are seven kindle books from Roth I have not yet read and I will start with them with the goal of completing them in 2014.  Michael Hoffman says there seems to be a Roth revival under way so maybe by 2015 more will be out as Kindles.  Pretty much all I know of the life of Roth comes from introductions by Michael Hoffman. (You can read the introductions for free in the sample kindle editions.) There is no English language biography of Roth.  I hope Hoffman will write one and I wish so much I could do one myself.  

Professionally Roth was very much a newspaper man. For most of his adult life he wrote what were once called "feuilletons".  I confess this was a new to me word (my blog editing software insists there is no such word).  It basically means an article in the "special interest" section of a news paper devoted to reviews and features.  Roth was a master of this.  From 1920 to 1933 he wrote many such articles for Berlin newspapers.  He left Berlin when the Nazis came to power.  (They burned as many of his books as they could find and murdered many of his readers.)

There are thirty four articles in the collection.  I will read all of them and probably post at least briefly on each article.  It might take a year or more.  Or it might take a month.  

"Going For a Walk" 1920

In this quote, from the first article in the collection, "Going For a Walk", you can see much of the acute perceptivity and the deeply haunted sensibility of Roth.  He is walking in the Jewish quarter of Berlin.  He observes a woman whose primary business is selling shoe laces and dabbles in stocks on the side being taken seriously in a conversation with a noted financier.  There are deep rooted connections in the work of writers like Roth and his patron Stefan Zweig to Yiddish literature. Zweig, born into real wealth,  represents culture at its highest form.  Zweig and Roth were both at heart Austro-Hungarian Jews, both, as did Yiddish writers like Itzak Manger, had a deep love for the reading life.  Some say this is historically derived from the place of written texts like the Torah in Jewish culture.   "Going for A Walk" was a brilliant first selection.  Much of what Roth wrote was based on observations he made walking in the poorer parts of Berlin.  He was able to see in a seller of shoe laces a woman on an intellectual par with a great financier, to see it with out irony and to see through the minds of the fools who would see this as a comic scene.

"The Orient on Hirtenstrasse" 1921

The quote above is really almost a summing up of Roth's ethos.  In the 1920 and the 1930s, Yiddish Jews were seen by "European Jews" as somehow primitive and almost were embarrassed by them. They had come to see the "Oriental" quality of people of Yiddish heritage as breeding a hatred for Jews so they tried to separate themselves from them, orientalizing them (think Edward Said).  If you feel I am wrong on this, I claim no expertise, then read Hannah Arendt).  The article brings the street totally to life for us.

It is impossible, for me at least, to read these two articles without flashing forward to the Nazis and the Holocaust.  

Please share your experience with Roth and the things he wrote about with us.  



Lydgate said...

Love reading Roth. His biography is rather in his books and stories. Hoffmann has translated many of his letters and these are fascinating. The German version is better illustrated and can be used around Berlin but obviously there are very many changes.

I think Roth saw the writing on the wall quickly and was in Paris by 1923. If anyone is interested in Roth they might well enjoy Clive James's "Cultural Amnesia" which introduces several similar writers from that period like Tucholsky.

mel u said...

Lydgate- thanks very much for your comment. I checked on the Clive James book you suggested and it does look very interesting. I hope you will continue to share your insights with us.