One of the greatest newspaper correspondents during the golden age of German journalism brilliantly illuminates the inexorable, deepening chaos that prefaced WWII.
Driven to do more than just report, Roth (1894–1939) aspired to define his time, including its calamitous echoes of the First War: “We were outfitted for life,” he writes of his generation, “only for death to greet us. We were the unhappy grandsons who put their grandfathers on their laps to tell them stories.” Forever struggling with alcoholism, Roth felt like a prisoner in his own country and departed for Paris in 1925. For him, “Berlin represents power, rigidity, scale, and threat,” notes Hofmann, who won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club prize for his translation of Roth’s novel The Tale of the 1,002nd Night (1998). “France is suppleness, beauty, humanity and promise.” But the essays here, mainly from Paris, Lyon, and the Midi, do not voice a simple adoration. Roth combines keen observations of people—socialist dockworkers at breakfast, prostitutes at leisure, an old man with lifeless eyes seen through a window in an empty room—with an acute sense of how history and environment constitute social engineering. He is intrigued, for example, when the town of Nîmes erects a public cinema screen inside the ruins of its Roman arena, into which the entire medieval population had moved to sit out a few centuries of the Dark Ages. His prose is fluid, often languidly evocative, but then he will suddenly snap lulled readers to attention with bolts of original logic and clarity. Despite his denial of sentimentality, Roth is openly seduced, for example, by “the rattling of the steel shutters coming down in front of the shops [as] for an hour people prepare for the magnificent, lofty festival that in the white cities of the south of France goes by the name ‘lunch.’ ”
Haunting and powerful evocation of a world Hitler despised.