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WHAT I SAW by Joseph Roth Kirkus Star


Reports from Berlin, 1920-1933

by Joseph Roth & translated by Michael Hofmann

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-393-05167-6
Publisher: Norton

Evocative pieces about life in interbellum Berlin by a Jewish journalist and fiction writer (The Collected Stories of Joseph Roth, 2002, etc.).

Roth (1894–1939) wrote in lyrical prose, genially leftist but pointed and candid as well. This is the first collection of his journalism in English, a beautiful translation from the German, and after finishing these 34 pieces, readers will yearn for more. Roth’s bright eye roams across Berlin, settling on both the obscure and the patent. He excels at the former, noting “It’s only the minutiae of life that are important.” He wanders the streets where impoverished refugees live. He haunts the “dives” and nightclubs, mingles with those society has forgotten. “All state officials,” he declares, “should be required to spend a month serving in a homeless shelter to learn love.” He ponders the effects of mass transportation, expatiates on the wonders of department stores, marvels at Berlin’s first skyscraper. “Strong and safe in its assembly,” he says of this towering building, “it matches a natural mountain for strength.” He is puzzled by the German fascination for wax museums, comments wryly that participants in the six-day bike races don’t really ever get anywhere, and in perhaps the wriest piece he writes about a cinema as if it were a church. At times his sentences are perfect, near poetry in syntax and diction: of a card game, he remarks, “On the table the grimy bits of cardboard make a noise like muffled slaps.” He has no respect for politicians and wishes that they were as impressive as the buildings they worked in. The only piece that deals directly with fascism is the final one. In slashing prose he writes of the Nazis’ “crazy assaults on the intellect” and condemns Europe for its sloth, weakness, apathy, and ready capitulation to cruelty.

Poignant and prescient. (35 b&w photos)