The Austrian Jewish writer Joseph Roth (1894-1939) is best known for his many novels, but he was also a prolific author of non-fiction. Reviewing a recent collection of his journalistic pieces, translated into English and titled The Hotel Years, Malcom Forbes finds it rich in artistry if short on prescience:
Most items [in The Hotel Years] are choice cuts from Roth’s travels for the Frankfurter Zeitung through France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Albania, and the USSR. Appearing in English for the first time, all are marvels in miniature: lightly sketched but boldly colored people and places, moments in time, fleeting joys and sudden upheavals, upswings and downturns. All are studded with Roth’s trademark metaphors, aphorisms, and mots justes. . . .
[W]hile Roth is a master at freeze-framing a moment and replaying a memory, he offers little in The Hotel Years in the way of tentative peeks into the future—political projections, economic forecasts, the likely fates of individuals. In contrast, his novels are aswirl with dark prophesies and his busy correspondence is dotted with optimistic predictions—the former turning out to be depressingly true, the latter sadly too good to be true. . . . Similarly, in The Hotel Years, in the few instances where Roth tries to look ahead, he drastically underestimates the consequences. In Berlin in 1923 he watches two high-school kids chanting “Filthy Yids!” on the street and not one passerby censuring them. “That’s how law-abiding people are in Berlin,” Roth writes. “And that discipline is heading for a tragicomic ending.” Would that it were only tragicomic.
Most of the time, especially in the later pieces, we must make do with grim foreboding. In the bleak penultimate article, penned mere months before Roth’s death, a poor man struggling to stay afloat must report to the police. “He has a document with his name on it and where he comes from and where he lives. But what it doesn’t say is how long he can stay there, and where he’s allowed to go.”