- - Sunday, October 11, 2015


The best way to tell good journalism from bad is to let it gather a little dust. Try this experiment and I think you’ll agree: Save the Monday morning edition of, say, The New York Times or The Washington Post. Then go back to it a week later. You’ll probably discover that much of what you first read seven days earlier is already outdated if not downright wrong. No need to be annoyed though; most journalism, by its very nature, has an extremely short shelf-life.

Thank God for the shining exceptions. Every now and then a journalist comes along whose eyes — both inner and outer — are able to see things as they are at first glance, one who brings a special blend of intelligence, knowledge and intuition to his task. Joseph Roth (1894-1939) was such a journalist. And a great deal more as well, a man who managed to outlive his country — the old Austro-Hungarian Empire — while still clinging to the best aspects of the remarkable culture it embodied. As he described it a generation after it had been consumed in the flames of World War I, “I loved this fatherland. It permitted me to be a patriot and a citizen of the world at the same time … I loved the virtues and merits of this fatherland, and today, when it is dead and gone, I even love its flaws and weaknesses.”

But Roth did much more than lament lost worlds. Consider a few lines that he wrote after interviewing a Muslim dictator in 1927 and, almost a century later, how closely they fit conditions on the ground today:

” … it is impossible to judge the circumstances of an Oriental state, whose history is oppression, whose ethics are corruption, and whose culture is a mixture of native bucolic and archaic-romantic naivet and the recent importation of intrigue, by the criteria of a Western democracy. If one suddenly found oneself back in the Middle Ages, it would be similarly fatuous to be exercised about the burning of witches … Tomorrow may see Ahmed Zogu still in power, and the day after gone, and someone else in his place, who would be almost indistinguishable from him.”

The “Ahmed Zogu” in question shortly thereafter declared himself King of Albania as Zog the First (and last). He ruled briefly until he was driven out by Mussolini — and afterwards kept out by Stalin. Nothing good came out of his “reign” and what followed it was considerably worse. Even today, more than a generation after the fall of communism, predominantly Muslim Albania is considered the poorest, most backward — and possibly the most lawless — of all Balkan nations. Sadly, we’ve seen that same scenario play itself out again and again despite the best (and worst) efforts of western “nation builders” and would-be democracy exporters.

How remarkable, though, that Roth — a harried exile from a defunct fatherland who spent much of his time drunk and yet managed to write thousands of pages of excellent fiction as well as reportage before dying at only 44 — understood so much, so clearly, so early.

Besides being an inspired novelist (two of his best, “The Radetzky March” and “The Emperor’s Tomb” are available in excellent English translations), Roth was also master of a now almost vanished form of literary journalism, the feuilleton (derived from the French for little notes or sheets of paper), a short sketch from the life — but drawn with creative subtlety — that can deal with subjects big or little in a column or two of newsprint. “The Hotel Years”, translator Michael Hofmann’s newest sampling of Roth’s nonfiction articles, includes some of his very best feuilletons.

While Mr. Hofmann deserves kudos for a generally outstanding job of translating, he claims more than his due when he writes that he “first introduced English readers to the word feuilleton.” If this is true, Mr. Hofmann must have been a remarkable child since the late Alexander King published his own English translation and commentary on the works of an earlier Viennese master of the feuilleton genre, Peter Altenberg, in 1960. At the time, Mr. Hofmann would have been three years old.

Infant prodigy or not, Michael Hofmann deserves our thanks for helping to revive the memory of Joseph Roth, a brilliant, tragic — and long-neglected — master of European letters.

Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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