REPORT FROM A PARISIAN PARADISE: ESSAYS FROM FRANCE, 1925-1939
By Joseph Roth
Translated and with an introduction by Michael Hofmann
W.W. Norton & Co., $24.95, 301 pages
REVIEWED BY DEBRA BRUNO
Joseph Roth, Europe’s most famous reporter between the two world wars, is not well-known to the English-speaking world today. And yet Roth, who sent dispatches full of life, gossip, and news from Vienna, Berlin, and Paris, is starting to enjoy a renewed popularity, as his works are translated from German.
Thanks to translator Michael Hofmann, we now have 50 of those dispatches in English in a new collection titled “Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France, 1925-1939.”
Roth, Austrian-born, adored Paris — and all of France, for that matter. While he tolerated Berlin for 13 years, from 1920 to 1933, he never felt comfortable as a Jew and a hater of authoritarianism in Germany’s rigidity and growing anti-Semitism.
“Who in all the world goes to Berlin voluntarily?” he asked in his book “The Wandering Jews.” In the previous collection of his essays translated by Mr. Hofmann, “What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920-1933” (published in 2002), Roth looked unblinkingly at Germany’s decadence, corruption, and intolerance. He recognized the significance of the burning of books.
But France: that was a different story. For nine years, Roth was a reporter for the German newspaper Frankfurter Zeitung as he traveled around Europe and finally settled in Paris. Here is Roth at the end of his short life — he died at 45 — finally finding a place where he felt welcome.
His light essays (called feuilletons) took on a rhapsodic tone, as in his 1926 “Letter from Paris” (included in “Paradise”) — “Wherever you go you will find the earth drenched with history, a cultivated nature that, with proud grace, has yielded to human wishes; humane landscapes, endowed with common sense; paths that seem to know themselves where they are going; hills that seem to know their own height; valleys that can dally with you.”
Step back, as my teenage daughter would say. This is a man who seemingly was so starved for human affection, for a sense of home, that he personified the land, imbuing it with the welcoming qualities of a good friend.
And that is the feeling that carries through “Report from a Parisian Paradise”: an almost overwhelming sense of loneliness and isolation coupled with a search for connection.
Roth may have found a cherished home in France, but one still feels that he was very much solitary, so lonely that the statues in churches and the rolling hills of the countryside became his compatriots far more than the breathing people of France ever could have.
Although we don’t know a great deal about Roth’s early years, we do know he was born Moses Joseph Roth to a German-speaking Jewish family in Volynia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Roth never knew his father, who abandoned his mother before he was born. His community was filled with Jews and gentiles, and speakers of German, Polish, Yiddish, and Ukrainian.
Although the diversity of the town might have made him feel a citizen of the world, Roth also wrote often about the loss of home, the sense of never belonging. His novel “The Radetzky March” (1932), considered his masterpiece, described the fall of the Hapsburg monarchy and the overall crash of European culture that resulted. It’s a novel of loss and nostalgia for the sensuality and openness of an older, more refined Europe. That Jewish-Slavic Eastern European poignancy runs through much of his writing, both journalism and fiction.
Roth became a journalist in 1918, reporting for left-wing newspapers and becoming known to some as “Red Roth.” When he moved to Berlin and landed a job with the Frankfurter Zeitung, he wandered throughout Europe, reporting from Russia, Albania, Poland, Italy, and Germany.
It was in Germany, though, that Roth began to warn readers of the danger and growing power of the Nazi Party. By the time the Nazis took power in 1933, Roth had fled to Paris, where he would stay for the remainder of his life.
Even before Roth had cut his ties with Germany, he recognized Paris as his true home. He wrote to one of his German editors in 1925: “I feel compelled to inform you ‘in person’ that Paris is the capital of the world and that you must come here … It is free, open, intellectual in the best sense, and ironic in its magnificent pathos.”
The first half of “Paradise” continues in this vein. In the south of France, Roth fell in love with the cathedral in Lyons:
“I have never seen a monument from modern times whose grandeur is so intimately paired with tenderness, whose bulk stands back so modestly behind the gentle effect of its details. Saints bear the gable, supporting it on their heads, saints line the recesses of the arches, and so alive is the effect of human forms fulfilling technical functions that every stone seems to breathe as part of some living whole …”
Roth was not only enamored of France; he was also well on his way to becoming a Catholic. He wrote of the church of Vienne: “The ceiling is a dark blue star-spangled sky. It is so alive, so real, that you might suppose it was the original version of the night sky, and not the other way round. Happy the worshippers who pray here! They get to see their prayers rising straight up and reaching the stars. In this church every prayer must be granted.”
Imagine a journalist today sending such dispatches. After seeing Avignon, Roth loved all of mankind and predicted that the south of France represented the future mingling of the races, which he called “the highest stage of human evolution.” No wonder he fled Hitler’s Germany.
The last part of the collection, though, veers to sadness. In the Normandy town of Peronne he described, movingly, the horrible devastation that remained from World War I:
“I can sense red blood running through the veins of the surviving trees, through the clumps of earth … The spring smells of powder and shot. Swallows are errant projectiles. The sky presses down. It bears not clouds but destruction.” It was almost as if Roth sensed the coming of another war.
It may have been a sad blessing in disguise that Roth died of alcoholism before he could see the utter devastation Hitler wrought in Europe. Roth lived his final years in Paris, shifting from hotel to hotel, even reporting the demolition of the Hotel Foyot, which had been his home for many years:
“Now I’m sitting facing the vacant lot, and hearing the hours go by. You lose one home after another, I say to myself. Here I am, sitting with my wanderer’s staff. My feet are sore, my heart is tired, my eyes are dry. Misery crouches beside me, ever larger and ever gentler; pain takes an interest, becomes huge and kind; terror flutters up, and it doesn’t even frighten me anymore. And that’s the most desolate thing of all.”
Although in many of these essays, Roth often gives readers only the incidentals — the quality of light, the chatter on the street — any reader of today will feel he is sitting alongside Roth in a bistro, sipping pastis, watching Europe slip from reason to despair.
Debra Bruno is assistant editor of Moment magazine in Washington.