Summary: When the 26-year-old Joseph Roth arrived in the war-shattered city of Berlin in 1920, he produced a series of impressionistic and political essays that would influence an entire generation of writers, including Thomas Mann and later the young Christopher Isherwood. Translated by Michael Hofmann and collected here for the first time in English in What I Saw, Roth's essays record the violent social and political paroxysms that relentlessly threatened to undo the fragil ...show moree democracy that was the Weimar Republic.
Roth, who considered himself more than a mere reporter, but a poet who "paints portrait of an age," began his career when he traveled with the Austrian army during the First World War. A leading foreign correspondent for various Austrian and German papers, he contributed pieces from cities all over Europe throughout the 1920s and 1930s while at the same time writing novels that would bring him international acclaim as well. As demonstrated here in What I Saw, the feuilleton or short essay form allowed Roth to "say true things on half a page" in a biting, economical style. None of Roth's reports remain as historically vital as those he composed from or about Berlin.
Weimar Germany, as Hofmann writes in his introduction, had "a whiff of fragility, of scandal, of doom" and Roth, like no other German writer of his time, ventured beyond Berlin's official veneer to capture the essence of the city. Against the traditional portrayal of Berlin as an entrepôt of fun and transport, of government, nightlife and literary glamour, Roth's gritty depiction chronicles the lives of the city's forgotten inhabitants: the war cripples, the Jewish immigrants from the Pale, the criminals, the bathhouse denizens, and the nameless dead who filled the morgues.
Including 34 pieces organized into nine parts, What I Saw is as variegated as the city itself, with sections ranging from "Berlin's Pleasure Industry" and "The Jewish Quarter," to "Displaced Persons" and "Bourgeoisie and Bohemians." From his description of the construction of Germany's first skyscraper ("I have a shining vision of a bar in the clouds. It's raining champagne cocktails") to the din of a cosmopolitan nightclub ("Pleasure was always a business, but at least it wasn't yet an industry") and, finally, to the rising smoke of a 1933 Nazi book burning ("Let me say it loud and clear: The European mind is capitulating -- Let us concede our defeat."), Roth displays an almost preternatural sense of the movements of history.
In What I Saw, Roth evokes a landscape of moral bankruptcy and debauched beauty -- a memorable portrait of a city, and a time, of commingled hope and chaos. ...show less