by Joseph Roth
It is 1919 or 1920. World War I has only recently ended. After three years in a prisoner-of-war camp in Siberia, Gabriel Dan makes his way to the West across Russia, taking casual work as he goes. However, he needs money and breaks his journey in an Eastern European town where he has family, including a wealthy uncle. He takes a room on the sixth floor of the Savoy Hotel, once splendid but now falling apart and decaying, like everything else. The hotel is a sort of microcosm of the world outside – a world disrupted by war and poverty, and threatened by labour strikes and communism. The wealthy live on the lower floors, the poor on the upper. Those who can’t pay have their luggage sealed and pawned by the management, or rather by the ageing liftboy, Ignatz.
Gabriel befriends Stasia, a girl who dances in the cabaret, and meets a host of other characters, colourfully portrayed in Roth’s witty irony. There is Santschin the clown, stabbing at the bowl of his long pipe with his wife’s knitting needle; Fisch, who is always asleep, dreaming of lottery winners; the mysterious Kaleguropoulos, hotel owner, whom everyone talks about but never sees; and Abel Glanz, with his red sticking-out ears, thin neck and restless Adam’s Apple whose movement resembles that of a concertina. Others include the army doctor, and Zlotogor, the hypnotherapist. In the Variety theatre, naked girls dance or socialise for the lewd pleasure of industrialists and factory owners. ‘Sie tanzen schlecht,’ Gabriel narrates, ‘winden sich nach der Melodie, jedes, wie ihn gefällt.’ [They dance badly, twirl to the music, all of them just as they please.]
This is the time of the ‘homecoming’, when thousands of Germans and Austrians are coming back out of Russia looking for work or handouts, begging or stealing as they go. The word in the hotel and on the street that any day Henry Bloomfield will arrive. Bloomfield, originally Blumenfeld, is a Jewish lad from a local family who has made good in America. In his wake come more visitors, businessmen and others, hoping for investment – or maybe largesse. Henry engages Gabriel to write reports on them. As it turns out, he is not coming to open a factory or make a film as many speculate, but to visit the grave of his father and dispense charity to the needy of the town.
Life at the Savoy is briefly enlivened by Bloomfields presence while, outside, Gabriel tells us ‘ein dauerhafter Regen . . . hing über der Welt wie ein ewiger Vorhang’. [a lasting rain hung over the world like an eternal curtain.] ‘Die Stadt, die keine Kanäle hatte, stank ja ohnehin . . . sah man am Rand des hölzernen Bürgersteig . . . schwarze, gelbe, lehmdicke Flüssigkeit.’ [The town, which had no drains, stank for sure . . . at the edge of the wooden pavement you could see a black and yellow fluid, thick with mud.]
Hotel Savoy, for all its witty prose, has a dark, surreal feel. It is prophetic too (we now know) and is a novel of contrast and hidden metaphor. The world is changing and not for the better. One can feel it in the rain, in the grey dampness of the hotel’s upper storeys, in the broken, stinking streets, the endless streams of returning combattants and POWS who fill the soup kitchens and barracks, the hopelessness of life and the inevitable disease.
And Bloomfield has gone – ‘ . . . auf lautlosen Rädern, ohne Hupenschrei, im Dunkel der Nacht floh Bloomfield vor dem Typhus, vor dem Revolution’. [. . . on soundless wheels, without honking horn, in the darkness of the night Bloomfield fled Typhus and Revolution.]
Eventually, the strikes turn nasty, riots spread from neighbouring towns and the police and military are called in to ruthlessly put down the revolution.
Hotel Savoy was one of Roth’s earliest novels. It first appeared in 1924 in the Frankfurter Zeitung, where he worked as a correspondent from 1923 until 1932. It is not a novel I would have bothered to read in English – as far as I know, there is only one translation from the 1980s – but, having a reasonable if imperfect grasp of the German language, I found it interesting as satire, and quite enjoyable as an example of the writer’s style and as a reflection of the period.