As I posted last week, I picked these two books up on a recent flit through London. The Roth has been appealing to me for a while, and Keun had come up on an Internet browse as having had a temporary liaison with him. I thought therefore it might be nice to consider the books side by side. Firstly, though, a little about the authors from Wikipedia:
Joseph Roth, born Moses Joseph Roth (September 2, 1894 – May 27, 1939), was an Austrian-Jewish journalist and novelist, best known for his family saga Radetzky March (1932) about the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and for his novel of Jewish life, Job (1930) as well as the seminal essay ‘Juden auf Wanderschaft’ (1927; translated into English as The Wandering Jews), a fragmented account about the Jewish migrations from eastern to western Europe in the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution. In the 21st century, publications in English of Radetzky March and of collections of his journalism from Berlin and Paris created a revival of interest in the author.
Irmgard Keun (February 6, 1905 – May 5, 1982) was a German author noteworthy both for her portrayals of life in the Weimar Republic as well as the early years of the Nazi Germany era.
So perhaps they are unlikely compatriots – an Austrian Jew and a younger German – but nevertheless these works *are* interesting when set alongside each other.
Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth
Once again, Hesperus Press have done us a great service by bringing a work back from oblivion, and publishing it in a beautiful little edition with a striking cover image and French flaps! “Hotel Savoy” was Roth’s second novel, and it’s set in an unspecified border town (apparently based on Lodz, which is now in the Ukraine). Our narrator is Gabriel Dann, a ‘homecomer’ who has fought in the first world war and is returning from a Siberian prison camp. He stops off in town to visit relatives in the hope of finding some money, or even a place to settle, but this town is perhaps not the best place to be…
Dann moves into the hotel of the title, a formerly grand building which still has several floors of richer clientele, but also some upper floors which house a rich variety of characters – performers, money lenders, wanderers, mesmerists – and Stasia, who dances at the Variete and attracts Dann’s attention straight away. But he has a rival for her, in the form of his cousin Alexander. His local family members are that of his late mother’s brother, who seems to have been up to some fishy business with her money, and despite providing him with clothes and cast-offs, they are not forthcoming with any money. Our hero is running out of cash and may end up in hock to Ignatz, the lift operator, who seems to have quite a lot of control over events in the hotel, until an old friend turns up in the form of Zwonimir – a confident, imposing man who completely changes the dynamic surrounding Dann. The men look for work against the background of increasing civil unrest – this is an industrial town, and the workers are striking – and Zwonimir (a Russian) is fomenting revolution. How will things pan out for Dann and his friends and colleagues at the Hotel Savoy?
Gabriel Dann is a fascinating character, a survivor of war, revolution and all their horrors, who is detached – possibly a condition of his survival. He has become some remote that he cannot even respond properly to Stasia and her love and it is only when he compares himself with Zwonimir and the latter’s camaraderie with those around him that he realises this failing:
“I am on my own. My heart beats for me alone. The strikers are of no interest to me. I have nothing in common with any crowd, and nothing with individuals either. I am a cold creature. In the war I never felt really part of my company. We all lay in the same muck, all waiting for the same death. The difference was that I could only think of my own life and my own death. I walked over corpses, and sometimes it troubled me that I felt no pain.”
Roth writes very beautifully, conjuring up the industrial town battered by the war and revolution; the population equally damaged, many hanging on by the skin of their teeth; the corrupt industrialists who will exploit the workers for whatever gain they can. And then there is Bloomfield – a local boy made good, who has gone to America with his fortune and whose return is the cause of much rumour and excitement. But Bloomfield was once Blumenfeld and his return is not intended to help the many people petitioning him for aid. It is only the local Jewish population who know the truth behind his visit.
The book is full of people yearning for a better world after the destruction of the First World War and revolution (at the time Lodz had been passing backwards and forwards between a variety of countries, and had a mixed populace of Germans, Russians, Poles, Silesians and Jews). It is not a coincidence that Zwonimir ‘s exclamation for something good happening is simply “America!” as that country was perceived by starving Europeans as some kind of promised land. After the climactic events of the book, some of the characters travel away by train in search of something new – the European equivalent of going west.
This was an excellent, gripping read, capturing the dislocation of life post-war and the changing of the old social structures. Although a short work (just over 100 pages, like many Hesperus lost classics), it packed in much action but not at the expense of characterisation. And interestingly, I discovered after a little Internet searching that Roth was a friend of Stefan Zweig (whose books I recently discovered). Both men were remarkable writers, both suffered because of their Jewishness, both met a sad end – and both are excellent writers whose work I really want to explore more.
(As a side note, congratulations to Hesperus for putting a warning at the top of their foreword informing the new reader that plot elements are discussed – I nowadays often avoid introductions to books in case they give too much away, but it’s nice for the publishers to be aware of this too. The book is nicely translated by Jonathan Katz, who also provides the introduction).
After Midnight by Irmgard Keun
“After Midnight” is a lovely little Neversink Library edition, translated by Anthea Bell (who has also produced works by Stefan Zweig) and with an afterword by Geoff Wilkes. The story is set a decade and a half or so after Roth’s novel, in a Germany which is becoming more and more controlled by the Nazis. The story is narrated by Sanna (short for Susanna), a young girl of 19 living with her half-brother Algin and sister-in-law Liska in Frankfurt. Sanna has fled her home in the country as she does not get on that well with her step-mother, initially lodging with her terrible Aunt Adelheid and cousin Franz, whom she is in love with. Sanna’s aunt is a horrid woman, tormenting Franz for a childhood tragedy that was in fact more her fault than anything. When she perceives Sanna is a rival for him, she denounces the girl who flees to Frankfurt, where she has settled down into a life with her family and friends, including her best friend Gerti. The latter is in a difficult position – in love with Dieter, a boy with Jewish blood, but with a family who want to marry her off to a nice SS man. As the girls travel across the city to meet him, they are blocked by a procession: the Führer is passing through.
As the story unfolds, we meet other characters in Sanna’s orbit, including the cynical journalist Heini (whom Liska is obsessed with), and the Silias family, whose young daughter Berta has been selected to present a bouquet to Hitler. But Franz has reappeared and Sanna still loves him – how will the night progress; who will survive and who will not; do Sanna and Franz have any chance of a future?
I’m trying to discuss this book without giving too much away, because there are shocks and surprises as the story is told. “After Midnight” is wonderfully written, in the first person and in a very immediate way – we are following Sanna’s life and thoughts and it almost reads like a stream-of-consciousness narrative, so we feel as if we are experiencing the events alongside Sanna. We learn about her route to this point in time in a series of flashbacks, and become really involved with what is happening and her future.
Keun also manages to portray in a remarkably clever way what it was like to live in Nazi Germany; the creeping fear of denunciation; the random prejudice and violence; the way that nasty people could lie and inform on others with no basis; and the despair that overtook many of the independent, thinking people living in this kind of society. Keun never beats you over the head with this, instead using Sanna’s narration and viewpoint on things to demonstrate how it was, which is much more effective.
“It always used to be so cosy when two girls went to the Ladies together. You powdered your noses, and exchanged rapid but important information about men and love. And you combed your hair, and the pair of you wondered whether to let the man you were with take you home, and if they’d get above themselves, and want to kiss you when you didn’t. Or if you did, you’d be terribly worried the man might not think you pretty enough. You exchanged excited advice in the Ladies. It was often silly advice, but still, conversations in the Ladies were fun, and interesting.
But politics is in the air even in the Ladies these days. Gerti says she supposes it’s something if you find one without a lavatory attendant who expects you to say “Heil Hitler” and wants ten pfennigs into the bargain.”
Sanna is younger and in some ways more resilient – she is better able to cope with the complexities of this kind of life. However, Algin is struggling, having had his writings condemned; Heini, at Liska’s party, rather brilliantly dissects everyone there and has harsh words about Algin and his attempts to write acceptable works:
“The dictatorship has made Germany a perfect country, and a perfect country doesn’t need writers. There’s no literature in Paradise. Can’t have writers without imperfections around them, can’t have poets. The purest of lyric poets needs to yearn for perfection. Once you’ve got perfection, poetry stops.”
“After Midnight” shows very clearly and cleverly how hard it was for ordinary German people living under this regime; one where they were just as imprisoned as those who were transported. As one character comments, when considering the state of uncertainly they live in and the constant threat of fake informing,
‘Elvira,’ he says, this place is no better than a concentration camp.’
‘Fancy you not noticing that before,’ says I. ‘We’re all in a concentration camp, the whole nation is, it’s only the Government can go running around free.’
In some ways this is a bleak book, but it also contains optimism and demonstrations of the resilience of the human spirit. Sanna is a wonderful character who we really care for and hope will survive to make a new life. I’m so glad I discovered this wonderful author and I’m really looking forward to reading more of her work.
Reading these two books in tandem ended up being a fascinating experience. Although the two authors were only briefly linked, their novels do have a relevance in being studied together. In less than two decades, Germany went from a fragmented, crumbling nation trembling on the brink of revolution, to a united, warlike and powerful country controlled by a right-wing caste. The Jewish question and the subject of identity is a strong theme in Roth’s work, and the relevance of the shifting borders of the countries at the time of the story. Keun’s work is from a different point of view, that of an ordinary German girl, who nevertheless is struggling in a changing world. These two books reflect the differences between these two poles and show us how literature can help us to understand the transformations that take place in life. Both are highly recommended!