Saturday, May 31, 2008

What I Saw

Not what I saw, but the wonderful selection of essays by Joseph Roth collected as What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933. In this selection of "reports" by the novelist and journalist Joseph Roth, best known for his masterpiece The Radetzky March, we are presented with a picture of the Weimar Republic through the eyes of one of the finest writers of the twentieth century. Roth was a young foreign correspondent for various newspapers, only twenty-six years old, when the earliest of these pieces was written. During the period he would also write some of the novels that have brought him posthumous fame.

The reports in this selection chronicle the underside of Berlin including Jewish immigrants, criminals and others. There are 34 pieces organized by topics such as Displaced Persons, Bourgeoisie and Bohemians, Berlin's Pleasure Industry and Look Back in Anger. In the essay "The Kurfurstendamm" he writes, "In the evening I walk along the Kurferstendamm. I slink along the walls like a dog. I am on my own, but I have a certain sense that destiny has me on a leash. . . . And so the Kurfurstendamm stretches out endlessly day and night. Also, it's being renovated. These two facts need to be emphasized, because of the way it's continually ceding particles of its true self to its designated cultural-historical role."

It is the essay of the last section, "The Auto-da-Fe of the Mind" that resonates in my memory looking back on my reading of this book. Let me quote:
"Let me say it loud and clear: The European mind is capitulating. It is capitulating out of weakness, out of sloth, out of apathy, out of lack of imagination . . . Now, as the smoke of our burned books rises into the sky, we German writers of Jewish descent must acknowledge above all that we have been defeated."

The essays in this book ring loud and clear over the decades and they bring home to the twenty-first century a sense of the life and decay of the era witnessed by Joseph Roth.

What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933 by Joseph Roth. Michael Hofmann, trans. W. W. Norton & Company, New York. 2003 (1996)

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