Joseph Roth: Hotel Savoy (1924)
Written in 1924, Hotel Savoy is a dark, witty parable of Europe on the verge of fascism and war.
I read Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March years ago in school and had sworn at the time that I will re-read it and read as much as I can of this incredible author. A while back I stumbled upon a really nice discovery in a local bookshop, a little slipcase containing seven of Joseph Roth’s novels. It consists of Hotel Savoy (Hotel Savoy) (1924) Hiob (Job) (1930) Radetzkymarsch (The Radetzky March) (1932) Beichte eines Mörders (Confession of a Murderer) (1936) Das falsche Gewicht (Weights and Measures) (1937) Die Kapuzinergruft (The Emperor’s Tomb) (1938) and Die Geschichte von der 1002. Nacht (The String of Pearls) (1939).
Roth is one of three Austrian authors (the other two being Robert Musil and Heimito von Doderer) who wrote about the end of the Danube Monarchy. The end of an era, the changing of the times, is often central in his books.
I decided to read Roth’s books chronologically and started with Hotel Savoy.
What an absolutely wonderful novel this is. Beautifully written, astonishingly varied in style, themes and characters. How can you capture so much in under 120 pages? The style is very different from Radetzkymarsch but not less enchanting. His sentences are very special, often composed of a list of nouns which might have been a challenge for a translator.
I am happy, once more, to shed an old live, like I did so often these past years. I see the soldier, the murderer, the man who was almost murdered, the resurrected man, the captive, the wanderer.
Or this powerful sentence:
I enjoy the floating feeling, calculate how many wearisome steps I would have had to climb if I wasn’t sitting in this luxurious lift, and I throw down bitterness, poverty, homelessness, migration, hunger, the past of the beggar, throw them deep into the shaft, from where they cannot reach me, the hovering one, ever again.
Hotel Savoy is a “Heimkehrer Roman”, the story of the former soldier Gabriel Dan who after WWI and several years of having been a prisoner of war in a Siberian camp returns to Poland. He is a descendant of Russian Jews and one of his uncles lives in the city in which he stops. He wants to travel westwards to Paris or any of the other big Western cities. As far away as he can get from Russia and a painful past full of deprivations, it seems.
He moves into a room on one of the upper floors of the grand and glamorous looking Hotel Savoy. As pompous as it may seem from the outside, the interior is rundown.
The first three lower floors are reserved to rich people, bankers, aristocrats, factory owners and patrons. The upper floors belong to the poor who cannot pay their rent. After a few weeks their suitcases and luggage is confiscated and they are left completely destitute.
What a colorful group of people they are in those upper floors. Dancers and clowns and people who return from the war or people who have lost everything in one foolhardy transaction. They are eccentrics and lunatics and more than one of them is terminally ill. There is singing and dancing and cheerfulness and a lot of dying going on.
Gabriel hopes to be able to extract some money of his rich uncle, Phöbus Böhlaug, but to no avail. His uncle’s avarice is frightening.
There is nothing else to do for Gabriel than stand at the train station daily and hoping for work. Every other week the train station is flooded by prisoners returning from the camps. One day he meets one of his old comrades the peasant Zwonimir.
What a character, this Zwonimir. Full of life, exuberant, funny and droll. He makes friends easily has a funny sense of humour and detects everything phony in the rich and pompous people around him.
They work hard and enjoy themselves in the evening, drinking copiously, going to cabarets and the vaudeville, walking through the city, exploring the quarters where only Jews live.
I always enjoy novels set in hotels. They are full of interesting characters from the most diverse social backgrounds. In this inter-war period hotels were often the only place where people could stay. It took those who returned from the war an awfully long time to get back to their homes and they had to stay somewhere on the way. Others had lost their houses or just fled the countryside.
It is a fascinating microcosm this Hotel Savoy. The very poor and the very rich rub shoulders.
One of the central episodes is the arrival of Henry Bloomfield an incredibly rich banker who left Europe for America but returns once a year to his hometown. No one really knows why he chooses to come back to this little town when he could stay in Berlin.
While he resides at the Savoy, people cue up to talk to him and present their business ideas hoping he might finance them. Gabriel is lucky and is chosen by Bloomfield as temporary assistant. He will listen to all the stories and sort the valuable ideas out.
This novel has really everything. It is funny, sad, picturesque, touching and bitter-sweet and the ending is perfection. Roth describes people, the hotel and the little town with great detail. And every second sentence bears an explosive in the form of a word that shatters any illusion of an idyllic life. Roth served in WWI and never for once allows us to forget that the horror of one war and subsequent imprisonment have only just been left behind while the next one is announcing itself already.
I was reminded of other novels set in hotels, pensions or clubs like Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means, Vicki Baum’s Menschen im Hotel (Grand Hôtel), Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Assouline’s Lutetia, Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull and Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac.
I am sure there are many more. Do you know any others?
I translated the quotes from the original German. Any mistakes are entirely my own.