Joseph Roth: Hotel Savoy (1924)

Hotel Savoy

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.

28 thoughts on “Joseph Roth: Hotel Savoy (1924)

  1. Between you and Mx at Pechorin’s Journal, I am going to have to move Roth up the list. This sounds marvellous. I’m fascinated by this period for some reason.

    Thanks (great cover too, isn’t it?).

    • Yes, I ike the cover and love the period. It’s a wonderful book. I wouldn’t have minded it being longer, it’s very condensed on the other hand the style is fantastic. I need to re-read the Radetzkymarsch. I had a Erich Maria Remarque phase a while back, although he isn’t as great a writer as Roth, he has written a few very atmospheric novels, and one of those I haven’t read is set in the inter-war period as well. Need to read it too.

  2. I really enjoyed Arnaldur Indriðason’s Voices, a murder mystery set in a fictional luxury hotel in Reykjavík (modeled on The Hotel Borg.) The action takes place over the Christmas season, with Detective Erlendur actually taking a room in the hotel to get closer to the case (and also to avoid the loneliness of his flat.) Arnaldur’s work is, like so much of Scandinavian crime fiction, pretty bleak. That is not a weakness, but part of its appeal, I think- not for all tastes, to be sure.

    http://flippistarchives.blogspot.com/2007/11/voices.html

    • Thanks for that recommendation. I wanted to read another Indriðason but didn’t know which one. I enjoyed the one I read. And I heard quite a lot about the Hotel Borg. A friend of mine stayed there last year. I can’t help it but I find “hotel stories ” so fascinating. Thanks for the link as well. I was looking for a review of The Fish Can Sing today but couldn’t find your search function. I read half of it so far. It’s like nothing I have ever read. Very different. One would want to be in that turf-cottage if only for a short time.

  3. My Fish review, along with links to other reviews of this book:

    http://flippistarchives.blogspot.com/2009/04/charmed.html

    The search window on my blog is in the upper left corner.

    I’m looking forward to your review.

    My wife and I stayed in The Hotel Borg in 2000 and found it to be charming. It is loaded with history; I’m constantly running across references to it in Icelandic literature, films and music. Björk performed there in the early 90’s with a jazz trio, she made the record Gling-Glo with that group.

    More than you need to know about The Hotel Borg:

    http://flippistarchives.blogspot.com/search?q=hotel+borg

    • I am glad I’m not the only one enjoying nice covers. I think you would like this, yes. Or any of his other books, The Radetzky March certainly. I think a biography about him could be very inetersting too.

  4. I haven’t read Roth or Musil but they are both on my TBR list. “Hotel Savoy” sounds like a wonderful read and having just read “The Hare With Amber Eyes” I am wanting to read some fiction set in this time period. Thanks for a great review.

    • You are welcome, Gavin. I was so tempted by The Hare with Amber Eyes in the book shop the other day. Will have to see what you wrote about it. Roth is a bit more accessible than Musil but I like them both.

  5. I should read Joseph Roth. Max (Pechorin’s Journal) recently reviewed Weight and Measures and I already thought I should try one of his books. (Why did they change the title in English?? The French is the exact translation of the German)

    About books in hotels : A Room with a View ; Daisy Miller.

  6. I read about Roth in an article on him by Joan Acocella (who I love) and remember then that he sounded intriguing. Lovely review – I’ll have to look out for him. And I will put in a mention for Hotel World by Ali Smith, who is one of the most interesting contemporary British writers around, I think.

    • Thanks, litlove. I will have to look up Acocella. I think that you would like Roth a lot. I will also have a look at Ali Smith, thanks for the recommendation. I’m intrigued by Ali Smith and was planning on reading her Girl Meets Boy very soon.

  7. another new author to look up. This sounds interesting and not thick.
    I don’t think I have ever read any book set in Hotel except by Stephen King, The Shining, of course it was totally different with this one.

    I agree with Guy Savage, the cover is lovely

    • Roth is really a classic and most of his books are quite short. It could be possible for you to find them. True, The Shining is also set in a hotel but I guess it is very different :) As you guessed correctly I was rather thinking of hotels that are up and running and swarming with loads of customers.

  8. I was thinking of Vicki Baum’s novel when I read your post–It was one of my postal reading group books last time around, though I didn’t get to finish the book before I had to send it on. I’ve been very curious about Joseph Roth as I am always looking for books about Vienna, but I think I’ve been a little afraid his writing style might be too complex or difficult to enjoy. I will have to see if I can find these, however, as I certainly like the sound of this one.

    • No, don’t worry, he is by far more approachable than Musil or Doderer. Also Radetzkymarsch isn’t any less accessible than let’s say Anna Karenina. Some of the difficulties in German writers really come from the language itself and since you will read a translation, you will not face this. I still need to read Vicki Baum. I saw recently that she is being re-discovered in Germany.

  9. I will see if I can find this–I am sure my library must have his books. If I can manage Anna K, this will be fine, too. I wish I had read the Baum book–it was one of the first ones I got through my postal reading group and I waited too long to start and then didn’t want to be late mailing the book to the next person. It was interesting as the book was in English but from Germany and had a Nazi stamp in it–one of our members lives there and found a used copy. It seemed quite unusual to me–can’t remember if it was in a library for a time or what the story was.

    • That’s quite a story. Almost creepy to have such a stamp in a book.
      I would be surprised if your library didn’t have Joseph Roth.
      I’m sure you can also find Vicki Baum, no? I am very interested in her Love and Death in Bali. It was even taught at university in our cultural anthroplogy courses on Bali. Our professor used to say it was by far the best introduction to Balinese culture and religion.

  10. I’m delighted to see you reviewed this, I’d missed it before. It’s a tremendous book, dark and melancholy and all in so small a space as you note. I must reread it.

    Weights and Measures http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2011/02/20/weights-and-measures-joseph-roth/) is a darkly fabulous tale, and his fueilletons are very good too (http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2009/03/18/joseph-roth-what-saw/). As you say though it’s the beauty of the writing and the seeming ease with which he captures so much in so few words.

    An extraordinary writer. Roth loathed the Nazis and in a sense they killed him. There’s something rather disturbing about one of his books bearing their stamp.

    • I have a nice collection of his work and want to read all of it sooner or later. Hiob is said to be one of the best. I was thinking about choosing him for the Austrian/Swiss week of our German Literature Month (to which you are of course welcome but I know you don’t do well with events). I might go for Musil though. I’ve had Three Women (oddly called Five Women in English) for years on a shelf.
      I know people, especially outside of Germany, like Zweig a lot but I think Roth is the superior writer. In German anyway. Zweig is good but always a bit sentimental. Roth writes perfect prose.
      I’m not suprised he loathed the Nazis. I’m not very familiar with his life, much less than with Zweig’s, that is.
      I’ll need to have a look at your review. I’m not sure about the title in German but I’m sure I have it. I think it is Das falsche Gewicht.

  11. I’m fond of Zweig, but I think there’s no question but that Roth is the better writer. Schnitzler too. And for that matter Weiss from what I’ve read of him.

    Which is all a bit rough on poor Zweig. To an extent of course it’s a matter of taste. Zweig is hugely entertaining and a talented writer, but perhaps at times a touch commercial.

    • I’m also fond of him but they are not in the same league. It’s difficult to come up with a book that is as good as The Radetzky March. I haven’t read Weiss yet.

  12. Pingback: Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth « Book Around The Corner

  13. Pingback: Best and Worst Books 2011 « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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