A “journalistic scrum” has become a sign of the times – reflecting globalization; the 24 hours new cycle; the merging of news-collecting with the entertainment industry; technological change; and the growth in the journalistic profession.
A recently-issued book by a German journalist of the 1920s and 1930s has had me musing about the journalistic craft down the ages…….
We all know about George Orwell who established his reputation in the late 1930s with Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and “The Road to Wigan Pier” (1937).
But the Hungarian, Arthur Koestler, had been a prolific journalist for the Berlin-based Ullstein press since the early 30s before he burst on the British scene with his Darkness at Noon (1940) reflecting the totalitarianism of the times. Ernest Hemingway also started in European journalism in the 20s and wrote up his experiences of the Spanish Civil War - but was always the novellist. Martha Gellhorn made her name as a war correspondent (see her pieces here); was married to Hemingway for 8 years - and was the better journalist of the two
Victor Serge led one of the most amazing lives as an anarchist in France, Belgium and Russia in the first part of the 20th century. Memoirs of a Revolutionary is perhaps his most famous bit of writing (published posthumously in French in 1951) but he wrote extensively from the early 1920s about his experiences in Russia from 1919 (where he was initially hired by Maxim Gorky)
Vassily Grossman is another writer who mixed journalism and novels – becoming famous in Russia for his work as a journalist at the Soviet front (A Writer at War gave us a taste of this in 2005) but having his best work “Life and Fate” – modelled on “War and Peace” - banned and smuggled out of the country to be published 20 years after his death only in 1985
Joseph Roth was a less politically involved journalist – but a master of the feuilleton, a peculiar form of journalism that was especially popular in European newspapers in the early 20th century. Roth described it as “saying true things on half a page” and considered it “as important as politics are to the newspaper. And to the reader it’s vastly more important.” In his confident, controversial way, he added,
“What people pick up the newspaper for is me. Not the parliamentary report. Not the lead article. Not the foreign news….I don’t write ‘witty columns.’ I paint the portrait of the age.”I am currently enjoying his The Hotel Years which brings together 64 of Roth’s feuilletons, nearly half of which were published in the Frankfurter Zeitung – of which he was a star reporter in the 20s and 30s. Each of these little essays is a pleasure to read, and regarded collectively they present an invaluable portrait of life in Europe between the two World Wars.
And this we owe to a few brilliant translators …. In this particular case the poet, critic, and translator Michael Hofmann. Without him, the reader of English would hardly know Roth at all. The Hotel Years is the 14th of Roth’s books that he has translated. (Among the others are The Radetzky March, commonly considered Roth’s masterpiece, and Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, a significant work of scholarship that serves as an essential companion to all of Roth’s other writing.
Hofmann’s commentary is insightful and especially helpful in establishing a context for Roth’s life and work. In the introduction to What I Saw — a collection of feuilletons written in Berlin during the years of the Weimar Republic, and the first book of Roth’s journalism to be published in English — Hofmann describes Roth as “a maximalist of the short form.” In these reports from Berlin, as in the pieces collected in The Hotel Years, “What is small is inevitably made to seem vast, and vast things are shrunk into a witty perspective.” The literary journal The Millions has a good review of the book -
"Roth is perpetually engaging, whether he is decrying the Third Reich, criticizing clichéd notions of Russia, enumerating the unpleasant realities of travel, or simply commenting on the quirks of a hotel cook. They are works of satire, driven by Roth’s bristling sense of irony and his unsparing eye for detail. He was a keen observer of everyday life, and he had an ingenious knack for capturing a person or place with a few brief sentences. His essays reveal an obsession with physical descriptions and a fascination with the habits and appearances of the people he encountered, as demonstrated in “The Dapper Traveler:”
The traveler is clad in a discreet gray, set off by an exquisite iridescent purple tie. With complacent attention he examines his feet, his leather shoes, and the fine knots in the broad laces. He stretches out his legs in the compartment, both arms are casually on the arm rests to either side. Before long the gray traveler pulls out his mirror again, and brushes his dense, black parted hair with his fingers, in the way one might apply a feather duster to a kickshaw. Then he burrows in his case, and various useful items come to light: a leather key-holder, a pair of nail scissors, a packet of cigarettes, a little silk handkerchief and a bottle of eau de cologne.
" So much attention and enthusiasm are given to these kinds of details that it often seems as though Roth is creating a world rather than describing the one that already exists. Taken out of context, in fact, many of the pieces in The Hotel Years could pass as fiction. Some resemble sketches for novels, travel notes, diary entries. It is remarkable that they were published in newspapers — not because they are uninteresting or poorly written, but because they are so different from the kind of work one expects from a journalist.In an essay on the German city of Magdeburg, Roth explains his writing in the following way:
"What can I do, apart from writing about individuals I meet by chance, setting down what greets my eyes and ears, and selecting from them as I see fit? The describing of singularities within this profusion may be the least deceptive; the chance thing, plucked from a tangle of others, may most easily make for order. I have seen this and that; I have tried to write about what stuck in my senses and my memory."
"There is, of course, a transitory nature to this kind of writing. It is short and often very specific, tightly bound to the time and place in which it was written. Roth travelled across Europe, lived in hotels, and wrote essays that were inspired by what he refers to as “the great blessing of being a stranger.”
He is whimsical and frivolous at times, prone to exaggeration, and indulgent of superficial details that fail to leave the reader with any lasting impressions. But many of his essays endure, as mere ephemera do not.
"……..For Roth, writing was not merely a way to make a living, it was a way of life. When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, he left the country and never returned.
“Very few observers anywhere in the world seem to have understood what the Third Reich’s burning of books, the expulsion of Jewish writers, and all its other crazy assaults on the intellect actually mean,” he wrote at the time. “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…”" Six years later, at the age of 44, Roth died in Paris from the effects of alcoholism. It is frustrating to think of what he might have written had he lived longer, but not because the body of work that he left behind is lacking. As the present publication of “The Hotel Years” proves, much of Roth’s writing has been neglected. Although he has come to be remembered mostly for his novels, his journalism is equally as impressive".
Who is it, I wonder, who best embodies this sort of work these days?
There have always been war correspondents – although I was fascinated by this article which explains why no british journalists were on the Waterloo battlefield 200 years ago. Robert Fisk is for me the greatest of these - with his The Great War for Civilisation - the conquest of the Middle East.
As the writing craft has become the subject of university course in recent decades, its practice has perhaps become more precious – although this collection does give a very positive flavour of what has been produced in recent years.
Travelogues have always been popular but globalization giving an added zest in recent decades..…with another interesting trend (at least in the UK) being for novelists such as James Meek, John Lanchester and Andrew Greig to give extensive treatment to political and economic matters….
For my money, three names stick out from the rest of the bunch – Chris Hitchins despite his apostasy, was a powerful and extraordinarily well-read writer…..
A Joseph Roth Resource
A Michael Hoffman resource