The White Cities: Reports from France 1925-39 by Joseph Roth

Here you can read the past.
— Joseph Roth

Two years ago Granta published Joseph Roth’s What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-33, a collection of journalism that constituted an extended social and political commentary on events central to 20th century European history. The White Cities, journalism, book reviews and essays roughly contemporary with the previous book but focussed mainly Roth’s travels in France, push one step further his importance as a chronicler of his time, and add a extra facet to his reputation as a major German writer.

Roth writes with the beguiling candour of the genuine Francophile throughout these essays, which often convey the breathless excitement of one genuinely enthralled by what he perceives, rushing to get it all down on paper so as to share, in some form, the experience. We’re given two versions of the ‘White Cities’ essays that make up the bulk of this book, one a series of shorter, more journalistic articles published in 1925 in the Frankfurter Zeitung (which also, not coincidentally, published work by Walter Benjamin), the other a longer, less tightly structured text not published until 1956, long after Roth’s premature death by poverty, depression and drink in Paris in 1939.

In each case we’re presented with the optimism of the true revolutionary (Roth was known for a time as ‘Red Roth’), one who believes in a pan-European cultural identity against the divisive ideologies of nationalism, and in the mixing of peoples, not their separation: “I won’t live to see the beautiful world in which every individual can represent himself in the totality,” he laments at one point.

This beautifully designed book (the photographs that head each section typify this) also presents selections from Roth’s journalism for émigré German-language newspapers in Paris, Prague and the Netherlands, published with, it seems, an increasing air of desperation through the 1930s. Roth refused to return to Germany after Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933. His journalism, like his fiction (The Radetsky March may be the most famous of his novels translated into English; Granta are also issuing Michael Hofmann’s translation of Roth’s first novel The Spider’s Web, a grim narrative of the rise of Nazism in Weimar Germany), increasingly became a mouthpiece for his political protest, expressed with a candour that makes these essays all the more powerful.

James Buchan, reviewing What I Saw in The Guardian, noted that Roth writes like Walter Benjamin crossed with M. Hulot. The Jacques Tati dimension is lessened in these essays, which sometimes seem almost abbreviated, Hemingwayesque in their short, repetitious sentences (but Roth lacks Hemingway’s macho pretensions: for him, bullfighting is “beastliness”). “I have yet to hear a dog bark here,” he writes of the French town of Vienne:

There are dogs, but they lie in the middle of the narrow streets and sleep. Nothing can wake them. The cats sit on windowsills and in doorways, and are infinitely wise. The doors of all the houses are open. The windows are open. There is no sudden wind that might imperil the glass or the people. And if there were a wind, then neither the things nor the people would be able to sense it.

Roth is above all a writer of remarkable clarity. His essays on Marseilles, for example, predate Benjamin’s by three years but mark out in taut, detailed language ornamented by poetic description the territory that Benjamin will explore in his own ‘Marseilles’ and ‘Hashish in Marseilles’. “I love the noise of Marseilles,” writes Roth,

first the outriders, the heavy church bells, the hoarse whistles of steamers, the melody of birdsong dripping from blue heights. Then follows the main body — the infantry — of everyday sounds, the shouts of people, the tooting of vehicles, the jingling of harnesses, the echo of footsteps, the tapping of hooves, the barking of dogs. It’s a procession of noise.

The organising military metaphor here may be explained by the fact that Roth served, possibly in a non-combat capacity, with the Austro-Hungarian army in the First World War, having been born in 1894 in a Ukrainian town then under Austro-Hungarian rule. He meditates on the implications of his generation’s experience, investing it with all the wasted innocence, the doomed weight of modernity, in ‘The White Cities’:

In the space of a single instant, which was all that came between us and death, we broke with an entire tradition, with language, science, literature, art — with the whole belief in culture. In that instant we knew more about truth that all the truth seekers in the world. We are the resurrected dead. We come, laden with all the wisdom of the hereafter, back down to the ignorant earthlings. We have the skepticism of metaphysical wisdom.

Such unthinkable but lived divisions, enforced by historical events, increasingly constitute Roth’s themes. If The White Cities is a kind of beautiful, sunlit travelogue, a tour round southern France in the deceptively calm interim between two Wars, the last half of the book is a gradually accelerating descent into hell, recording the thoughts and experiences of a profound sensibility in exile from his times as well as his home. If France is the dead past (the Alyscamps in Arles presents “coffins, coffins, coffins”), Germany is the stillborn future, and Roth’s exile’s life the displaced, unliveable present. “Unimaginable things happen, and the hand remains calm and doesn’t clutch the head,” he writes at one point; elsewhere, in 1937, “the fourth year of the German apocalypse,” he comments on the “schism in the German language”, a division controversially elaborated years later by George Steiner.

Roth writes in the conviction, wholly correct, that he occupies the only viable side of this schism. His essays offer wonderful, thoughtful insights into an age that has both vanished and yet remains, menacing: “there is nothing that is irredeemably ‘lost'”, he reminds us. “In the future is the past.”