The first 'feuilleton' in this thoughtful selection of Joseph Roth's newspaper articles from the 1920s sets the agenda. Roth wrote:
"Strolling around on a May morning, what do I care about the vast issues of world history.. or even the fate of some individual [who] in some way makes some lofty appeal to us? Confronted with the truly microscopic, all loftiness is hopeless, completely meaningless. The diminutive of the parts is more impressive than the monumentality of the whole. I no longer have any use for the sweeping gestures of heroes on the global stage. I'm going for a walk." There's a hint of Robert Walser, the happy-go-lucky flaneur, in this agenda, but Roth is too earnest to mean exactly what he says. All of us, himself included, spend most of our attention of the mere objects we encounter with our senses as we stroll through life. The unplanted vine curling up a wire fence holds our thoughts more than the fact that the fence surrounds a hospital. The sound of a civil defense siren being tested at noon on Wednesday occupies our mind more than the inevitability of atomic war. "In the face of the sunshine that spreads ruthlessly over the walls... anything puffed up and inessential can have no being. In the end ... I come to believe that everything we take seriously... is unimportant." Life, in other words, is a constant stroll through the immediate, through fleeting interactions with trivia. I dare say I agree; sitting at this keyboard, I'm more engrossed with the color of a strange wall than I am with world affairs. I have to assign my mind the task of thinking about Iran or global warming.
Joseph Roth was one of the best-known and highest paid journalists of the German-language press in the 1920s, essentially a roving columnist/correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung and other papers. He wrote hundreds of such brief reports, seldom even 1000 words in length, of which 34 are included in "What I Saw". This is NOT a selection Joseph Roth made from his own work; the 34 'Feuilletons' were chosen by editor Michael Beinert in 1996 and published in German under the title "Joseph Roth in Berlin". "What I Saw" is a title picked by translator Michael Hofmann in 2003, 64 years after Roth's death in Paris in 1939. All but the final selection were originally published in ephemeral daily papers in the early 1920s, so the subtitle "1920-1933" might unfortunately mislead American readers looking for an account of the rise of Nazism. Roth described that phenomenon with painful vividness in his novels, but these little journalistic impressions were never intended to be analytic history. Their worth as 'literature' comes from their sparks of poetic language and their sly insights into ordinary life: the Jewish refugee who builds a miniature "Temple of Solomon" for display; the Berlin steam baths where travelers spend the night when they can't find a hotel; the special car for wood-gatherers on the Berlin subway; the hunch-backed waiter whose job was to distribute newspapers to customers in a famous coffee house; the six-day bicycle race and the crowd that attends it. It's fun for a reader like me -- as much a 'stroller' as Roth or Walser or as W.G. Sebald -- to find that Roth's minutia have remained unchanged along the streets of my times.
But in the end, even the "unpolitical observer" that journalist Roth pretended to be could not remain aloof from "great events." The last three or four feuilletons of this collection expose Roth's despair and anger at the calamity engulfing Germany with the rise of the National Socialist thugs to power. The final selection here, "The Auto-da-fe of the Mind" written in exile in France in 1933, is perhaps the most ferocious and eloquent denunciation of Fascism I've ever read. The anger in it seethes and scalds. In no other writing did Roth so passionately identify himself with the Jewish culture of Europe, or so prophetically lament its fate. It's as if, in this editor's selection, we had taken an off-beat but interesting tour of Weimar Berlin with our ever-ironic guide Joseph, and come at the end of our stroll upon a scene of horrible brutality.