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Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth

November 24, 2011 25 comments

Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth. 1924

End of WWI. Gabriel Dan has just come back from Russia, where he was held prisoner. He walked back from camp, all the way from Russia. He’s now in an unnamed town at the doors of Western Europe. In Ukraine, a town like Brody where Joseph Roth was born? Gabriel settles at the Hotel Savoy. At first, his room seems luxury to him after all these rough years. He has nothing but his clothes, Russian clothes that shout his poverty to the world and let them know where he has spent the last years. The hotel is huge, 868 rooms, a condensed version of the world. The lower floors are the richest rooms. There it’s warm, clean and tidy. Neat maids take care of the rooms and guests. The more you climb the stairs, the poorer you are and the hotel counts eight floors.

Gabriel lives in room 703. He’s only there for a few days, he thinks, before heading West. But he’s soon stuck in the hotel and gets acquainted or even befriends with other guests. Roth describes the colorful crowd: the showgirls, Stasie who works for a local cabaret, the military doctor, the liftman, Neuman the industrial captain whose workers are on strike… Gabriel isn’t alone in this town; he’s got a rich uncle, Phöbus Böhlaug. But he doesn’t seem eager to help his impoverished nephew.

The city in itself sounds terrible: grey, polluted with wild industries, always under the rain. There are no sewers, and the stench is almost unbearable. It’s full of unemployed men, demobilized and exhausted soldiers and trumps. The city overflows, but not with wealth, with refugees coming from the East and heading West. It has an end-of-the-world atmosphere. And indeed, it is the end of a world, the one of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Its peoples become again only Serbs, Romanian…

I imagined it as a graphic novel, in black and white, full of details. Roth glances at life disenchanted eyes. He pities these human ants. I couldn’t help thinking of that quote Max included in his review of Musil’s feuilletons about flypaper.

In addition to the end-of-an-era ambiance, there was a feeling of déjà vu. That picture of people living in poor conditions in hotel rooms reminded me of Maurice Sachs in Witches’ Sabbath, of Orwell in Down and in Paris and London or Steinbeck in Cannery Row. It’s the era of living in pensions and hotels that has almost disappeared. Romain Gary’s mother operated such a pension in Nice, that’s where he lived when he arrived in France. Speaking of my dear Gary, here’s a quote by Roth…

Sehen Sie, Herr Dan, die Menschen haben kein schlechtes Herz, nu rein viel zu kleines. Es faβt nicht viel, es reicht gerade für Frau und Kind. You see, Mr Dan, men don’t have a nasty heart, it’s just much too small. There isn’t a lot of room in it, just enough for wife and child.

…that sounds typically Gary to me. The more I read Russian and Eastern Europe literature, the more I realize how influenced he was by his background and his origins. He was a Slav, a Jew and despite his changing Roman into Romain, he was part of this culture. But back to Roth.

Some passages sound like predictions and oddly modern.

» Siehst du, Glanz macht ganz gute Geschäften «, sagt Onkel Phöbus.» Was für Geschafte ? «» Mit Valuta «, sagt Phöbus Böhlaug, » gefährlich ist es, aber sicher. Es ist eine Glückssache. Wenn einer keine glückliche Hand hat, soll er nicht anfangen. Aber wenn einer Glück hat, kann er in zwei Tagen Millionär sein.  «» Onkel «,sagte ich, » warum handeln Sie nicht mit Valuta?  «» Gott behüte «, schreit Phöbus,» mit der Polizei will ich nichts zu tun haben! Wenn man gar nichts hat, handelt man mit Valuta. « – You see, Glanz makes good business, Uncle Phöbus says.- What kind of business?- With currencies, Phöbus Bölaug says. It’s dangerous but safe. It a question of luck. When one has no lucky hand, they should not start this. But when one has a lucky hand, they can become millionaire in two days.- Uncle, I say, why don’t you deal currencies?- God prevents it! Phöbus cries, I don’t want to be involved with the police. You only deal currencies when you have nothing.

Hmmm. Nothing new under the sun, it seems.

It’s hard for me to put words on Hotel Savoy, its eclectic inhabitants, its condensed misery that brushes against wealth. Poverty has the same taste as Orwell’s in Down and Out in Paris and London. Roth describes these people and their suffering. They run after money, die in poor conditions, live in poor and unhealthy rooms and have to use their suitcases to guarantee the payment of their room. They live in fear of losing the roof above their heads. I am grateful to writers such as Joseph Roth, Orwell or Steinbeck. They give a voice to people who don’t have one.

Hotel Savoy leaves me with one question: if Joseph Roth had survived WWII in Paris, would he have written Hôtel Lutetia?

PS: I have read it in French, unfortunately my German isn’t good enough to read books. I downloaded the original version and translated the quotes with the help of the French text.

For another review, read Caroline’s thoughts here

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