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Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth

November 24, 2011 Leave a comment Go to 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

  1. November 24, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    I’d love to read this one (Roth is an author I haven’t got around to yet…). There’s something very Kafkaesque about Dan’s intention to move on quickly but then get sucked into staying on…


    • November 24, 2011 at 2:13 pm

      Yes I thought about Kafka too. It’s worth reading.


  2. November 24, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    Wonderful post. I got a kick from you reading a German book translated to French and then translated to English.



    • November 24, 2011 at 7:24 pm

      Hello, thank you for visiting and for your kind comment.
      I only translated the quotes in English. I couldn’t find a free English version. I read everything in French, except English books.


  3. November 24, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    I couldn’t imagine an author farther away from Kafka than Roth. I don’t think they have anything in common. Your review, for some reasons made me think we didn’t read the same novel. I found it very colorful, poetical.
    It would have been interesting to compare Assouline’s Lutétia with Roth’s if, indeed, he had written it which reminds me that I have Lutétia on my TBR pile and really need to read it.


    • November 24, 2011 at 3:16 pm

      I never said he looked like Kafka. I meant he brought Kafka to mind. It’s well written, no doubt and very kind for the people he describes.


    • November 25, 2011 at 12:03 am

      It was the idea of getting stuck in the hotel which reminded me of Kafka (Josef. K stuck in his trial, K. unable to leave the village). I’ve never read Roth, so I have no idea of his style 🙂


      • November 25, 2011 at 10:41 am

        That’s what I thought. I’m interested in reading your review when you read it.


  4. November 24, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    Now we have misunderstanding. 🙂 Iwas referring to his style. His writing dind’t remind me at all of Kafka.


    • November 24, 2011 at 4:19 pm

      I looked at quotes in the German text. It’s more poetical in German than in French.


      • November 24, 2011 at 4:52 pm

        I had afeeling that could have been the reason, I thought it left you a bit unfazed. Strange actually, I would say that French is the more poetical language usually. I wonder when it was translated, who knows, maybe the translator had a thing for Kafka. He is a gentle writer, much more like Zweig, really.
        Btw did you read about this Zweig novel Les derniers jours de Stefan Zweig de Laurent Seksik? I was tempted but am not sure it’s good. It seems that the death of Joseph Roth contributed to his suicide.
        I reviewed it and so did Max, and we both didn’t really feel this resemblance or at least not from what I remember from his post.


        • November 24, 2011 at 7:21 pm

          It was translated by Françoise Bresson in 1969.
          Here is an example:
          “C’est un amateur de duel, dit Glanz
          – Oui, plus qu’un industriel, dit Streimer, mais nous ne sommes pas en Prusse ici”

          Original text:
          »Ein Duellant«, sagt Glanz.
          »Mehr als ein Fabrikant«, sagt Streimer, »hier ist nicht Preußen.«

          My German is poor but it sounds better in German than in French, even if the translator managed to keep the rhymes.

          I haven’t read Les derniers jours de Stefan Zweig. How can the death of Roth have influenced Zweig’s suicide? Didn’t Roth die in 1939 and Zweig in 1942?

          I have to read your post again and Max’s too. I’m not sure I read this at the perfect time. More of this in my German Lit Wrap Up post, probably.


  5. November 24, 2011 at 6:17 pm

    I haven’t got to Roth yet–despite the fact that I have several titles by him on the shelf, and I’m sure I’ll like him too. Perhaps in 2012?


    • November 24, 2011 at 7:21 pm

      That’s probably something you’ll like.


  6. November 24, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    Because they were such close friends and he didn’t get over the fact that the Nazis killed him, so to speak – not really but Roth committed suicide as well, out of despair it seems. A bit hypothetical but I can see how one thing might have added up to the other.
    Yes, indeed, compared like this the German is much better and so the English too, I assume.
    Wrong time for a book is always a factor.


  7. November 26, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    I so want to read Joseph Roth, but somehow I’m not sure this is the book to start with. Have you read anything else by him? I feel he’s the sort of author I need to approach from the right angle!


    • November 26, 2011 at 9:11 pm

      Litlove, The Radetzky March is his masterpiece but Hotel Savoy is an excellent book.
      I really think the French translation harmed it.


      • November 26, 2011 at 9:44 pm

        Maybe it was the translation. I couldn’t find a free English version or I would have compared. I wonder if I should read German books in English. I see with the Wharton that my English really improved with all this blogging.


    • November 26, 2011 at 9:41 pm

      I haven’t read anything else by him but I want to read The R. March.
      I have the feeling I’ve read this one at a bad time.


  8. December 2, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    I loved your description of this. The end of the world atmosphere. The end of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which for Roth is the end of his world. I think that’s absolutely right. Interesting though that you imagined it as a black and white graphic novel. You should check out Jason Lutes’ City of Smoke.

    The currency traders remind me of the day traders of the early 2000s. Dreams of getting rich with minimal effort, dreams of being smarter than the other guy, yet few of them seem to end up buying yachts.

    Hotel Lutetia?

    Roth is quite a lyrical writer in my experience. Strong on atmosphere. For me this is a very good Roth to start with, but for those fancying something else I reviewed Weights and Measures over at mine (http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2011/02/20/weights-and-measures-joseph-roth/ and an extra couple of quotes from it at http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2011/02/23/the-county-courts-of-this-region-were-very-busy-2/). It’s not one of his major works, but it’s not a bad intro.

    I have The Radetzky March and am looking forward to it hugely.


    • December 2, 2011 at 1:05 pm

      Thanks Max.
      I’ll check City of Smoke, I’ve never heard of it.

      Hotel Lutetia: a famous Parisian hotel used by the Germans during WWII and that became the administrative HQ for war prisoners and survivors from concentration camps. People went there to know if their beloved ones were back. There’s a terrible description of this in La Douleur by Marguerite Duras.

      I’m not sure I’ve read Roth at the perfect time and I have doubts about the translation. I’m considering reading him in English. I remember your review of Weights and Measures.


  1. November 30, 2011 at 10:13 am
  2. December 1, 2011 at 7:06 am
  3. January 6, 2013 at 12:31 am
  4. November 12, 2016 at 5:19 pm

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