Monday, February 29, 2016

`What I Write is Not to His Taste'

With typical raffishness, masking bravado with modesty, Joseph Roth calls his newspaper practice “saying true things on half a page,” making it sound easy. He wrote feuilletons – leaves, scraps of paper– an Old World species seldom successfully transplanted to the New World. "Soft news,” features, “human interest” – terms of contempt to the tough guys on the front page – minus the whimsy of the old “women’s page” and the earnest righteousness of most political writing. Roth’s gift is rare. Journalism has always attracted the clumsy and glib. It churns out work written and consumed by those with short attention spans. Roth is a wit.                                                 

The Hotel Years (New Directions, 2015) collects sixty-four pieces written by Roth, mostly for the Frankfurter Zeitung, between the end of World War I and the start of World War II. It is translated by Michael Hofmann, who in recent years has gifted English readers with most of Roth’s work, including two earlier nonfiction collections, What I Saw: Reports from Berlin (2003) and Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France (2004). I’ve only just started reading The Hotel Years, but its “Envoi” (Hofmann’s word), the first piece in the volume is titled “A Man Reads the Paper” (originally published Jan. 11, 1926). It reminds me of an old Steve Allen routine, in which the comedian played an angry newspaper reader, outraged by everything he read, sputtering and shaking the paper. Allen made such emotional self-indulgence appear ridiculous – and funny. Roth begins: 

“The expression on the face of the newspaper reader is serious, sometimes tending to grim, occasionally dissolving in smiling hilarity. While his slightly bulbous pupils in their sharp oval spectacles slalom down the page, dreamy fingers play on the café table and perform a silent trill that looks like a form of grief—as though the fingertips were feeling for invisible crumbs to pick up.” 

Not typical newspaper fare. If we were devotedly postmodern, we might even call it meta-nonfiction. Roth’s reader has a “long, well-trimmed shovel beard,” and it covers the feuilleton page. The reader is occupied with the political news, “the recent sensational reports from Budapest.” He, like Allen’s clownish news consumer, is “numbered among the great horde of the morally indignant, who feel vicarious anger at any news of criminality.” In 2016, he would surely be a follower of talk-radio or some of the more overheated precincts of the internet. 

The newspaper reader stands, “older, wiser, and possibly sadder.” Roth’s coda is a small masterpiece of self-respect and mild, not vicious, satire. Only a man confident of his gift, regardless of how little it was appreciated, could write this way: 

“The feuilleton remained covered. He leaves it to less manly natures than his own. 

“But if it should happen that one day, quietly, out of boredom, he should read it, then he would not like it one little bit. Because what I write is not to his taste . . .”

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