Frederic Raphael at The Times Literary Supplement:
Joseph Roth has emerged as one of the greatest, certainly the most prescient, of the German writers of the entre-deux-guerres. If Thomas Mann achieved wider renown, it was due in good part to his performance as the aloof man of letters. Writing to Stefan Zweig in 1933, Roth was typically irreverent: “I have never cared for Thomas Mann’s way of walking on water. He isn’t Goethe . . . . [He] has somehow usurped ‘objectivity’. Between you and me, he is perfectly capable of coming to an accommodation with Hitler . . . . He is one of those people who will countenance everything, under the pretext of understanding everything”.
By contrast, The Hotel Years – an anthology of Roth’s shorter journalism, collected and translated by Michael Hofmann – includes a gentle pen portrait, from 1937, of Franz Grillparzer. Composed in Parisian destitution, it demonstrates how Roth came to treasure the irretrievable civilities of the old Europe. Of the Austrian playwright’s single meeting with Goethe, he observed, “It was like a Friday going out to see what a Sunday is like and then going home, satisfied and sad that he was Friday”. In Roth’s case, exile and penury bestowed sorry radiance on the lost world of the shtetl in which the impoverished Ost- Juden had no occasion for alien affectations; unashamed thieves, smugglers, tricksters and whores nurtured no illusions, as Western Europe’s haute Juiverie did, of exemption from malice. Whether their obituarist in Weights and Measures (1937) would ever have been happy actually living among them is another matter.