Joseph Roth: Hotel Savoy (Hotel Savoy)
This book, Roth’s second, sometimes gets ignored, with attention being focussed on his later, greater works. This is a pity because this is a very fine work.
It takes place entirely in Łódź. It was once part of the Russian Empire though it had a large German and Jewish population. Poland reclaimed it after World War I and, apart from occupation by Nazi Germany, it has remained Polish since. At the time this novel is set – 1919 – it is becoming Polish again.
This is not the only novel set in the town. Israel Joshua Singer‘s The Brothers Ashkenazi, Władysław Reymont‘s The Promised Land and, more recently, Steve Sem-Sandberg‘s The Emperor of Lies were all set there.
Our hero is called Gabriel Dan. He is an Austrian Jew who had been a prisoner of war for three years in Siberia and is now returning home, after a long journey, working his way across Russia. We never learn exactly where home is. Indeed, he even implies at the end of the book that he may be heading for Paris.
There are many returning soldiers passing through the city but one of Gabriel’s main reasons for doing so is because his uncle, Phöbus Bohlaug, lives in the town. Gabriel’s father had never liked his brother-in-law, not least because Phöbus had been more successful than him.
All the action takes place in the town and most of it takes place in the Hotel Savoy. The Hotel Savoy caters for both rich and poor. The rich stay in the larger rooms on the first three floors, while the poor are cramped in on the top floors. Gabriel is on the sixth floor. It soon becomes apparent that the hotel is a microcosm for society as a whole, with the poor suffering, always broke, often having to pawn their luggage to pay their rent, getting ill, while the rich are living it up downstairs with wild parties involving naked women.
This Hotel Savoy was like the world. Brilliant light shone out from it and splendour glittered from its seven storeys, but poverty made its home in its high places, and those who lived on high were in the depths, buried in airy graves, and the graves were in layers above the comfortable rooms of the well nourished guests sitting down below, untroubled by the flimsy coffins.
Gabriel has missed many things while in prison. The first is clearly the changing scenery and changing company. He relishes the fairly minor sights of the urban landscape, even if the town is filthy, polluted and full of poverty. However, not surprisingly, he has missed the opposite sex and relishes the sight of attractive young women.
Alone in his bed, he hears the person in the room above him walking around. He goes and investigates, even peering through the keyhole. He learns that it is Stasia. She is a dancer but broke. He tries to woo her but is not very good at it.
He does visit his uncle and learns that his father died in a hospital for incurables and his mother died in a nursing home. He also meets his cousin, Alexander, something of a fop, who will soon become a rival for Stasia. His uncle does not give him any money but does give him an old suit.
Roth is clearly on the side of the poor and it is the poor and suffering we meet most, such as Santschin who dies, leaving a wife and five children, Abel Ganz, a former prompter who gets Gabriel into currency speculation, on which he makes some money, and Taddeus Montag who is, a candidate for death.
By chance, Gabriel meets Zwonimir, a Croat with whom he served in the army and they share a room. Zwonimir is much more lively than Gabriel and soon knows everybody. He and Gabriel find a job but Zwonimir wants to move on, as he is missing his rural homeland.
However, things are going to get worse. But first of all, everyone is waiting for Henry Bloomfield. Bloomfield is a native of the town but has emigrated to the United States and is now very rich. He visits every year, nominally for business purposes, though we later find out his real reason. Everyone wants to suggest a deal to him and he has to engage an additional secretary to help him cope with the proposals and he selects Gabriel, leaving him a large sum of money when he departs.
Bloomfield leaves when first typhus and then labour agitation hits the town. Apocalypse strikes and it is time for Gabriel to move on.
What Roth does so well is see the world or, at least Łódź and the people there, many just passing through, though the eyes of Gabriel. Gabriel is a key observer and he can see not only the outer façade of the town but the atmosphere and feeling. He is, of course, seeing it as a man who has just spent the years in a prisoner-of-war camp but also as a man who is simply passing through. Łódź is is facing a major upheaval. The Germans have mainly left, since they lost the war. The economic growth has dramatically slowed down but its influence still remains, with slums, pollution and abandoned factories. There is a lot of poverty and a lot of disease. There is about to be considerable labour agitation which the authorities cannot cope with. (Roth mocks the police or, rather one policeman, who is both lazy and corrupt). Gabriel reports on all of this as he wanders round the city.
However, it is the Hotel Savoy, the microcosm of the world or, at least, this part of the world, that is the focus of the novel. Roth makes it very clear that there are haves and have-nots and most people are in the latter category, exploited by the haves. Gabriel is not averse to taking advantage when he can, both in currency speculation with Abel Ganz and his job with Bloomfield. Indeed, he takes great pleasure on being seen by his uncle in the company of Bloomfield, not least because his uncle had been looking down at him.
Roth makes it clear that this world, the old pre-Word War I world and what is now left of it that must change and he shows it with is apocalyptic ending. But, before that, he has given us a superb picture of the chaos, social disparity and economic disruption that World War I has left, which, we know, will eventually bring about World War II.
First published 1924 by Die Schmiede, Berlin
First English translation 1986 by Overlook Press
Translated by John Hoare (earlier editions), Jonathan Katz (Hesperus Press edition)