Mark's Reviews > What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933

What I Saw by Joseph Roth
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's review
Feb 08, 12

bookshelves: literature-german, 20th-century-austria
Read from January 31 to February 03, 2012


These newspaper pieces are incredible, in some ways so much more approachable than his fiction. HIs novels, so wrapped up in bitterness and irony, are somewhat less affecting than his sharply observed journalistic pieces. Roth saw and noted everything in Weimar Berlin, and his observations are frequently chilling. One piece in particular jumped out at me: in The Steam Baths at Night, from 1920, Roth anticipates with sickening clarity the events in WWII that he did not live to see:

"The grotesque spectacle of a hot room at night, containing sixteen naked homeless people, trying to sweat out the soot and coal smoke of a train journey, gives rise to a positively infernal range of interpretations. A series of illustrations, say, to Dante's journeys in the underworld. The only creature permitted to be fully clothed, standing there purposefully and conscientiously with scrubbing brush and torturer's gauntlet in hand, could quite easily be some underdevil, if you happened not to know that his infernal character will be appeased, and his true character revealed by a small tip, once you have withstood his torments."

Later, in the 1929 essay Architecture, he writes:

"It happens from time to time that I fail to distinguish a cabaret from a crematorium, and pass certain scenes actually intended to be amusing, with the quiet shudder that the attributes of death still elicit."

Roth's vision was horribly accurate, but it's a mercy that he did not live to see his visions come to pass.
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