Phillip Lopate on What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920-1933
I can think of no book I’d rather exchange for the Gideon Bible than Joseph Roth’s What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920–1933. (The excellent English translation by Michael Hofmann was published in 2003.) The tourist staying in a hotel will find this an extraordinary collection of urban sketches—a form of which I am especially fond—and his or her sensory apparatus will thus be attuned to the sights in the city being visited. Roth, a brilliant novelist but also a first-rate feuilletoniste, here displays all the vitality, biting humor, and powers of observation you could want. The result is a treasure of delicious disenchantment, as in this sentence opening his piece “The Berlin Pleasure Industry”: “Sometimes, in a fit of incurable melancholy, I go into one of the standard Berlin nightclubs, not to cheer myself up, you understand, but to take malicious pleasure at the phenomenon of so much industrialized merriment.” I wish I could say, as someone who myself wrote an essay called “Against Joie de Vivre,” that Roth had inspired me; but in fact my essay appeared long before Hofmann’s translation, and so it is really a matter of unconscious elective affinities. In any case, What I Saw is a good counterweight to the Bible.