Portrait of an age

What I Saw: reports from Berlin 1920-33

Joseph Roth (translated by Michael Hofmann) <em>Granta, 22

The Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce dismissed journalism as "writings without any originality or profundity [crafted by] men with few mental scruples and almost no aesthetic sensibility". It wouldn't be hard to think of examples to bear out his thesis, but the work of Joseph Roth would not be one of them. His writings about Berlin during the 1920s - collected here for the first time in English - establish a vocational antidote to Croce's pessimism. They confound the lazy and the habitual. As Michael Hofmann explains in his introduction, Roth, best known for his novels, was a newspaperman all his life; it was his vocation and he never belittled its potential. In a letter to his editor at the Frankfurter Zeitung, he wrote: "I paint the portrait of the age. That is what great newspapers are there for." His preferred form was the feuilleton, more a discursive vignette than an essay, part descriptive, part philosophical. Roth described it as "saying true things on half a page". And the examples here bear out that ambition. These pieces are superbly written, each compacted scene revealing some fresh angle on modern life as it was emerging in the chaos of Weimar Germany, a country trying to rebuild itself with the smashed bricks of war and defeat.

On almost every page there is a sentence you want to read aloud to someone. Here is Roth on city workers enjoying their weekend hikes to the countryside: "Western Europeans set out into nature as if to a costume party . . . I saw hikers who were accountants in civilian life. What did they need their walking sticks for? The ground is so flat and smooth that a fountain pen would have served them just as well." People living near stations on the electric S-Bahn train line "all have a certain amount of noise in their souls from the constant din of passing trains and they're quite incurious, because they've gotten used to the fact that every minute countless other lives will glide by them, leaving no trace". Outside the Reichstag, he notices, "a green policeman sprouts like an ornamental palm - a lonely bit of green in that arid waste of stone".

Some of the pieces here that have most resonance are descriptions of Jewish refugees, "a landslip of unhappiness and grime that, slowly gathering volume, has come rolling across Germany from the East". He captures well the smells of food and clothes and machines and groups of people huddled together. And he can describe, in a sentence or two, the history of these people, without sentiment or ostentation, for in "their eyes I saw millennial sorrow".

Weimar Berlin as described by Roth is not the decadent artistic pleasure palace portrayed by Christopher Isherwood or the republican dream of liberal idealism. His forays into homeless shelters, police headquarters and railway stations are more suggestive of turn-of-the-century New York. They certainly convey an image of Berlin as an experimental, modern city. Although his reports seldom touch directly on politics, there is a sense, in many of the pieces, of the violence and instability that accompanied the attempt to make a new Germany. Roth writes about the hangover from the end of empire and the "reheated tradition" that existed alongside ideas of rational republican grandeur.

In a last piece, written after he had left Germany for Paris, soon after the Nazis had taken power in 1933, Roth's tone becomes urgent, panicked; it is as if he is standing in a square watching books being burnt and describing the scene for a live radio broadcast. "The European mind is capitulating. It is capitulating out of weakness, out of sloth, out of apathy, out of lack of imagination (it will be the task of some future generation to establish the reasons for this disgraceful capitulation)."

Hitler, Roth warns, is not just an enemy of the Jews. "If Jewish judges are expelled or locked up, it represents a symbolic assault on law and justice." Complacent anti-Semitism would assist an obscure figure in his drive to domination. "One day," Roth writes, "the world will realise that it was conquered by a corporal."