Sunday, 9 October 2011

New Gods

This is no ordinary hotel.  You do not stay for a few days, reconnoitre the territory, and go.  This is not a hotel where you rent a room by the hour, and wear yourself out under the local businessmen.  It’s not a place you pose for fancy shots in cheap lingerie; the hotel price the cost of tawdry fame.  People stay so long here they die in its beds.  It is a home for some; a death sentence for others.  Santschin is killed by off by the laundry steam that invades his family’s room.  If only we were reading Tennyson, we’d imagine it as a mist off the marshes; but there are no illusions here; no large metaphors: it is just filthy fog, fatal for those who cannot afford the higher cost of comfort further down the stairs.  Santschin was a clown in a cabaret troupe; the whole crowd crammed into the small rooms at the top of the hotel; three narrow floors for the poor.  Poverty kills, even in the best place in town.

The narrator is more fortunate; he is of the middling sort, sandwiched between society’s servants and the wealthy we serve.  The first three floors are for the rich; cheap advertisements for the hotel’s avaricious owner.[i]  No steam there.  Instead we smell wood polish and the expensive scent of the well-to-do; those powerful men in elegant dress suits, and their beautiful women in fur coats and feather boas, decorating the lower corridors with their riches.  The narrator follows one beauty to an expensive confectioner; and leaves her at the window, watching her exquisite performance under its extravagant chandeliers.  She belongs to a different world, which he can see but cannot touch.  It is a successful actor who will tousle her sheets and remove her silk knickers…

Joseph Roth has stuffed us inside the body of a single man, our guide for the next hundred pages.  He is a returning POW from the First World War.  During our short stay we live squashed up inside him; and see the world only through his windows.  It is uncomfortable, living with a man who describes himself as cold and detached, isolated from all whose who live around him.  There will not be much fun on this short holiday, crammed, as we are, inside his Russian blouse and his old boots; squeezed up tight with his loneliness.  Nor does he seem good for anything much: there will be no spectacular gifts for us to admire.  He has returned from Russia and the war, to this town on the fringes of the West, his home; a mythical place he has made real by his presence.  Home!  A hotel in a town you have hardly lived in, visited maybe a few times before.  Home!  It is a vast empire on the verge of collapse; we see it sinking, even in this hotel that seems made for eternity.  Home is half a continent: Western Europe part of one’s lifeblood and heritage.  What a strange place it is: home.   He has hardly any money, but he has enough, for a while at least, to get us by in reasonable comfort.  It gives us time to explore this place before it falls apart.

He speaks some languages, and would be a writer if he had the opportunity.  What he does have are the skills to successfully navigate the different floors of the hotel; from Santschin at the top of the building to the doctor on the ground floor; who prophesises the clown’s end; and is an expert in signing death certificates: a skilled storyteller; a useful talent for Neuner, the factory owner, who likes circumventing workplace rules; sending his employees off to an early holiday in the nearby cemetery.  He falls in with the cabaret troupe; and becomes friends with Stasia, who is in love with him.  Attracted to her he remains forever detached; and although friendly to the group he never joins their gang.  Full of interest and incident they circle around his life and are gone – he never gets too close for them to house him permanently within their lives.  Later Stasia fades out of the narrative, although we know she has not left the town.  Zwonimir has arrived!  He takes over the novel.

I learn that Zwonimir is an agitator, just from a love of trouble.  He is a hothead, but honest, and believes in his revolution.

‘You can lend a hand,’ he says.

‘I cannot,’ I say.  I explain to Zwonimir that I am on my own and have no feeling for the community.  ‘I am an egoist,’ I say, ‘a true egoist.’

‘An educated word,’ says Zwonimir reproachfully, ‘all educated words are shameful.  In ordinary speech you couldn’t say anything so unpleasant.’

We have seen him before!  Doesn’t he remind you of Lenz in The Spider’s Web and Brandeis in Right and Left?  A giant has arrived; to build a new town for us to live in.  And suddenly we feel it being built.  Before we were walking around the old streets; had settled down comfortably amongst the mild eccentrics, and were looking forward to the entertainment of familial rivalry: the bonehead cousin Alexander Bohlaug unable to compete with the charms of our companion – money no substitute for intelligence for a nice girl like Stasia.  We were very comfortable until this man arrived; a big personality putting up his adverts all around this little town: I am Here!  Just You Watch!  And truly he is, and we do, watching him persuade the small people to create a new world for themselves to live in.  Zwonimir has the largeness that comes from independence; and in this he is closer to Brandeis than Lenz; a man of large notions, yet who is sympathetic to the individual.  He is a rarity, for sure.

Zwonimir was a revolutionary from birth.  He has a PU on his military papers, meaning politically unreliable – for that reason he never made corporal although he wore a big medal for bravery.  He was one of the first in our company to win a decoration.  Zwonimir wanted to refuse it.  He told the captain to his face that he did not want to be singled out and that he was sorry it had come to this.  Now the captain was very proud of his company – he was a good captain, not very bright – and he did not want to allow the colonel of the regiment to hear about any trouble.  So everything was settled and Zwonimir took the medal.

Zwonimir has that special knack of getting on with people and exciting them; but always in his own way.  Our narrator knows just about everyone, but he remains aloof, forever on the outside; he is the school kid, his nosed pressed up hard against the toyshop window, watching the other children touch the railway engines, paw the teddy bears, and point to the soldiers the shop assistants will clothe in colourful paper.  He is not Zwonimir, who gets things moving:

He swore when he was kept waiting a long time, and also when he was inside already holding his bowl in his hand.  Either it was cold or needed more salt or had too much salt.  His dissatisfaction needled everyone else’s, so that they were all grumbling, to themselves or aloud, and the cooks took fright behind their sliding windows and added a spoonful more than they usually did or were told to do.  Zwonimir increased the discontent.

That discontent will expand like hot air, until it fills the town.  Zwonimir knows this; he gets his bellows out; he talks to the workers, talking about Neuner the factory owner; those lovely soups he eats in his large house, with his beautiful wife in her silk dresses…

But Zwonimir, although the largest man in the hotel, will always remain a minor character even in this small town.  He is a pest to the police, a charismatic friend to the strikers and the poor; a colourful character for the rich; who are interested and amused by his lack of deference, his rough boisterousness: he playfully cuffs Ignatz the liftboy, who some think is Karegulopulos, the owner of the hotel.  But like this provincial backwater he is insignificant; a man who will later be blamed for events, we have no doubt, which he exacerbated but did not cause.  He does not have the power of Bloomfield, who is enormously rich, and lives in America; that heaven of the 20th century. (When Zwonimir likes something and thinks it is good he says ‘America’).  Once a year Bloomfield returns to his hometown, and stays in the Hotel Savoy.  He is Halley’s Comet: a wondrous natural event creating myths and legends amongst the local population. 

Almost from the beginning magic and superstition invade the hotel’s corridors.  The town is close to the eastern border of the Austro-Hungarian empire; just enough West to be called it; though too close to the East to share the cool rationalism of Paris and London.  Like the poor Jews would surround the Jewish cemetery the town’s inhabitants are waiting for money to drop out of the sky.  Some can smell it on the wind.  Hirsch Fisch dreams the winning lottery numbers, and gives them away to his grateful customers; who pay for his room in the hotel.  Kaleguropulos the owner is invisible.  No-one ever sees him, although he terrorises the staff with his regular inspections.  And there is a real magician: Xaver Zlotogor the mesmerist.  Even we cannot escape the superstitious atmosphere; crammed up inside a guy who believes in miracles.

The town lives on myth.  It’s biggest belief is that Bloomfield will sort everything out.  He lives in America!  He is very rich!  He has extra special qualities, supernatural some would say, and as well as banks full of cash.  Money is their great god.  Henry Bloomfield its Messiah.  Every year they wait for his coming.  And every year he comes; faithfully to fuel their illusions.  Neuner, the rich factory owner, wants him, as does Hirsch, insane with worry that the lottery will fold before he arrives; and so do hundreds of others...  such as Kohler, who wants cash to start up a cinema.   All the pet schemes they have dreamed up since the last time he came, all their wildest hopes for success, depend upon Bloomfield and his money.  His money!  Magic on printed paper.

Zwonimir creates discontent.  He gets people moving.  Bloomfield forces people to wait.  He doesn’t command; he is too rich for that.  He doesn’t tell them what to do; he doesn’t need to; they are volunteers in their own servitude.  He stops the world even before he arrives there.

Everywhere they wait for Bloomfield.  In the orphanage a chimney crashes down.  No one puts it up again because every year Bloomfield gives something to the orphanage.  Sick Jews do not go to the doctor because Bloomfield will be coming to pay the bill.  There has been a subsidence at the cemetery, two merchants’ shops have been burned to the ground, they stand in the lane with their rolls of goods and it does not occur to them to have the shops put up again, otherwise what would they have to take up with Bloomfield.  One refrains from changing one’s bedclothes, from taking mortgages out on houses, even from weddings.

And he changes things, miraculously.  He employs the narrator as a sort of secretary: to filter out the hopeless.  Bloomfield has recognised his talents, and changed his status; he has respect now, people want to see him; persuade him of their own worth.  Henry Bloomfield has the skills of divination, but unlike the rest of the town doubts his own talents.  He may get people wrong, and is too busy to meet all the time-wasters, so employs our friend to confirm his judgement and dump the helpless. 

Bloomfield, like all high priests of a charismatic faith, lives on a different plane to his supplicants, even the local rich ones, who must know something of his technique.  He hands out money, and listens to people’s stories, but his serious attention is given to people of his own kind; the rich businessmen from Berlin who have the big money and the large schemes that are his only real interest.  He lives outside and above this petty world; as the Jewish beggars at the cemetery know.   He’s not in town to do business, but to pay his respects to his dead family: everything else is sideline.  Wealth is easy because he does not think about it.  It is a gift, bestowed by the gods, and so is natural and unconscious; like painting was for Picasso.

Bloomfield, like just about every other character, even Alexander Bohlaug, who lives at his father’s in town, stays at the Hotel Savoy.  It is a metaphor for a quite specific society.  Austro-Hungary on the verge of implosion; ruined in the revolutions that followed the end of the First World War.  The last scenes are of rebellion, and the hotel’s destruction.  We are watching an old empire fall.

[i] It is interesting to compare this hotel with Ballard’s tower block in High Rise.  There the lower classes occupied the lower floors.  Suggestive, perhaps, of something that has changed…  Once upon a time the poor were tucked away at the top of building where no one would go, so that they would not be seen.  Clearly they were a painful sight to be avoided.  Today they are not seen at all, even when standing right in front of us.  James Meek captures this brilliantly in his remarks on Broadway Market, mentioned in my Poor Hackney.  What has happened?  Orwell once associated class with smell - the lower orders stink.  This formulation may be a useful shorthand: the poor are not so obvious in today’s Britain where relative has replaced absolute poverty.

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