The Hotel Years by Joseph Roth

This is an appropriate book to dip into as I travel by train from hotel to hotel on my way to Hamburg (“The only affordable currency-reformed city in Germany” – 1924). Roth’s bustling hotels bear no resemblance to the endless deathly corridors of the Ibis I stayed in last night, and fortunately my train travel is not the dirty, noisy, cramped experience he describes. (“And we look at each other continuously: while cutting apples, eating sausages, peeling oranges. Of course we squirt juice into the other’s eyes.” . . . “All the world’s stations smell of anthracite rather than distant promise.”) I had to laugh at the particular contortions gallantry obliges a man to put himself through when a beautiful lady shares his compartment: offering to take down her suitcase from the overhead rack, “pretending that its weight was negligible . . . condemned to pick up an item that weighed more than I did”.

“The Emigrants’ Ship” from 1923 stood out: Jews, Russians and Ukrainian peasants driven out of “Europe, the continent of pogroms” and heading to the United States from Bremerhaven. It’s resonant and depressing to read as I sit here in Brussels, having read in the newspaper today the competing views on rescuing migrants from Libyan waters, and having just been asked for money by a gipsy woman.

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