The “Romance” of Travel


On Travel

Joseph Roth’s hotel years.

The Grand Hotel des Bains, where Thomas Mann wrote Death in Venice.

“I am a hotel citizen,” Joseph Roth declared in one of the newspaper dispatches anthologized in The Hotel Years: Wanderings in Europe Between the Wars, “a hotel patriot.” It’s easy to see why: Red Joseph was nothing if not a cosmopolitan humanist, and the hotel was his natural habitat. “The guests come from all over the world,” he explains:

Continents and seas, islands, peninsulas and ships, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and even atheists are all represented in this hotel. The cashier adds, subtracts, counts and cheats in many languages, and changes every currency. Freed from the constriction of patriotism, from the blinkers of national feeling, slightly on holiday from the rigidity of love of land, people seem to come together here and at least appear to be what they should always be: children of the world.

 Roth was as equally magisterial and entertaining in his journalism as he was in his novels, and Michael Hofmann’s new selection of Roth’s nonfiction, his fourteenth translation of Roth’s overall, is thoroughly addictive. As Hofmann informs us, Roth wrote nearly a page a day and hopped around the continent filing copy from Central Europe, the Balkans, and the Soviet Caucasus—yet it’s the section on hotels that truly compels. “Arrival in the Hotel” begins with a description of Roth’s favorite hotel (though Hofmann doesn’t know whether this particular hotel really existed or if it was “a composite or a dream”):

The hotel that I love like a fatherland is situated in one of the great port cities of Europe, and the heavy gold Antiqua letters in which its banal name is spelled out (shining across the roofs of the gently banked houses) are in my eye metal flags, metal bannerets that instead of fluttering blink out their greeting. Other men may return to hearth and home, and wife and child; I celebrate my return to lobby and chandelier, porter and chambermaid—and between us we put on such a consummate performance that the notion of merely checking into a hotel doesn’t even raise its head.

A few exceptions aside, Roth wrote these dispatches in his thirties and early forties, roughly from 1926 all the way to his death in 1939. By 1926, he was married, with three novels under his belt, and the next decade would prove to be the most artistically fulfilling period of his life, albeit the most devastating. Roaming around a rapidly Nazifying Europe, Roth had to contend with a schizophrenic wife, his own dipsomania, and a crippling inability to rein in his spending, meaning his partiality for hotels could be explained in part by his need to dodge creditors. And though he may have had a favorite haunt, he also had itchy feet. A month and a half after “Arrival in the Hotel,” he wrote its companion piece, “Leaving the Hotel”:

I have been here for long enough. If I stayed longer I would be unworthy of the great blessing of being a stranger. I might degrade the hotel to a home if I no longer left it unless I had to. I want to feel welcome here, but not at home. I want to be able to come and go. It’s better to know that a hotel is waiting for me here. I am aware that this too is a sentimentality, and that, out of fear of a more conventional one, I am falling for one of my own devising. But that’s the human heart for you.

Roth’s fascination with hotels puts him in good company: looking at the past century, it’s almost impossible not to chance across a book where a hotel doesn’t play a part in the plot. In fact, the writer in his or her hotel room has become a literary trope, if not an outright stereotype. Thomas Mann wrote Death in Venice (1911) at the Grand Hotel des Bains in Venice’s Lido, which Luchino Visconti also used as a location for his adaptation of Mann’s novella. Nathanael West worked as the night manager of the Kenmore Hall, which later inspired an incident in The Day of the Locust and was also where Dashiell Hammett finished The Maltese Falcon, having been provided a free room by West (a privilege also apparently extended to Erskine Caldwell and Edmund Wilson). Then, of course, there’s the Chelsea, which played host to Edgar Lee Masters, Thomas Wolfe, Dylan Thomas, and Brendan Behan, to name only a few. The Chelsea was also where Gore Vidal fucked Jack Kerouac, a tryst immortalized in the latter’s The Subterraneans (1958).

What was it that late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers so adored about hotels? Perhaps, as Roth writes, it came down to a matter of convenience: staying in well-situated lodgings meant everything he needed “was on one block: hotel, writing paper, post office, and café.” But there was probably a less mundane reason, too. The reader of William Dean Howells’s The Coast of Bohemia (1893) will quickly notice that the late nineteenth-century fascination with the hotel was closely interlinked with the desire to flee one’s bourgeois home, to safely explore one’s individuality beyond the reaches of Victorian neuroses. Whereas the “home” stood for tradition, the hotel was a paragon of modernity, providing a perfect means for the studious observer to slice through class, racial, and gender barriers and witness the other.

The hotels Howells or Roth enjoyed have almost all since closed—or turned into expensive condos, like Mann’s old hotel in Venice—and their impressiveness and character now only survives in the novels they helped to create or a handful of films from Hollywood’s Golden Age. By the time Roth died, the hotel’s significance to writers had clearly changed, having grown less utopian and decidedly more Kafkaesque. In Good Morning, Midnight—published in 1939, the year of Roth’s death—Jean Rhys wrote, “Walking back in the night. Back to the hotel. Always the same hotel. You press the button. The door opens. You go up the stairs. Always the same stairs, always the same room … ” And Elizabeth Bishop’s “In Prison” (1938) finds her arguing that her “hotel existence” could “be compared in many respects to prison life.” Then Trans World Airlines and Howard Hughes came along, and the personable hotel transformed into a cog in the international “hospitality” machine: recognizable brands, a mind-numbing emphasis on “home-like comforts,” the usual streamlined décor and the possibility to catch up on all your Netflix binging regardless of whether you’re in Cape Town or Hong Kong.

Roth, on the other hand, tells us that his beard grew faster than his train traveled. When he journeyed on a Volga steamer from Nizhny Novgorod to Astrakhan, he couldn’t even hope to find a newspaper in his native language unless he happened to bring one with him, and telephone calls were prohibitively expensive. Instead, he was forced to interact with his surroundings. This is his snapshot of the steamer’s fourth class:

Confused hands try to chase away the painful lights like so many pesky flies. Men bury their faces in the hair of their wives, farmers hug their flails, children their tawdry dolls. The lamps swing in time to the stamping engines.

Immersion of some kind, even if it stopped short of actual interaction, was more or less a necessity for travelers. Last year, by contrast, a Robert Mankoff cartoon in The New Yorker depicted a smiling woman on the phone: “We loved Tuscany,” she says. “The cell reception was fantastic and the Wi-Fi was to die for.”

It’s become commonplace to point out that as travel has become safer, cheaper, and more efficient, it’s also become duller, more insular, and in some ways less pleasant. But Roth’s dispatches, in their careful description, bring the differences into sharp relief. Even dromomaniacs of his sort eventually grew tired of life on the road, though: “The joyful anticipation before a journey is always outweighed by the irritation of actually going,” Roth sourly begins in “The ‘Romance’ of Travel,” his June 1926 dispatch for the Frankfurter Zeitung. He launches into a list of complaints about all the rules associated with travel, for instance the fact that “dogs may not be taken at all” on trains, but “chatty travelers are left criminally unmuzzled”—prompting his editor to append the following disclaimer: “We assure our readers that in spite of everything he says about ‘romance,’ our author spends very little time at home.”

André Naffis-Sahely’s poetry was most recently featured in The Best British Poetry 2014. His latest translation is The Physiology of the Employee by Honoré de Balzac.