The White Cities: reports from Paris 1925-39, by Joseph Roth, trans. Michael Hofmann

Despatches from a lost paradise
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The Independent Culture

There can't be much occasional journalism from the 1920s and 1930s which is still worth reading. But despite the inclusion of a few reviews of long-forgotten texts, The White Cities is superb. Joseph Roth's earlier collection of reports from Berlin, What I Saw, portrays that city as what the translator Michael Hofmann calls a "frigid inferno". Paris and the "white cities" of southern France proved the perfect antidote: an un-German, even anti-German paradise. The opening sections of this book thrill with a sense of release from "a grey childhood in grey towns".

There can't be much occasional journalism from the 1920s and 1930s which is still worth reading. But despite the inclusion of a few reviews of long-forgotten texts, The White Cities is superb. Joseph Roth's earlier collection of reports from Berlin, What I Saw, portrays that city as what the translator Michael Hofmann calls a "frigid inferno". Paris and the "white cities" of southern France proved the perfect antidote: an un-German, even anti-German paradise. The opening sections of this book thrill with a sense of release from "a grey childhood in grey towns".

Roth writes affectionately of moth-eaten music-hall acts and wanders among the poor in Lyons. He praises the women of Avignon, but warns that the celebrated beauties of Arles are "perfectly suited to be hymned enthusiastically by any poet but to be kissed with caution, and only with the full understanding that a kiss will have consequences".

He adores Marseilles's "intoxicating cosmopolitan smell". Nice "looks as if it had been dreamed up by society novelists". Even for Jewish refugees, at least in 1927, France was a demi-paradise, thanks to "a great tradition of practical humanity" and a "benignly remiss" police force which was always "open to persuasion".

Roth can be acerbic or satirical, and sometimes creates surreal set-pieces like a description of Tournon, where the lanes "tie themselves in knots, lose their way, climb higher in trepidation, and suddenly tumble down again". Yet the dominant tone is one of love. Much of The White Cities is classic impassioned (as well as brilliantly observed) travel writing.

With the rise of Nazism, the "Parisian paradise" could not last. Roth writes movingly about the traumatised refugee children, the rise of "fascist" ideologues and the lack of politicians willing to take Hitler seriously. Too many, he says, were impressed as well as appalled by Nazi violence because they believed in the idea of the "German soul" and saw the developing atrocities "through the same opera glasses they take to Wagner productions".

Much of this is powerful, although Roth is even better when he eschews polemic and distils tragedy into poignant vignettes. Those terrible years also marked his own decline into poverty and alcoholism, not least because it became increasingly difficult for a Jewish and liberal-minded writer to find outlets in German-language magazines.

So he sits in a bistro in 1938 watching the destruction of the hotel where he lived and listens to customers arguing about "cigarette lighters, radios, racehorses, wives, makes of car, aperitifs". The scene is heart-breaking. The world was collapsing and Roth, having lost everything he loved, was drinking himself to death.

The reviewer edits the 'Jewish Quarterly'

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