I started to read Joseph Roth’s Hotel Savoy for the 1924 Club but ran out of time to post a review. The book really appealed to me as it was set in a hotel and there’s an endless parade of quirky, sometimes grotesque, characters, and yet I found that I didn’t really enjoy it; it seemed a bit of a trivial book. And then I looked at it the other day, which is only a week or so after I had finished it, started reading it again and enjoyed it the second time through. I think the main problem was that I was rushing through it and as it’s a book with a fast-paced narrative most of it just wasn’t sinking in. Note to self: to enjoy reading I have to take it slow.
Published in 1924 it’s an early work by Roth. The main character is Gabriel Dan, a soldier returning home from a Russian concentration camp after World War I. He’s ended up at the Hotel Savoy in an unnamed city in Eastern Europe (Wikipedia states that it’s Łódź, Poland), his ultimate aims are unclear but he’s currently just looking forward to some running water, a clean bed and soap.
I am thankful once again to strip off an old life, as I so often have during these years. I look back upon a soldier, a murderer, a man almost murdered, a man resurrected, a prisoner, a wanderer.
He has one of the cheap rooms on the sixth floor. The hotel is quite luxurious but the occupants of the hotel are a mix of the wealthy and the poor – Gabriel mixes mostly with the poor. There is a strike going on at one of the factories and there is talk of revolution in the air, especially with the influx of soldiers returning from Russia. Gabriel is scarred by his experiences of the war and finds it difficult to reconnect with humanity.
I am alone. My heart beats only for myself. The strikers mean nothing to me. I have nothing in common with the mob, nor with individuals. I am a cold person. In the war I did not feel I was part of my company. We all lay in the same mud and waited for the same death. But I could think only about my own life and death. I would step over corpses and it oftened saddened me that I could feel no pain.
Gabriel quickly settles into the rhythm of the hotel even if he constantly feels like he should be moving on. We’re introduced to a whole load of characters in the first half of the book, there’s the girl, Stasia, in the room above who paces about during the night, there’s Gabriel’s rich uncle Phöbus who’s reluctant to part with any money, there’s Phöbus’s son Alexander who is attracted to Stasia, as is Gabriel. There is also Santschin, an elderly clown, whose act involves a donkey, Hirsch Fisch who dreams of winning lottery numbers and sells them to customers, and there’s Ignatz the elderly lift-boy who always seems to be watching what people are getting up to. There are rumours about the Greek owner, Kaleguropulos, turning up for an inspection though no-one ever actually sees him and there are rumours that a child of the town, Bloomfield – a millionaire who now lives in the U.S., will be visiting soon. And there are many more characters that we get to know via short pencil-sketches of their more entertaining traits.
Gabriel can’t decide whether to stay on at the hotel or to leave. He sometimes dreams of a life with Stasia, but at other times he just wants to move on. When Alexander offers to pay a significant amount for Gabriel’s room he at first accepts and then changes his mind. In Part Two an old war buddy, Zwonimir, turns up and stays with Gabriel. Zwonimir is a revolutionary, he’s a lot more talkative than Gabriel and believes that the future is with America. The novel becomes a bit more focused with the arrival of Zwonimir as he gets to know all the inhabitants of the hotel and when he’s bored with that he finds some work for himself and Gabriel. Gabriel sums up Zwonimir thus:
He is a healthy person. I envy him. In our part of the world, in the Leopoldstadt, there were no such healthy fellows. He enjoys the vulgar things of life. He has no respect for women. He knows no books, reads no newspaper. He does not know what goes on in the world. But he is my loyal friend. He shares his money with me and would share his life with me.
And I would do as much for him.
So, with Zwonimir things pick up. Bloomfield arrives and both Zwonimir and Gabriel ingratiate themselves into his life for a while.
It’s certainly strange that I didn’t like this book on my first read as it’s just the type of book that I find entertaining. The book is quite bleak, in a way, but has plenty of humour, loads of weirdly interesting characters and a climactic ending. If I wanted to be critical then I would say that the narrative style clips along a little too quickly and the book may have been better if Roth had expanded certain bits and slowed down. But it is what it is, and in the end I thoroughly enjoyed it. I may read it again in another week’s time.