by Joseph Roth
I became a journalist one day out of despair when I realised none of the other professions could satisfy me. Not one of them. The generation that marked the beginning and end of puberty by scribbling verses wasn’t mine, and I didn’t belong either to the very latest, the generation that achieves sexual maturity through football, skiing and boxing. I only ever managed to ride a boneshaker of a bike—I couldn’t even freewheel—and my poetic talent never got beyond stilted phrases in a diary.
I’ve always been short on feeling. Ever since I acquired the faculty of thought I think without a shade of pity. As a child I fed flies to spiders. Spiders have always been my favourite animals. Of all insects, apart from cockroaches, spiders are the most intelligent. They stay put at the centre of self-made circles, and oblige chance to nourish them. All other animals hunt their prey. But one could say that spiders are reasonable creatures, wise enough to understand that the hunting for prey that other species go in for is hopeless: only waiting brings results.
I used to devour stories of prisoners who held conversations with spiders in the darkness and solitude of their cells. They stirred my imagination, something I’ve never been lacking in anyway. I’ve always been a great dreamer, but I dream with my mind alert. I don’t mistake dreams for reality. Nevertheless, I can sometimes get so wrapped up in them that I imagine living another, an alternative reality.
When I reached the age of thirty, I was finally able to see the white cities I’d dreamed about when I was a boy. Mine was a grey childhood in grey towns. My youth was grey and red in military service, a barracks, a trench, a military hospital. I travelled to foreign countries—but they were enemy countries. Never would I have guessed that one day I’d cross a part of the world so briskly and violently, and with order to shoot rather than the desire to see. The wide world was mine for the asking before I started to live. But as I began to live the wide world lay in devastation. It was I who destroyed it, along with my peers. Children of other generations—before or after mine—are at liberty to discover a correlate between childhood, manhood and age. They, too, may experience surprises. But none of their surprises will be unrelated to their expectations. Not in a way that couldn’t have been predicted. It was only us, only our generation, which, after having counted on total post-natal security, got to experience this earthquake. What happened to us was like what happens to a man who takes his seat in a train, railway timetable in hand, to travel across the world. But a storm caught our carriage and, in a moment we were there—where we had wanted to arrive only at the end of a nonchalant, gaily dressed, stirring, fantastic decade. Before we could experience it, it was upon us. We were kitted out for life, and already death was greeting us. We were still standing wide-eyed at a funeral procession; before we knew it we were lying in a mass grave. We knew more than the old men; we were the unhappy grandchildren who took their grandfathers on their knees to tell them stories.
Since then, I don’t think one can climb into a train with only a timetable in the hand as sole baggage. I don’t think it’s possible to travel with the confidence of a tourist prepared for all eventualities. The railway timetables don’t match up, the guidebooks are misleading. All travel books have been dictated by a stolid spirit that doesn’t believe in the mutability of the world. In the space of a second, however, everything can be changed a thousandfold, deformed, made unrecognisable. We still talk about the present with the confidence of a historian. We talk about foreign people who still exist as if it were a matter of a tribe extinct in the Stone Age. I’ve read travel books about a few countries I’ve lived in (and which I know as well as my own country, perhaps because they all are my homeland). How much misreporting is made by so-called “good observers.” The “good observer” is the saddest reporter it is possible to be. Everything that moves, he captures open-eyed. But his eye is rigid. He doesn’t listen to himself. He ought to though. At least he could give an account of the voices he hears. What he reports on is the voice of the living moment. But he fails to notice that other voices sound out as soon as he leaves his listening post. And by the time he has written down what he heard the world has moved on.
Before we set down a word on paper, it has already changed its meaning. The concepts we know have ceased to correspond to things. Things have grown out of the tight clothes we put them in. Ever since I’ve been in enemy countries, I no longer feel foreign in any of them. Never again will I leave for “foreign parts”. That’s an idea from the age of the stagecoach! At most I might leave for somewhere “new”. And see that I had already foretold it. But I can’t “report” on it. I can only tell how it felt to me.
I was curious to know how things might be on the other side of the fence. Because a fence surrounds us, we in the German-speaking world. In Germany, there is a cult of the immutable concept. We believe in nomenclatures. It is in Germany that the “most reliable” guides appear, the “most thorough” observations and research carried out. Everything written down has the force of law. People trust a book published in 1880, but they shouldn’t believe one in 1925. Today, just as before the war, people believe in the meaning of the old concepts.
On the other side of the fence, the nomenclatures were never so revered. The names hung off things: these were loose-fitting clothes. Nobody wore himself out pinning everything down definitively. Over there, on the other side, people change all the time. We call that “unprincipled”; for us adapting to things is almost treason. On the other side of the fence, I got a grip on myself again. Hands in my trouser pockets, a cloakroom ticket tucked in my hatband, a broken umbrella in my hand, I won the freedom of strolling about between gentlemen and ladies, buskers and beggars. In the street, in society, I look exactly as I do when I’m at home. Yes, and I am at home there. I know the sweet freedom of not having to pretend to be anything except myself. I don’t represent, I don’t exaggerate, I don’t lie. I don’t get noticed though. In Germany, it’s almost impossible not to get noticed unless I play it up, unless if I deny or tell lies. I have the sad choice between these two ways of appearing. Because even though I don’t represent a type, a genus, a family, a nation, a tribe, a race, I am certainly obliged to be representative of something. We’re compelled to “show our colours,” and not any old colour either, but one in the official colour chart—otherwise we’re written off as “unprincipled”. The characteristic of a closed world is its suspicion about the indefinable. The mark of a wider world is to let me be and not have a label for me. But even if it calls me one thing or another, there’s always a space between the word and the thing it designates. We, however, take the world at its word, are terribly literal, and thus confuse words and things.
That’s why we don’t understand the world. That’s why it doesn’t understand us. On the other side of the fence, it’s holiday time. Long and balmy summer holidays. What I say isn’t taken literally. What I keep silent about is heard. My word is far from a confession, my lie far from being a fault of character. My silence is not enigmatic. Everyone understands it. It’s as if people never question my punctuality, even though my watch doesn’t tell the time. People don’t make inferences about my qualities from the quality of one of my attributes. Nobody plans my day for me. If I waste it, it was nevertheless mine to waste. (“Thief of the day”! How German this expression is! Who owns the days that one has stolen from oneself?)
I found the white cities, much as I saw them in my dreams. All you need to do to become a child again is to find your childhood dreams.
It was more than I’d dared hope. Because childhood was a long way behind me, beyond recovery, separated from me by a universal conflagration, a world on fire. Childhood was no more than a dream itself. Life had rubbed it out: the years weren’t just gone, they were dead and buried. What happened after was like a summer without a spring. I left for this country with the scepticism that comes from a life without a childhood. Everyone in my generation is sceptical in that sense. And while, day after day, our elders buttonholed us with exhortations to be “constructive”, to be “positive”, we smiled the knowing smile of those who’ve been the cause, instrument and victims of a grandiose destruction. Oh if they hadn’t left us so mute we could tell them what rebuilding is! We believe so little in it we can’t even explain why it’s impossible. The father who has lost his son knows less about destruction than his dead son. The person behind the lines has seen the world’s end only in a historic perspective: it was our great war, something like the wars of Carthage and Rome. He has learned about the war of his own era from press releases, just the way he learned about those of the past from history books. It still makes a difference if you’ve experienced something in your own body or in whether you’ve learned it from that of your sons.
We are those sons. We know the relativity of nomenclatures and even of things. In the single minute that separated us from death, we broke completely with tradition, with language, science, literature, art: with all we had of culture. In a single minute, we knew more about truth than all the truth-seekers of the world. We are the dead come back to life. We reappear among unsuspecting mortals laden with all the wisdom of the beyond. Our scepticism is stained with metaphysical wisdom.
Everything that has happened in our land, in the north and east, since our resurrection, could only reinforce our scepticism. We’ve moved further and further away from our childhood. It was as though we’d come back in order just to lend a hand again in all the destruction. But we, who were yanked from our classes on the Thirty Years War straight into fighting the World War, it seems to us that today, in Germany, the Thirty Years War has yet to finish. It is difficult to believe that peace can continue anywhere in the world, and that the great and mighty cultural traditions of Europe, which exist since antiquity and the Middle Ages, are still alive. Since our resurrection, we have experienced the advent of an entirely new culture, witnessed the revolution in the Middle East, the slight tremors of the earth in the Far East, as well as America’s technological wizardry. Prisoners of a country where the same people demonstrate an infantile attraction for the recent past and also nourish the desire to transform the man of flesh and blood into a being of iron and steel; prisoners of a strange country in which half the nation can simultaneously admire events as different and contradictory as a military parade and toy balloons; prisoners of a country in which sentimentality is as highly developed as technical awareness—we are witnessing, every hour, the little skirmishes and big battles between past and future, equally helpless in the face of the classical, Catholic, European influences as in the face of those from the revolutionary East and capitalist America. This is a war that will last longer than thirty years.
Because it is war, and we know it; we, the qualified battlefield loss estimators—it was immediately clear to us that we had returned home from a small battlefield to a bigger one. Whenever we leave this country, it’s as if we’re going on holiday. How peaceful they are down there, suspecting nothing! How little this world knows of the slowly advancing avalanches! Won’t they come this far? Will their force be dissipated before they reach us? Will the new culture, preceded by waves of destruction, stop out of respect, as once before, in front of the old culture’s living monuments and strike a compromise?
Happy country of my childhood that is sheltered from storms and has the time for thought and the time to organise peace conferences, while we are delivered to the first blast of the elements. The elements are blind and don’t want to negotiate. Happy country where people can dream again, and learn to trust the forces of the past which we thought—like so much else—a mistake or error in our schoolbooks!
The sun is young and strong, the sky high and deep blue, the trees dark green, ancient and lost in thought. And the broad white roads, which, for centuries, have drunk in and reflected the sun, lead towards the white cities with their flat roofs, which are flat as if to show that, here, height need not be dangerous and that never, not ever, can a man fall from it into black depths.
Joseph Roth, Die weißen Städte, 1925. Translated from the German by Iain Bamforth. First published in PN Review 145, 2002. © Iain Bamforth.
Title piece of a travel book published in 1925 with the same title, The White Cities grasps with prophetic fright that the recent conflict between the European nations was only the first instalment of another Thirty Years War. A broad selection of Joseph Roth’s evocative reportage on and from France, where he died in Paris of nostalgia fuelled by alcoholic abuse in 1939, including another version of this piece, can be found in Michael Hofmann’s Report from a Parisian Paradise. Further articles from Roth’s “Wanderjahre” have been published recently, also translated by Michael Hofmann, as The Hotel Years (Granta).