Saturday, 18 September 2021

Report from a Parisian Paradise, Joseph Roth

Joseph Roth spent the last fourteen years of his life in France. Notes from a Parisian Paradise is the feuilleton of his travels around France, freed from the weight of his own country, his own history, he finds what he needs, he feels at home. The enthusiasm, the traveller's lungs, the writer's eyes, old dreams of white cities descending in flat terraces and citadels in a Roman hand, Avignon, Nîmes, St Baux, Tournon, all the way down to Marseille, which, at the time of his visit in 1925, had seven hundred ships in the harbour. If you find your childhood dreams you find your childhood, which up till then appeared not to have existed at all. 

After World War 1, the global conflagration to which he has contributed, the unhappy grandson must put his grandfather on his lap and tell him stories of how he wore the uniform and ravaged the land, and now he must leave. Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany, and Joseph Roth leaves for France, looking for the sweet freedom of not seeming to be anything more than he is.

From that time forth I have never believed in getting on trains, timetable in hand. I don't believe it is in us to travel with the serenity of a tourist, equipped for anything. The timetables are wrong, and the books are misleading. All travel books are dictated by a stupid spirit that can't see that the world is continually changing.

These are peculiar travelling times. They all are. Joseph Roth is the endangered, enraptured traveller who will walk from one town to another and intuit his way in among its streets, talk to any clown or longshoreman, idle over every relic, read up the history, try not to confuse names and things.

That's why we don't understand the world, and why it doesn't understand us. On the other  side of the fence it's vacation time. Lovely, long summer vacation. People don't take me literally. What I leave unspoken is heard. My every word is not a confession. Every lie is not wicked and unconscionable. Every silence is not enigmatic. Everyone understands it. It's as though people don't question my punctuality, even though my watch is wrong. People don't make inferences about me from what's mine. No one controls my day. If I waste it, so what, it was mine to waste.

I have read several of Joseph Roth's novels. They are profound and sad and riveting. Such is the freedom of Roth's journalism in France, it is hard to realise that at the same time, between 1925 and 1939, he also wrote those novels. The White Cities of southern France were protecting him. The bistros of Paris. Children sailing their toy boats in stone pools were protecting him. For as long as they could.

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