Cover description (Hesperus Press)
The Great War is over. Gabriel Dan has been released from a POW camp in Russia, and is making his way home to Austria. He comes to an industrial town in Poland, and checks in the once-grand Hotel Savoy there to await news and funds from his family. Here he meets a kaleidoscope of characters, a microcosm of chaotic post-war Europe in which rich and poor, itinerants, dissidents and malcontents live lives of hope, expectancy and despair in an atmosphere pregnant with revolutionary fervour.
By accident I’ve chosen another novel set in Ukraine, well, not exactly. You could say I chose the author for my Vienna obsession even though reading the back of the book I could see that it was set in Poland. Well, it’s set in Lviv, then Poland, now Ukraine, previously one of the outposts of the Austro Hungarian Empire, Galicia. Although I’ve heard a lot about Lviv/Lvov and how it used to be Poland and now is in Ukraine and how beautiful a city it is, I only heard of Galicia a few years ago. I was reading a story by Stefan Zweig about a character called Buchmendel. The setting was Vienna and the character was a Jew from Galicia. To me, living in Spain (but even before that), Galicia meant the northern province of Spain, the Celtic region, somewhere on our travel wishlist. Despite Vienna being one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the era I found it strange that a Galician had made his way into a Viennese story and also that it was quite normal that he was a Jew. Soon after, when he was referred to as a Russian I realised my mistake and discovered that the area is now part of Ukraine. The two areas being named the same is just a coincidence. Galicia was an area with a substantial number of Jews and that made a lot more sense for that story. Somehow a few other books I’ve read since then have also referred to this Galicia and I don’t know how I missed it before. Modern day Galicia is a different landscape, especially if you are going by Anna Reid’s brilliant but depressing ‘Borderland’.
I was reading another book set during the Austro-Hungarian Empire or its immediate aftermath (I’m going to stop apologising for mini obsessions, yes, you may notice similar regions/themes in the books I choose, that’s because there are …my husband jokes that all the books I choose are about orphans in Eastern Europe during the war), I can’t remember which one it was, I’ll try to see if I can find it here. Anyway, either the author or the person writing the introduction name checked Joseph Roth multiple times and I thought ‘why have I not heard of this towering genius?’ and the name went on my internal wishlist. Looking back, it seems that his masterpiece is ‘The Radetzky March’, which I only know as the Strauss march played at the end of the Viennese New Year’s concert every year. So while in London (look, I bought, like, 7 books, get over it!) when I saw this one I needed to buy it.
Since writing the above I’ve read Eileen Battersby’s selection of 2013 and funnily enough she includes a book by both Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth. Stefan Zweig is described as being ‘Too often dismissed as a generous rich buddy who helped fund the more brilliant Joseph Roth,’ So it really seems like I’ve had a bit of a gap in my reading up until now, one of many I’m sure.
Ok, I’ve now realised that I’ve made a major error in what I’ve written so far. Joseph Roth may have been born near Lemberg/LvivLvov/whatever you feel like calling it in Galicia, but this story isn’t set there. A late night wiki of Hotel Savoy showed a photo of the real life Hotel Savoy in Łódź but my sleep deprived brain read it as Lvov. While reading the book this started niggling. Sure the cover stated it was set in Poland; that could still be Lviv, but an Industrial town? That wasn’t what I’d heard about it. Also when there was mention of Galicia it was a place away from the setting. Oh well, I’ll try to read carefully next time but I’m not going to rewrite all I’ve written above,
One of the books I have on my list of unread, though more accurately ‘unfinished’ is The Trial by Kafka. I’ve actually read, but not finished both The Trial and The Castle, but then again Kafka didn’t finish them either. The Castle is not on my bookshelf because I borrowed it from the library and worked up high enough late fees that it may as well have been. I did appreciate reading those books; I just kept abandoning them for others. I felt a similarity between them and this one, not so much in style as in content, as most of the inhabitants of the hotel seem to be living in a hell from which they can’t escape. Except even though it can be somewhat surreal at times Hotel Savoy stays within the realms of reality.
Gabriel Dan arrives at the Hotel Savoy on his way back from prison camp in Russia. He stops in this city as he has relatives there and he has good memories of the Hotel Savoy. He soon discovers that the hotel is no longer the luxurious establishment it once was. He has to stay on one of the upper floors and ‘apparently it was only the first three floors that had chamber maids’. The upper floors house long term residents who can’t afford to pay their bills and can’t afford to leave either. The lift boy is also not the young rosy cheeked boy that an upmarket establishment should have, but instead is an old man often taking on the character of Death.
I marked down so many pages where something touched me, sometimes it was just a simple description or turn of phrase but I really could see the corridors of the hotel and feel the degradation of its residents. At the end when I look back, there are so many pages marked it’s difficult to narrow down. This is really just a short novella, but to me it said a lot more than many much longer books. There are the characters of Stasia, the dancer, Santschin and his donkey, Glanz and many more. Then there is the character of Bloomfield, who at first seems like Godot, somebody the citizens are all waiting for, but who will never arrive. In Ireland we are quite familiar with the character of the rich relative from the US who only has to return and open his purse in order to solve all the problems of the town.
A few side notes, I always like random mentions of places I’m familiar with in books. When one of the characters is ill the doctor tells him that he needs to go to the South, but if he cannot, then the South needs to come to him and proceeds to order some Malaga wine. Also Zwonimir mocks the recently returned from Paris Alexander ‘you’ve got points on your shoes!’ I had forgotten the obsession with pointy versus non pointy shoes from my time in Belarus. ‘How can you spot a foreigner? By his shoes!’ That was ten years ago and it seems to have also been the same ninety years ago. I wonder if it’s still like that today.
Most reviews seem to suggest that the power of this book is lessened by the coldness and selfishness of the central character of Gabriel, but I think it seems quite normal in the circumstances Gabriel is looking out for himself, but for us, the readers, he is observing everything going on around him. At one point Gabriel and his friend Zwonimir watch more recruits arriving from the East but find it difficult to recognise anybody and he comments: ‘I remember feeling the same sadness when I saw a girl once – we met in a train, and I didn’t know whether I had slept with her or simply had her mend my clothes.’ Stasia could have been Gabriel’s salvation, but he lets that chance slip by.
One other aspect that I like about the book is that it never felt like a chore reading it; you know how that can be with some worthy books? I definitely want to read more Joseph Roth. Maybe I need to set up another page with my list of books I’d like, just on the off chance that anybody needs to buy me a present, wink, wink!