Remember when Michael Hofmann absolutely destroyed Stefan Zweig in the London Review of Books? It was an impressively vitriolic takedown of the writer who inspired Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, and it’s worth re-reading now if only for the zingers. (“Stefan Zweig just tastes fake. He’s the Pepsi of Austrian writing… just putrid through and through.”) I remember thinking wow, okay, maybe. But why are you so angry about it, Hofmann?
Well, I should have realized—Hofmann is Joseph Roth’s translator. And if you didn’t know any better, you could mistake Joseph Roth for Stefan Zweig. They’re both Austrian and Jewish, both novelists and journalists, both born in the late 1800s and died at the start of WWII, both famous for capturing the spirit of the 1920s and ’30s, when all of Europe held its breath in anticipation of its own destruction.
Hofmann takes these two superficially similar writers and declares that you have to choose a side. Who do you love, and who do you hate—Roth or Zweig?
If you ask me, there’s a way to agree with Hofmann without hating Zweig. Zweig may be hollow and hypocritical, as Hofmann claims, but there’s a place in the world for that kind of writer—as evidenced by The Grand Budapest Hotel, which turns the detached self-importance of its source material into something self-consciously light and therefore deeply affecting.
This month, Hofmann published his newest translation of a Joseph Roth book—The Hotel Years. It’s a collection of Roth’s first-person journalism from the outbreak of WWII. And if you squint, you could mistake it for The Grand Budapest Hotel:
Other men may return to hearth and home, and wife and child; I celebrate my return to lobby and chandelier, porter and chambermaid—and between us we put on such a consummate performance that the notion of merely checking into a hotel doesn’t even raise its head.
Roth is a sharper, more down-to-earth observer than Zweig. The Hotel Years makes Europe’s troubles come alive like headline news. Roth’s account of the “czarist émigrés” (aristocratic Russians, like Vladimir Nabokov, who fled the Bolshevik Revolution and drifted across mainland Europe, stirring up sympathies and stereotypes as they sought a new home) echoes the Syrian refugee crisis of today. The Hotel Years—to say nothing of Roth’s novels, like The Radetzky March—is better than anything Zweig ever wrote.
But that’s just my opinion. You’ll have to pick your own side.
Brian Hurley is Books Editor at The Rumpus and an editor at Fiction Advocate.