It is 1921 and Joseph Roth—the Austrian novelist and chronicler of Weimar Berlin—is going for a walk. “What I see, what I see,” he writes. “What I see is the day in all its absurdity and triviality.” There is a horse tied up to a cab, a boy playing marbles, a policeman who thinks of himself as the “pillar of authority” but is actually an “enemy to the street.” Roth continues:
I see a girl, framed in an open window, who is part of the wall and yearns to be freed from its embrace, which is all she knows of the world. A man, pressed into the shadows of a public square, collecting bits of paper and cigarette butts. An advertising kiosk placed at the head of a street, like its epigram, with a little weathervane on it to proclaim which way the wind is blowing down that particular street.
In this little walk sketch, Roth shows off the lyrical sensitivity and irreverence that typify his Berlin writing. A Jewish Austrian writer born near Lviv in 1894, he is best known for his elegiac novels about the declining Habsburg Empire—but he was also a writer of the city. He spent many years here in the German capital, working on his fiction while contributing short-form “feuilleton” columns to newspapers on a variety of subjects: politics, French culture, old hotels, his travels through Eastern Europe, and Berlin itself. These local feuilletons, published in English translation in 2003 as What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920–1933, offer a roving portrait of the city in time. These include sketches of street life, reflections on traffic, philosophical meditations, and excursions into the city’s immigrant quarters and dive bars. In both quality and approach, they are more literary than journalistic. (Michael Hofmann, the collection’s translator and longtime Roth advocate, has suggested they might be his true literary masterpieces.) Partial, cheeky, and defiantly compassionate, Roth’s Berlin miniatures prioritize the portraiture of their subjects over any editorial position. They insist on the particularity—and the humanity—of individuals among the mass.
What I Saw is not just an artifact of its time, but also a prescient experiment in writing the city, a space we must renegotiate now that the worst of Corona appears to be behind us. Today, the pandemic has taken its toll on city life, drastically rejigging the calculation between risk and reward, between fear of the unknown and openness to encounter, that has always defined it; so too have the rise of the automobile, rapid gentrification, quantitative “smart city” planning, and more. Our public spaces need reclaiming as places not just of commerce and transit (and ordering takeout from home) but of togetherness as well. Yet, as we set about making our cities lively again, we face a moral imperative to do so with an emphasis on difference and accessibility. A pluralistic city must be an inclusive one; it must be thought of in a way that admits multiple viewpoints. Roth’s ironic, multifaceted Berlin miniatures offer an example for those who value their cities—who want them to be places of openness and spontaneity—but who refuse to overlook inequalities of access, be it to walkable streets or to space in the stories a city tells about itself.
A hundred and one years after Joseph Roth, I went for my own Berlin walk. These daily walks became a habit for me, as they were for many others, during two years of on-and-off coronavirus lockdowns. I had only rather recently moved here when Corona hit, and all the things I wanted to see and do—the culture, the nightlife, the historical landmarks and parks—were off-limits. Walking, then, felt like one way I could stay engaged with the city where I lived, albeit rather superficially, and within a measly ten-block radius. I also took to reading literature about Berlin, which led me to revisit What I Saw, a favorite text of mine from university. Roth too was a big walker, of course, although his miniatures include more researching, snooping, loitering, and questioning than the pandemic allowed. As I reread Roth, and as I walked, what I found most thrilling was his mode of engagement with the city: an unrepentant grouch, he never went as far as “celebrating” the place, but he showed himself determined to get about in it, to discover it, to dip into its many different worlds without pretending to understand them all. His moral vigor attracted me as well, particularly as my initial grim hopes that Corona might, for all its costs, lead to a rethinking of our laissez-faire “normality” began to wane, and the city’s relentless development accelerated: countless beloved cultural icons went under, Berlin’s police forcibly cleared various tent cities and queer radical squats, and citywide rent continued its mad increase of forty-two percent over the last five years without any of the proposed countermeasures coming into lasting effect.
What I Saw is a thoroughly urban book, one that can help us reimagine and renegotiate our cities in the wake of Corona. In it, Roth imagines the city as a conglomeration of overlapping worlds—an unresolved assortment of individuals and communities, each with different vulnerabilities and needs. His muse was interwar Berlin, a city that faced many of the same challenges as our own: a real estate boom pushing affordability to its limits; serious inequality along both old and new social fault lines; far-right agitators, including some in the police, undermining the city’s multicultural tradition. The rest of the German-speaking world described Weimar Berlin with a mixture of exhilaration and disgust; then, as now, the city was accelerating, overcrowding, and prone to ever more radical forms of artistic and political expression. Roth, as Hofmann points out in his introduction, did not like Berlin very much—but it does seem to have exercised him both creatively and intellectually. As disillusioned as he was, Roth’s Berlin columns model a deeply compassionate approach to the city in unprecedented times, one that combines curiosity with humility and ethical engagement.
The nonfiction miniatures in What I Saw are driven by Roth’s eagerness to go out and find individuals in the crowd. Berlin’s mass transport, mass politics, and mass nightlife all gave Roth the willies; so did the mass-market newspapers, although he wrote for these and read them obsessively in his spare time. “The gaps in the news,” he wrote in The Hotel Years (2015), another collection of columns set outside Berlin, “are the interesting bits.” Indeed, it was not in the news but the news-adjacent feuilleton genre that Roth found a form to suit his vision. Feuilletons, in the Central European tradition, are neither reportage nor editorial nor memoir; they usually begin with an anecdote or scene, then move toward some tentative social point. Roth defined it as “saying true things on half a page.” It is a form closely associated with Berlin: many of its foremost practitioners—Robert Walser, Siegfried Kracauer, Gabriele Tergit—used nonfiction miniatures to respond to the city’s transience and speed. Franz Hessel, whose interwar feuilletons inspired Walter Benjamin’s famous essay on flâneurie, strolled through Berlin and recorded his impressions, showing off a democratic openness: “Just walking around won’t do it,” Hessel wrote in one piece. “I’ll have to educate myself in local history, take an interest in both the past and future of this city, a city that’s always on the go, always in the middle of becoming something else.”
Roth’s feuilletons, too, begin with the author putting himself about—venturing out among the sights and smells, the surprises and strangers. He eavesdrops in a barber shop, visits steam baths at night, meets Jews who fled from pogroms in Eastern Europe. Often his investigations take on surprising angles, like his piece on the Prussian-era Victory Column, in which he only briefly mentions a recently averted bomb plot before describing at length the tedious disquisition on picric acid that some “amateur scholar” is giving to the crowd. Roth shares with his fellow Feuilletonisten a certain receptiveness to new stimuli—yet he adds an extra dimension of ethical motivation, drawn as he is to the undersides of things. He dedicates pieces to sex workers, alcoholics, and undocumented corpses; he suggests “all state officials should have to spend a month working in a homeless shelter to learn love.” (By contrast, the ur-flâneur Hessel seems unbothered when he saunters past an exhibition of “wild” humans at the zoo.) Opening oneself to the city is all well and good in theory, but against a world of unequal access, disengaged flâneurie runs the risk of becoming posh dilettantism. In that sense, What I Saw offers a fine guide for our (post-)Corona walks, returning us to the social world while staying aware of old fault lines exacerbated by the pandemic (race, class) and novel ones created by it (e.g., the mass disabling effects of long COVID). Roth is always prepared, and always preparing his reader, to look at things anew. He does not avoid the pressing ideas and preconceived notions of his day—instead, he approaches them head-on, then veers off into surprising particulars. His visit to Berlin’s hyped six-day bicycle race culminates with the image of a drunkard outside and drivers waiting in the dark. Later in that walk sketch, he reflects playfully that,
Strolling around on a May morning, what do I care about the vast issues of world history as expressed in newspaper editorials? Or even the fate of some individual, a potential tragic hero, someone who has lost his wife or come into an inheritance or cheated on his wife or in one way or another makes some lofty appeal to us? Confronted with the truly microscopic, all loftiness is hopeless, completely meaningless. The diminutive of the parts is more impressive than the monumentality of the whole.
What Roth seems to advocate—and what he models in this work—is an ethical redistribution of attention, perhaps of sympathy as well. To do so means acknowledging one’s limits, as one perspective among many, something that neither the neoliberal development-hype nor the libertarian individualism currently shaping our post-COVID cities is inclined to do. Throughout What I Saw, Roth draws attention to the transience of his vision and the limits of his access to the lives of other people. Windows, fog, and frames recur throughout the feuilletons. Roth, like the Impressionists, fixates on momentary glimpses of life; he likes to demonstrate the seen-ness of his scenes, emphasizing his own subjectivity and lack of omniscience (often his feuilletons end on a moment of unprocessed sensory input). The resulting urban experience is both transitory and partial. In one memorable piece, Roth takes a trip on Berlin’s S-Bahn (elevated subway) and looks out at the houses overlooking the tracks. After meditating on the walls, windows, and courtyards—features that either allow or deny him access to the lives of the locals—he recognizes a boy he has often seen listening to a phonograph: “I catch a brassy scrap of tune and take it with me on my journey. Torn away from the body of the melody, it plays on in my ear, a meaningless fragment of a fragment, absurdly, peremptorily identified in my memory with the sight of the boy listening.”
As a miniature form, the feuilleton invites a connection between the particular and the general. It is in this space that Roth makes hay. Against an era given to dehumanizing mass accounts of human behavior—from glib news headlines to heartless urban planning to the evolutionary-biological cruelty in German fascism—Roth made himself into a poet of the particular. The city that emerges from his account is not an ordered mass or an explicable social laboratory, but an overlapping series of worlds and individuals—a collective too big, diverse, and multiple to tame. His version of freedom is neither utopian nor libertarian; it is a miniature freedom, one that finds its articulation through and around other people.
Today, I am taking a walk in my new neighborhood, Neukölln. If anywhere in modern-day Berlin would have attracted Roth, it must be Neukölln, home as it is to dive bars and asylum seekers and disputative intellectuals and countless other interlocking little worlds. (The downtown streets he frequented a century ago are now glitzy and boring.) I head off up Reuterstraße, past the Leninist-Marxist Party office, below the Trabzonspor football flag (“şampiyon!”), then over by the Polski Bar that looks out onto the Evangelische Schule. This new neighborhood is still slightly overwhelming; it’s full of places and things I can’t quite figure out. But that, I’ve been reminding myself, is the romance of big cities: they are the site of too many people—and too many things—to keep in mind at once. Berlin in particular has a history marked by, on the one hand, disastrous (and often disastrously cruel) attempts to remake the whole city top-down, and on the other hand, a proliferation of liberatory or creative initiatives at the local and community level. (“Never was so much order thrown at disorder,” Roth exclaimed in 1930, “so much lavishness at parsimony, so much method at madness.”) At its best, this is a city of small experiments and miniature worlds, from the various queer scenes that emerged around 1900 through the utopian efflorescence of Weimar Berlin to the countless diverse squats, nightclubs, magazines, interfaith initiatives, and community gardening projects that have taken root since the fall of the Wall. All these might be essentially decentralized, but that does not mean they are not social achievements: many of Berlin’s most appealing experiments over the last century would not have been possible without a city government that has—in its more helpful moments—worked to provide the safety, space, and resources required for people and communities to be themselves.
Roth’s S-Bahn feuilleton is probably my favorite—partly because the city’s S-Bahn is a source of delight and fascination for me, as well as a place of authentic fellow feeling: I once saw a homeless man’s cart fall over and the whole carriage get up to help put everything back. But recently, there have been many claims of race-based abuse by the city’s public transit ticket-checking officials. If non-white people don’t feel safe there, then the subway—no matter how well-designed and affordable it is—is no place of freedom, even after our recent lockdown-breaking “freedom day.” The same applies to Berlin at large, for people with all kinds of vulnerabilities. This is a tension at the heart of talking and thinking about cities in the (post-)COVID age. Among the numerous fine literary responses to COVID, many understandably registered shock at losing the social value of cities: “It’s hard to imagine the city empty,” Ricardo Romero wrote in his “Pandemic Diary” from Buenos Aires for Words Without Borders. “It unnerves and captivates me; I don’t know how to relate to it. How do you get into this city?” On the other hand, COVID literature and reportage has also discussed the various old and new inequalities that make certain spaces unsafe for the people who might want to return to the urban environment—such inequality is a core motif in A World Without Reach, the Yale Review’s collection of responses to the first pandemic year. Reading Roth’s Berlin miniatures, a sense of the dynamic between sociability and justice feels essential to the urban experience.
The same goes for Roth’s heirs among the cleverer city-writers of modern-day Berlin, who combine an attraction to the city’s public space with an interest in questions of access and intersubjectivity. Paul Scraton’s searching novel Built on Sand assembles a series of overlapping found narratives to present Berlin’s history in an appropriately kaleidoscopic fashion. The city’s (sadly untranslated) flâneuse-in-chief Annett Gröschner dramatizes, among other things, the rent crisis—and the loss through gentrification of community in the city’s post-Communist East—in her experimental urban miniatures, while Musa Okwonga’s autobiographical novel In the End, It Was All About Love adopts a generic flâneurial mode then jarringly undermines its second-person narration by recording very particular experiences of racism. For them, as for Roth, there is never a return to “normal”—normal streetscapes, normal free markets. There is, instead, a city in flux: a constant, humane process of finding ourselves both inside and outside each other’s miniature worlds.
At the end of my walk is the Tempelhofer Feld, an airport built between the wars that was decommissioned in the 2000s and then—remarkably—preserved by the city as a public park and event venue. Parts of this vast, open space have variously been given over to community gardens, asylum seeker housing, sports, and entertainment; authorities have also roped off some all-important breeding zones for the Eurasian skylark. The rest, today, is packed with people drinking and talking, or otherwise using the former runway to rollerblade or dance or ride their bikes fast down the runways. Like the best of Berlin, Tempelhofer Feld is a shared space made up of coexisting miniatures, one enabled by compassionate and civically minded city policy. Perhaps even Joseph Roth—as grouchy as he was—might have been pleased.
© 2022 Alexander Wells. All rights reserved.