Report from a Parisian Paradise

In Roth’s all too brief career from 1921-1939 he established himself as the greatest newspaper correspondent of his age.


The great journalist Joseph Roth delivers crisp love letters to Paris.

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In Roth’s all too brief career from 1921-1939 he established himself as the greatest newspaper correspondent of his age.His reports from and about Weimar Berlin (1921-1933), “What I Saw” are minutely observed, sharply etched portraits of the “demimondaine” life of a city that boasted 120 newspapers, 40 theaters and great symphonies—a magnet for the aspiring composers, actors and journalists living side-by-side with the emerging Nazi monster.As the goosesteps of the black-booted Nazis became progressively louder, the wary Jewish journalist exiled himself to safety in France in 1925. Fifty of his Parisian gems, written between 1925-1939 can be found in “Report From A Parisian Paradise”As an ardent Francophile you will appreciate Roth’s letter to the editor of the Frankfurter Zeitung newspaper almost immediately upon arriving in Paris in which he explains that he is in “complete control of his skeptical intelligence” and though risking “sounding moronic”,

“Paris is the capital of the world and you must come here. No one who hasn’t been here can claim to be more than half human. Every cab driver here is wittier than our authors. I love all of the women here, even the oldest of them to the point of contemplating matrimony.”

Even when describing the aftermath of unimaginable horror in this description of Maisonette, ‘the most terrible battlefield on the Somme his poetic voice is resonant:

“The earth was turned over, spattered with chunks of limestone, and with mud that oozed up from the depths. There wasn’t a blade of grass or vegetation. Millions of shells rained down. A division clung for months to a hillside. And in the distance they saw the silver water of the Somme, and behind it the shining red roofs of Péronne, and on the left the green, blooming land—the other country, enemy country, that they yearned for as for a woman.

Now larks fizz through the air; the rain has stopped; the wind has blown away the clouds. Anyone who didn’t see the war would think this was peace. But I can sense red blood running through the veins of the surviving trees, though the clumps of earth, in the delicate filaments of the leaves… Bent over the landscape, like a general over a map, is God. Unapproachable as a general; remote as a general…”

Back in Paris he observes children at play in the Jardin du Luxembourg and remarks that:

“French children behave with the ease and confidence of grown-ups. It’s not so much a matter of race and blood as it is the consequence of the warm, loving, nurturing softness in the way they are brought up. The French pedagogical principle is not Spartan strictness but Roman freedom accorded to the individual disposition—it’s not discipline but civilization.”

And as a critic of the newly evolving film with sound he is smitten with René Clair’s classic “Sous Les Toits de Paris (1930)” He writes:

“The action of this film emerges from the atmosphere of Paris in much the same way as a folk song is generated by a particular landscape. It’s as though the tremulous, unresting fog over the roofs of Paris gave birth to the events that take place below.”

Roth’s ability to extract the essence of an event or scene and report it with elegant clarity would be exemplary in a seasoned reporter or novelist but remarkable in a man who did some of his best writing between the ages of twenty-six and thirty-five—an old soul in a young body.

And when viewed from the prism of 2016, “Report From a Parisian Paradise” is even more astonishing for what it foresaw.

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