Susan Hill wrote her first novel while doing A-levels and it was published when she was an undergraduate at King's College London, reading English. Her best known books are Strange Meeting, I'm the King of the Castle and In the Springtime of the Year. The Bird of Night was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Whitbread Best Novel Award. Susan has written two collections of short stories, most recently The Boy who Taught the Beekeeper to Read, and the ghost novel The Woman in Black. The play adapted from this has been running in the West End and around the world for 17 years. Most recently, Susan has written a trilogy of crime novels, The Various Haunts of Men, The Pure in Heart and (forthcoming, 2006) The Risk of Darkness. In 1997 she founded the small publishing company Long Barn Books from her farmhouse in Gloucestershire where she lives with her husband, the Shakespeare scholar Professor Stanley Wells. Below Susan discusses Joseph Roth's Hotel Savoy.
Susan Hill on Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth
The historian Simon Sebag Montefiore introduced me to Joseph Roth in general and Hotel Savoy in particular. It is a talisman for him; he never travels anywhere - and he travels a lot - without his copy. When someone tells you that about a book, you read it.
How can you repay such a debt to a friend who tells you about a writer like Roth? His work has enriched and illuminated my life over the past few years more than that of any other single writer. And the best place to begin is Hotel Savoy.
It's short - 114 pages in the Granta paperback edition. But what's short when it packs in so much? The mysterious Hotel Savoy is in an unnamed eastern town at the gates of Europe and to it comes Gabriel Dan, once an Austrian soldier, lately a prisoner of war in Siberia. Dan is a Russian Jew and has relatives in the town, a rich uncle who just might fund his journey westwards. Meanwhile, he will stay at the hotel. A lot of other people do, after all. The lower floors have red carpet and white-capped chambermaids – rooms for the rich. Floor 6 has no carpet and only surly waiters. Dan stays there. But the floor above teems with a very different kind of life. Here whole families live almost in cupboards and cannot pay their bills: a circus clown, a dancing girl at the Varietes, learning French for when she can get to Paris, Fisch who dreams lottery numbers every night but never wins money. Steam pours out of the laundry at the end of the corridor and filters into the rooms and lungs of the poor inhabitants. They live in terror of the hotel manager, the mysterious, never-glimpsed Kalegoropoulos, whose inspections are often announced but always take place when no one is looking. But it is the sinister lift-man with the beer-coloured eyes who troubles Gabriel Dan the most.
Outside the hotel, soldiers pour into the town from the war and from prison camp, the poor queue at the soup kitchen, others queue at the railway station hoping for work, and everyone awaits the arrival of the legendary rich man Bloomfield, who may solve all their problems.
Gabriel Dan visits his relatives - the mean uncle, the vain little cockatoo of a cousin Alexander - hoping for money but leaving with a cast-off blue suit.
Everything happens. Nothing happens. The town teems with life, people are desperate and struggle, die, make deals, live in filth and squalor, while naked girls dance dispiritedly in the dimly lit bars and a dressed-up donkey performs patiently with the dying clown at the Varietes.
Has anyone ever written about the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and post 1918 Europe like Roth? I doubt it. It is moving beyond tears. What he puts on to the page is simply Life.
And how he puts it there! When I am dictator, everyone who aspires to write fiction themselves will be made to read Hotel Savoy once a month for a year before being allowed to put pen to paper. Line after line, image after image, dazzles with its appositeness and brilliance. His prose is crystal clear, spare and yet packed, stuffed to the brim with treasures.
This Hotel Savoy was like the world. Brilliant light shone out from it and splendour glittered from its seven storeys but poverty made its home in its high places, and those who lived on high were in the depths, buried in airy graves, and the graves were in layers above the comfortable rooms of the well-nourished guests sitting down below, untroubled by the flimsy coffins overhead.Who else has described communities of poor European Jews as well, as succinctly, as Roth?
Silent as shadows, people pass each other. It is an assembly of ghosts and the long dead gather here. For thousands of years this race has been wandering in narrow alleys.This is not a book which ends when you close it. Hotel Savoy expands beyond its own covers to fill your mind and imagination, your memory and your dreams, to haunt you. Its prose filters into your thoughts and hangs about there, its characters live on their shadowy lives beside you as you live your own, its images unsettle you as you go about your business. It is a great, a mighty novel.
Probably Joseph Roth's masterpiece is his longer book The Radetzky March, but it is Hotel Savoy which burrows into your psyche and takes up a permanent lodging there. How can anyone do what he does in just over 100 pages? Only a genius.
No wonder Sebag Montefiore never travels without it.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]