The Hotel

From The Hotel Years; translated by Michael Hoffman

The lobby is brightening with a specifically hotel morning. The broad mirroring glass is already variegated with the grey of the day ahead, while a few lamps hang from the ceiling like isolated stars. It’s as though their tardy gleam is bound up with the presence of the night porter who switched them on the night before. They are his lights. When he leaves they will pale, and the day will break.

Sturdy cleaning women are moving about like huge, blue-aproned monsters on the stripped marble of the formal staircase; on the landing, where a plaster cherub has been spewing water into a precious basin for eternities, and an ancient palm gives unnecessary shade, leans a glistening bundle of brass stair rods, newly polished, a little heap of rays or weapons. With flying tails, the early waiters circumnavigate the blue-aproned monsters, discreetly steaming trays on their splayed hands. From backward corridors where it is still completely night-time drones the indefatigable song of the vacuum. Like a patient storm it wanders like an all-flattening fury over the dark red carpets. Just now the head waiter enters the hotel. He is wearing a mouse grey coat and green hat and looks like a forester. But just wait. The modest rustic garb covers the festive gleam of his tails. Soon you will see that he resembles a servant or a marquis in an old comedy. With a magnificent gesture, like someone drawing a pair of gorgeous curtains he throws open the lofty doors to the breakfast room. It’s as though the day had lurked all night in the breakfast room, perhaps been shut in there overnight, and only now were allowed to dawn in the lobby and the rest of the hotel. All at once the blue cleaning women, the phantoms of early morning, are gone. Suddenly the lamps, the tardy stars, are extinguished. Suddenly, his fair face dusted with shaving powder, there stands the chief receptionist in his eyrie. The night porter is already swallowed by his bed. Suddenly the dark red carpets lie snugly over the formal staircase, and it’s as though morning in person is coming down the stairs. The elevator hums. The first breakfast guests appear. Elderly ladies and gentlemen who don’t sleep much and who therefore have made it a healthful habit to rise early. Taut, with a determined show of opposition to their own years, looking neither left nor right, they step out in the direction of the breakfast room, like groups come together for a procession or coronation; each one his own morning. Day is at hand.

The old people are still at breakfast when the young ones come down. The lawful couples are not to be distinguished from the unlawful ones. Both have in common the successfully overcome night. Breakfast together is like an asseveration of their love. They eat as though they had been eating together for decades, but the head waiter knows what’s what. They don’t prod at doubtful eggs. They drink their coffee lukewarm. The night just past hovers over them, and the one ahead moves into view. The young man ignores his newspaper. Anyone who has no eyes for the newspaper is young and in love.

In the afternoon there is the “five o’clock tea”. The potted palms seem to have reproduced. Thanks to them the tropical climate of the Negro dances (supported also by the central heating) becomes a wholly successful illusion. At tiny miniature tables, with tiny miniature coffee cups resembling thimbles, sit corpulent ladies who have been prescribed Marienbad, trying to keep their movements refined, while their daughters, with less need to be careful, let themselves fall into the arms of gigolos. Stirred by the gentle breeze of so many passing waiters, the leathery leaves of the palms distribute heat and cool at once, and even though there is no shortage of noise, their gentle clicking becomes a sort of sonorous silence. Every noise that is created here has a component of silence as well, and every sound is so discreet that all the sounds put together make up the soul of discretion. Minor disturbances seem to apologize for themselves, even as they happen. — Serious men foregather in the conference room, far from the music. To look at them, you would think they were deciding the fate of the world, here, in a spare half hour between first-class trains. They determine our prices, our wages, and the degree of our hunger. Impossible to understand the things they say. Because they are speaking in one place, it is possible to dance in another. That’s all. They are not speaking in spite of the dancing in the other room. No, they speak here so that there may be music and the world can continue on its merry way. All wheels will grind to a halt when their grim word says so.

And then the night porter comes along, and lights the evening. Fresh, youthful, shaved and powdered, in blue and gold livery, he rises like a second morning when the world has evening. Trains have arrived from exotic parts, and exotic visitors are wafting through the glass wings of the revolving doors into the lobby. Those who have been here for a day already and are sitting in the lobby, they are no longer strangers. No, they are long-established, the dark red carpets are their turf which they will not leave, and they cast slighting, suspicious looks at the new arrivals. The suitcases pile up in front of the reception desk, plastered with labels from hotels in foreign places, Venice, Merano, Buenos Aires and San Francisco, all trying to legitimate these new guests. The head waiter surfaces for a moment to assess who can afford to buy themselves a meal under the palms (breakfast, of course, is compris). Sceptically, in spite of himself, he turns to face again the familiar meals, his friendliness is put together from understanding of the world, his faith in humanity is lined with suspicion, his cheery optimism is his pessimism turned inside out, when he smiles he is crying somewhere about the poverty of this world.

Before long, in about two hours, he will put on his little green hat and slip into his mouse grey coat, and with grand gestures he will shut the dining room — and then, in a corner, go over the accounts with the waiters, an accountant himself now, no longer a maître d’hôtel, a plain forester from the hunting grounds of reality. He will say a hurried goodnight to the night porter, whose day is now beginning. Already fresh stars are glimmering in the lobby’s pale sky.

Frankfurter Zeitung, 23 November 1930


Excerpted from The Hotel Years by Joseph Roth; translated by Michael Hoffman. Copyright (c) 2015 by Joseph Roth. Reprinted with permission of New Directions Publishing Company.

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