Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2009/16 posted by hidden europe on

When the Austrian-Jewish author Joseph Roth was born in Brody in 1894, the town was a Jewish shtetl in Galicia on the eastern edge of the K and K empire - a place beyond which Viennese influence gave way to more tsarist sentiments. Joseph Roth wrote much about people and places on the margins of society.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

"For seventeen hours, Lieutenant Trotta sat in the train. In the eighteenth, he reached the most easterly railway station in the Austrian empire. And there Trotta alighted." The name of the town matters not, but it could so easily have been Brody.

You have probably never heard of Brody, a small town in territory that is now part of Ukraine. When the Austrian-Jewish author Joseph Roth was born in Brody in 1894, the town was a Jewish shtetl in Galicia on the eastern edge of the K&K empire - a place beyond which Viennese influence gave way to more tsarist sentiments. Brody was a classic border town, and for Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia, Brody was often the first stop.

Joseph Roth wrote much about people and places on the margins of society. Our quote above comes from Roth's Radetzky March, in which Roth maps the decline of a very typical Austrian family and the collapse of the K&K monarchy. It is a tale that is played out at the nerve ends of the Habsburg empire, in communities that often recall Joseph Roth's birthplace in eastern Galicia. These borderlands were the backdrop to the high drama of the national disputes, in the main ignored by Brody's Yiddish speaking majority, that eventually tore Imperial Austria apart.

Brody is much in our minds today. Like many former shtetl towns, it is very much grist to the mill of our work with hidden europe. And more particularly because it was seventy years ago today that Joseph Roth died.

It happens that our favourite literary café in Berlin takes its name from the Austrian author. The Joseph-Roth-Diele on Potsdamer Strasse is one of those homely sort of places where you want to linger. Creature comforts in the name of a writer who produced some edgy and insightful prose - words woven with such simplicity that they are often hauntingly disturbing. Michael Hofmann's English translation of Roth's Radetzkymarsch is available from Granta Books.

More literary connections

Earlier this month, we found ourselves at Menton Garavan railway station, the very last stop in France on the railway line from Nice to Genoa. Like Brody (above), a border station. An unexpected hour at Menton Garavan station turned out to be richly productive. The road immediately outside the train station is named after William Webb Ellis, the Anglican clergyman who is often credited with having invented the sport of rugby. He died in Menton, and his grave in the cemetery above the Old Town is a place of pilgrimage for rugby fans from Europe and beyond.

But it is not just rugby enthusiasts who process to Menton. The town has a galaxy of literary connections from Robert Louis Stevenson to Samuel Beckett. And the railway station at Garavan is a fine introduction to Menton's literary estate. A sedate villa just by the eastern end of the railway platform is Isola Bella, the onetime Riviera home of New Zealand modernist writer Katherine Mansfield. She followed so many English speaking literati with troublesome lungs to Menton, searching for a cure for the tuberculosis that was eventually to claim her life in 1923. Illness brought a considerable cultural windfall to the Riviera coast.

At the other end of the same railway platform is Fontana Rosa, once the home of Spanish realist writer and political activist Vicente Blasco Ibáñez. During the years leading up to his death in 1928, the Fontana Rosa became a magnet for Spanish writers and Republicans. Around the villa, Blasco Ibáñez created a magnificent Andalusian-style garden, called El Jardín de los Novelistas. Sadly, it is nowadays all rather neglected, but in its heyday had groves and statues paying homage to Shakespeare, Cervantes, Balzac and Dickens.

Nicky Gardner & Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.