WHAT I SAW

Reports from Berlin, 1920-1933

By Joseph Roth

Translated from the German

By Michael Hofmann

Norton. 227 pp. $23.95

For a novelist to qualify as a man of letters, it's not enough to simply know the alphabet. He must have other outlets for his words. Venturing no further than fiction makes him only a one-note scribbler, while a man of letters is a master of the multitask.

The Austrian-Jewish writer Joseph Roth, primarily known as a novelist and author of The Radetzky March, was also an essayist. Indeed, living in a Weimar Berlin rich in daily newspapers, Roth was the best-paid and arguably most-read essayist in the city. Though he traveled throughout Europe and reported back to Berlin, his finest essays may have been about that city itself. What I Saw, the first collection of his journalism to appear in English -- in an excellent translation by Michael Hofmann -- is a reminder of just how multifaceted a writer he was.

Roth wandered the streets of Berlin, a city about which he was deeply ambivalent, and framed the daily occurrences he witnessed into a series of literary postcards. The result is a singular achievement of both journalism and literature, a travel guide composed by a socially conscious poet who captured a city at its most cosmopolitan -- and on the brink of collapse.

He apparently saw everything and missed nothing. And his insights were jazzed with the awareness that life in the Roaring Twenties was more than the red velvet tights and sexy frilled corsets found in a cabaret.

Roth chronicled the seedy side of Weimar Berlin, with its underbelly of bathhouses, criminals, homeless, war cripples, nameless dead and, yes, cabarets. He eavesdropped on conversations in barbershops. He stared at skyscrapers, ascended the escalators of department stores and stood disillusioned by the vast rail systems of a European metropolis, contemplating how the tissues of life were being replaced by the machines of technology. Amid all the wonderment, there is also regret in his voice. Roth knows he is bearing bad news, and no amount of lyricism can disguise the sorrow that singes each of his observations.

He glides through the book as a roving reporter of human interest stories, a man looking for the miniature amid the majestic, the forgotten among the horde of giddy, thrusting followers. He describes the homeless plaintively as being " 'at home' -- in their homelessness." He was fascinated by what he saw on trains, whether inside the cars or out. One of his most tender pieces is reserved for those commuters who travel with heavy baggage -- not only their bundles, but also the weight of their worlds. He refers to a railway junction as an "iron landscape" where it is "not the eye that is useful but the colored light, not the shout but the wailing whistle."

His sentences are extraordinary for their visual reach. Riding the elevated S-Bahn in "The Ride Past the Houses," he muses, "A wall has a physiognomy and a character of its own, even if it doesn't contain a window or anything else that reinforces its connection to life, beyond a billboard for, say, a brand of chocolate, placed so that its sudden flash on our retina (yellow and blue) will make an indelible impression on our memory. Behind the wall, meanwhile, people will be getting on with their lives, little girls will be doing their homework, a grandmother will be knitting, a dog gnawing its bone." Indeed, these essays are the perfect companion reading to almost any George Grosz painting, supplying the words and images of an accelerating modernity, reckless and on the loose -- and about to run smack into Hitler.

There are several essays on the displaced Jews of Berlin. For Roth, Jews are a terminally unwanted people, and it is their destiny to remain so. (One of Roth's other nonfiction books, The Wandering Jews, reaches a similar conclusion.) Indeed, he viewed Zionism as an absurd aspiration. Ironically, he never acknowledges that while he may not be as religiously inclined or as rough around the edges as the people he is observing, he too is Jewish, and lives in an equal state of haphazard wandering.

One essay stands out among the rest -- the last one, titled "The Auto-da-Fe{acute} of the Mind," written in 1933. It is not so much about what Roth saw but about what he believed. It is here that he takes aim at the goose-stepping, book-burning, anti-intellectual nation Germany had tragically become: "The European mind is capitulating," he wrote. "It is capitulating out of weakness, out of sloth, out of apathy, out of lack of imagination." Here, as a writer and intellectual, Roth finally aligns himself with the Jews of Germany. German literature was for him largely a Jewish affair, and he saw a nation that banished writers and burned their books as one without a moral future. "It's only the feeblest dilettantes who flourish in the Swastika's shadow, in the bloody glow cast by the ash heaps in which we are consumed," he wrote.

This was Roth at his most vitriolic and political, in an essay that must have been dangerous to write. Indeed, he soon fled for Paris, where he died in 1939 of natural causes. But this essay, the least lyrical of the collection, is also the most emotionally and personally charged, like a call to arms by a man of letters holding nothing but his pen. *

Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist and the author, most recently, of "The Golems of Gotham."

Jonathan Yardley is on vacation.