"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

December 10, 2014

"The Radetzky March" by Joseph Roth (Book review)

Who doesn't know the Radetzky March by Johann Strauss Sr., played annually as the last piece at the New Year's Concert from Vienna? This famous piece of music is dedicated to a war-horse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bohemian-born Joseph Radetzky von Radetz, who during a 70-year long career first fought against Napoleon and finally ended up trying to suppress the First Italian War of Independence. He was a ruthless disciplinarian, but also idolized by his soldiers as "Vater Radetzky." Joseph Roth used "Radetzkymarsch" as the title for his greatest novel, written in 1932, because the march symbolizes the greatness of the perished Empire, while the protagonists actually also hear it played at important moments.

[Joseph Radetzky von Radetz,
the type of Austro-Hungarian "war horse"
that also figures in the novel - photo Wikipedia]

The novel tells the story of the rise and fall of three generations of the Trotta family, concentrating on the youngest and last member, Carl Joseph, and this is paralleled by the glory and subsequent disintegration of the empire in which they live and serve - in other words, the passing of the Old Europe into the modern world. The Trottas are professional Austro-Hungarian soldiers and career bureaucrats of Slovenian origin. Joseph Trotta, the patriarch, happened to famously save the life of the blundering Emperor, Franz Joseph I, by toppling him from his horse during the Battle of Solferino (1859), and was ennobled for his service, although his parents had been Slovenian farmers. After his promotion and ennoblement, Baron Joseph von Trotta degrades into rural obscurity, except for one anecdote where he demonstrates that he has always remained a naive peasant: he remonstrates (even to the level of the Emperor) against a textbook for use at schools where his deed is made more heroic than it was by changing some facts. As a result, the war hero stubbornly opposes his son Franz' aspirations to a military career, having him become a government official (district administrator in a Moravian town) instead - the second most respected career in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Like the first Baron, also the second Baron Trotta is a square and conservative man, a pillar of the nation, but also a rather nondescript government functionary. The grandson, Carl Joseph, has a character that is very different from his forefathers, but at the urging of his father joins the army - with consistently disastrous results. It is his fate to die in WWI, just before the destruction of the empire.

The life of Carl Joseph is not a happy one. He stands for the frivolous generation that lost the empire, addicted to the pleasures of the flesh, to drink and gambling. He has a relation with the wife of the police commander in the town where he has grown up and is shattered when she dies in child birth, especially when the husband openly returns a stack of his love letters. At his next post, he has an affair with the wife of his best friend, the Jewish military doctor; as a result, the doctor dies fighting a senseless duel. It seems as if everything Carl Joseph does falls apart under his hands. He sinks into despondency, becoming old before his time, and seeks forgetfulness in drinking and gambling. For the third time, he takes a married lover, and piles up gambling debts, living in an alcoholic daze in a remote military outpost near the border with Russia (the local drink is a sort of extremely strong vodka called "Ninety Degrees"). Just as he is about to permanently damage the family's honor and good name, the Emperor's son Franz Ferdinand is assassinated in Sarajevo and the Great War breaks out, to devour Carl Joseph's life and those of unnumbered others.

The Austrio-Hungarian Empire was a very authoritarian and hierarchical society. It was a world with a clear order, with clear rules and regulations. People knew who they were and what their place in the greater scheme of things was. This is especially clear in the early chapters where we see that Carl Joseph has been disciplined so by his father, the district administrator, that to any question his father poses he answers obediently "Yes, Pappa." The relation between father and son is so formal that the son doesn't talk when he is not invited to do so. When his father picks up some official documents, the son may read the paper, but he is careful to put this immediately away when his father looks up from his reading. Life has been regulated strictly, everything, such as meals, takes place at fixed times. Somehow, this strict and disciplined society reminded me of the Japan of the Meiji-period (1868-1912). And we also know this world from the descriptions in Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday (see my post about this book). It is of course not a very warm society and you can see the gulf that gapes between father and son - especially since for the son the old order ceases to have any meaning. For his father, being the district administrator and a pillar of the empire is his identity - he defines his life in terms of the social order and not in terms of his own being. But the times have changed and Carl Joseph is unable to do that. He is an individualist who simply floats through life, and unfortunately he has chosen the wrong occupation for the army doesn't suit him at all and the boredom even brings out the worst in him. His greatest problem is his lack of reflection, as a more thoughtful life might have brought him to new values.

[Emperor Franz Joseph I - from Wikipedia]

A fourth important character in the novel is the Emperor, Franz Joseph I, who is everywhere present in the form of his official portraits and who with his own unchangeability (he is over eighty years old) symbolizes the state of the realm. But he also meets all three Trottas in person and the fate of the barons seems inextricably linked to that of the Empire, tottering towards its destruction as the Emperor totters towards his grave.

Roth uses historical persons and events in a most imaginative way, that is, they only appear when they are important for the story and not the other way round. He relates the story in a supple style, somewhat understated and matter-of-fact, keeping a fast pace, and his voice is always full of compassion - he treats the death of a small thing like a canary with as much feeling as he does the death-throes of the great Empire.

This superb novel remained long in obscurity. In the Germanic countries, the 1930s were a time that another terrible war was brewing and people didn't have time to read about a previous one. The Nazis next forbade Roth's work because he was of Jewish ancestry. It is only in the last decades that Joseph Roth has been fully rehabilitated - Radetzkymarsch, for example, was in 2003 included in the canon of the most important German-language literary novels by the influential German critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki. The first English translation appeared in 1995 and as a result, the novel was widely acclaimed. The last twenty years have seen a great flow of Roth translations, especially by Michael Hofmann, who also made a second translation of Radetzkymarsch. For more about Joseph Roth, see my post about his last novella, The Legend of the Holy Drinker.  

The German original, Radetzkymarsch, is available from DTV (Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag). It is also freely available as ebook from various internet sites, as the German Gutenberg site or the Internet Archive. 
The first English translation was made in 1995 by Joachim Neugroschel and is available from The Overlook Press as well as from Everyman's Library. A second translation was made in 2003 by Michael Hofmann (who has translated many works by Roth and is a great Roth advocate) and is available from Granta Books. I have read the novel in German, but a quick comparison of both translations with the original, shows that the translation by Hofmann is closest to Roth's style.