‘The Radetzky March’ has been on my reading list for simply ages. Last summer I wrote about my expectations of Roth’s classic as ‘an Austro-Hungarian ‘War and Peace.’ I can now confirm that this is a terrible description of the novel, but then again unfulfilled expectation and disillusionment are what Joseph Roth are all about. Fortunately, nobody writes them better than him.
This novel begins with an uncharacteristic moment of triumph. A humble infantry lieutenant sees the Kaiser’s complete ignorance of self-preservation during the battle of Solferino (you don’t look through field glasses with the sun shining on you, providing a clear target during a lull in fighting). He acts instinctively, pulling the monarch off his horse and taking the bullet in his own shoulder. It is a life changing moment and the solider is promoted straight into the aristocracy. This is a Roth novel however, so splendour will always be undercut by irony. While the war ended well for the new Captain Joseph Trotta von Sipolje, it was a crushing defeat for his beloved emperor. The rest of the novel will trace Austro-Hungary’s painful demise, the Kaiser growing older but not wiser as his empire fragments around him. The tragic heroes will be Trotta’s son and grandson, brought up to perpetuate their patriarch’s fanatical loyalty to the regime but destined to witness its downfall.
The petty humiliations that pave the way to the novel’s end, mid-way through World War I, are too numerous and wonderfully drawn to do credit to here. A special joy for me was seeing young Trotta manage to make a pig’s-ear of every adventure befitting a dashing Austo-Hungarian aristocrat. From his affair with a married older woman when still a school-boy to a dramatic duel at his first military post to his experiences as a dissipated man-about-town in pre-World War I Vienna, Trotta suffers through them all. Like the empire he tries to adore, he simply cannot live up to the macho expectations of his position.
It may not be an Austro-Hungarian ‘War and Peace,’ it’s at least 500 pages too short for that accolade, but ‘The Radetsky March’ is a wonderful book of both personal and national tragedy. I’m planning on reading a lot more translated German-language literature in the coming months, but I can’t imagine I will encounter much to match its tragedy, depth or resonance.
Note: I’m a couple of weeks late with this post – Joseph Roth died just over 70 years ago and if I had been more organised I would have marked the anniversary. Still given how out-of-date and past-it’s-moment everything in this book was, a slight delay and feeling of missing the opportunity is probably appropriate. It’s never too late to enjoy Joseph Roth’s writing, even if the world he was describing was to end within his own life-time.