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The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth

The Radetzky March (1932)

by Joseph Roth

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There's a moment in The Radetzky March when a soirée at a country estate is being broken up in the early hours of the morning. Word has just arrived of the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and the host tells his staff to silence the band and usher his guests off the property. But the musicians are so drunk that they won't stop playing even when their instruments are plucked from their hands by footmen: violinists keep drawing their bows ‘over the unresponsive material of their sleeves’, and a drummer continues ‘to beat and swish his various sticks about in the empty air’.

It's an exquisite little metaphor of life during the late Austro-Hungarian empire, where armies of civil servants, aristocrats and, indeed, soldiers continued to go through the motions, not realising that their world was already functionally dead, and they had long stopped making any ‘music’ at all. Not the least striking example of this is Joseph Roth himself, who simply could not come to terms with what had happened. Year after year, from exile in Berlin and then in Paris, he went back over the same ground in his fiction and journalism. And, for that matter, in his non-writing life, too: as late as March 1938, he was heading to Vienna on some insane scheme to convince the Chancellor to cede power back to a coterie of Habsburg ‘Legitimists’. He was turned away at the border – and three days later came the Anschluss.

The fact that what followed was so much worse has, perhaps, made it difficult for us to feel how baffling Roth's love of the empire was. At least, I find it rather baffling. This novel's primary mode is one of ironic but heartfelt nostalgia; it's presented as an elegy to a lost mitteleuropäisch paradise; and yet, reading between the lines, it's clear that Roth's Austria-Hungary was a dreary, hidebound, odorously masculine place, hamstrung by outdated codes of behaviour, paralysed by bureaucracy, and riven by inter-ethnic hatreds. It would be easy enough to claim that he understood all this and that he is simply ‘problematising’ it, but I don't know – it really feels like he wants to view the empire with undiluted approbation and simply can't make it work. As a consequence, the politics of the book are all over the place: he has liberal instincts, but he is forced into a position of essential conservatism (Roth referred to Strauss's ‘Radetzky March’ as ‘the “Marseilleise” of conservatism’).

Perhaps what mattered was that in the end, the Empire was his home – and after its dissolution his home just didn't exist any more, however much the towns themselves still showed up on maps. Reading Roth talking about Austria-Hungary reminds me of reading certain Pakistani writers talking about the Delhi of their childhood, pre-Partition, which cannot be returned to because it's a civilisation that no longer exists. The point was its multiculturalism, and Roth deliberately ranges around the full extent of imperial geography and linguistics in The Radetzky March. The central family, the Trottas, are from the south of the empire: the original patriarch spoke Slovenian, but his grandson, a district commissioner, speaks only ‘the nasal Austrian of upper officialdom’; his housekeeper speaks High German, and his son is stationed off in the boondocks surrounded by peasants speaking ‘Ruthenian’ (i.e. Ukrainian) and overseen by a Polish-speaking landowner.

All this is offered up as a kind of flawed Eden, with nationalism as the lurking serpent. Roth seems to sympathise with the feelings of District Commissioner von Trotta, who opines that, in imperial terms, there are ‘plenty of peoples, but no nations’. This may indeed be a utopian outlook, but it's striking that the novel makes it only too clear why the various constituent peoples wanted some autonomy. The dissolute Count Chojnicki, who is presented sympathetically and who pops up now and then to make gloomy, accurate predictions about the future, talks at some length about how abhorrent Czechs, Hungarians and Slavs are, how the state should take an iron grip over their lives, and how local peasants ought regularly to be shot. Nationalism might well seem promising in that context, which Roth nevertheless seems determined to extol.

Of course Roth was Jewish, and when nationalism finally blew the empire into a constellation of nation-states, the Slovenians, Hungarians, Slovaks et al. at least had patches of Europe to which they could stake their Tolkienesque claims of historical ownership. The Jews did not. In that sense they gained more from Austria-Hungary's existence, and suffered proportionately from its break-up. Maybe that is why he writes in such rosy tones about the otherwise soulless Silesian border towns that loom so large in his work.

The unnamed burg in which Carl Joseph, the youngest von Trotta, is stationed in The Radetzky March is a perfect example, but variants on the theme recur in many of his books (at least according to summaries and synopses – I haven't actually read any others). A tiny town near the Russian border; a Polish count in his castle; a bored military garrison whose officers are drunk on the local schnapps; a large Jewish population; and all of it surrounded by swamps full of croaking frogs. It's a perfect description of – surprise, surprise – Roth's home town of Brody. After the war and the break-up of the empire, Brody became part of interwar Poland (it's now in Ukraine), and Roth, engaged in a slow suicide-by-alcoholism in Paris, applied himself to recreating it over and over again in fictional form.

I find that riveting – more riveting, frankly, than the novel itself, which is shot through with extraordinary moments but which I can't help feeling could have benefited from a smidgen more in the way of actual plot or incident. Perhaps its main flaw though seems to me to be a slight heavy-handedness when it comes to dramatic irony. At the end of something like – oh, I don't know – Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, when the heroes head off cheerfully to the war, that feels properly ironic because we know so much better than they do what they have in store for them. Roth, by contrast, rather overdoes it by having characters simply come right out and explain what's going to happen: ‘The age doesn't want us any more! This age wants to establish autonomous nation states!’ as the Count says in one of his many infeasible outbursts. The pinnacle of this comes when a man looks at his sleeping children and somehow predicts the terrors of the 1930s:

‘They're still so young, my children! One of them is eight, the other ten, and when they're asleep, they have round rosy faces. And yet there's cruelty in those sleeping faces. Sometimes I think it's the cruelty of their time, the future, that comes over them. I don't want to live to see that time!’

Dun-dun-dunnnn! Now come on, that is cheating. But again, it comes back to Roth's conflicted feelings about how shitty the world around him was, and how all of it could (he felt) be traced back to the end of this multiethnic superstate, which even he can't portray as anything but fucked-up in the first place. From this point of view, The Radetzky March takes the form of a bleak joke: ‘It was awful, and then it was replaced by something worse.’ Roth was astute enough to see that disaster was inevitable one way or another – the only choice, as one character here puts it, ‘was between a sudden catastrophe and a more gradual one’. The catastrophe had already overtaken Roth, but he kept playing all the same. ( )
5 vote Widsith | Feb 13, 2019 |
"The fatherland no longer existed. It was crumbling, it was breaking apart."
By sally tarbox on 2 August 2018
Format: Kindle Edition
I know we're only halfway through the year, but I'm going to say this will be the best book I read in 2018; it's absolutely exquisite writing, up there with Tolstoy.
Set in the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian empire (it closes with the outbreak of WW1), this is the story of three generations of the Trotta family, who rise to prominence in the first few pages when one Joseph Trotta has the presence of mind to shield the Emperor from a bullet while in battle. We follow the ennobled Trotta, a stiff, formal military man, unswervingly loyal to the ruler. We have hopes that his softer-hearted son will break the mould...but he takes on the same characteristics, running an inflexible household and putting the fear of God into his own son, who is early on entered into the military.
The novel primarily follows the youngest scion as he experiences various traumas in his life, and seems to be becoming a (relatively) independent-thinking character; and through contact with his world, his father too starts to realise the impending fate of the Empire he has always revered .
And behind it all is the long-lived Emperor Franz Josef, a fixture in the lives of all three Trottas, but who now is a very old man...

Every time I put this down, I was just struck with the ability of the author to so bring to life a world and his characters. Utterly wonderful writing ( )
1 vote starbox | Aug 1, 2018 |
The Radetzky March is listed in 1001 Books so I pounced when I saw it at the library!

This is why the editors included it:

"The Radetzky March ranks as one of the finest European historical novels of the twentieth century and is the outstanding literary work produced by the prolific journalist and novelist Joseph Roth."

Through three generations of the Trotta family, the story traces the decline of the Hapsburg Empire in its dying days, but this is not a family saga. From the hero of the battle of Solferino who saves the Emperor Franz Joseph’s life and is subsequently ennobled from plain Lieutenant Trotta to Baron von Trotta and Sipolje; to his son Herr Van Trotta who becomes the District Commissioner; to his grandson Carl-Joseph who has an indifferent peacetime career in the army, the book focusses just on these three men who are all, effectively, bachelors, and how they represent the fracturing of the old certainties of empire.

Strauss’ Radetzsky March is a motif throughout the book. Throughout his rigid loveless childhood when he is steam-rollered into the military career denied to his father, Carl-Joseph hears the local bandmaster play this march and he associates it with tradition, order, duty and belonging.

But as the first Baron rightly surmised, these values are under stress...

To read the rest of my review please visit https://anzlitlovers.com/2018/07/04/the-radetzky-march-by-joseph-roth-translated... ( )
2 vote anzlitlovers | Jul 3, 2018 |
The story of three generations of men in the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. ( )
  maryreinert | Mar 27, 2018 |
A book filled with melancholy not only for the characters but the world in which they live, The Radetzky March is a carefully constructed memorial to a lost age. Roth depicts three male generations of loyal subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to World War I, focussing on the last, young Carl Joseph. Along the way, we get a picture of an empire in decline, of traditions slowly tottering, and of a society entirely unaware of the cracks appearing around them.

Time and again while reading this, I was reminded of The Bridge on the Drina. Both novels chronicle the history of empires and both end with WW1. But whereas Drina remains fixed on one locus in space, March roves far more widely. The writing has similarities, too. Both depict solid characters who fail in their attempts to stand against the tides of time, and both are written in prose which is very carefully constructed.

Again, like Drina, March is not always a page-turner, but it is an important read nonetheless. We receive insight into the remarkable folly of us all to believe that the societies we have constructed are somehow superior to those who have gone before and will remain impregnable. In Drina, Andrić shows masterfully that, for all our pride, a collection of stone as simple as a bridge can outlast us all. In March, Roth shows us that, with a few small holes rendered by equally small pieces of ammunition, the whole house of cards can come tumbling down.

It’s a sad novel, not least because Carl Joseph is a melancholy individual whose life seems meaningless and something out of his control all the way to the very end of the book. The writing too is shot through with pathos, and it’s this that gives the whole the air of an afternoon of incessant drizzle despite the best finery one of Europe’s greatest empires can muster. ( )
1 vote arukiyomi | Oct 21, 2017 |
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» Add other authors (123 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Roth, Josephprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Brodersen, KarlMedarb.secondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Charles, KentTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cortesia, SaraTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dunlop, GeoffreyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dyer, PeterCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Foà, LucianoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fučíková, JitkaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hofmann, MichaelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Manacorda, GiorgioIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Neugroschel, JoachimTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Salter, GeorgCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Terreni, LauraTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tucker, EvaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wielek-Berg, W.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Winkler, JohanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Winkler-Vonk, AnnieTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The Trottas were not an old family.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Translated by Geoffrey Dunlop and published by William Heinemann London in 1934. under the title 'Radetzky March'.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679451005, Hardcover)

Joseph Roth's 1932 novel, The Radetzky March, starts with an accident that creates a dynasty. When an infantry lieutenant steps in front of a bullet intended for the young Franz Joseph, the Austro-Hungarian emperor rewards him with wealth, promotion, and a knighthood. Almost overnight, Joseph Trotta is "severed" from his ancestors, and his family is transformed from unremarkable soldiers and peasants living in the outer reaches of the empire to barons and high-ranking officials living near the imperial palace. As long as Franz Joseph is the Kaiser, their status is secure. But when Trotta happens upon a schoolbook account of the event that exaggerates his heroism, he is shaken:
He had been driven from the paradise of simple faith in Emperor and Virtue, Truth, and Justice, and, now fettered in silence and endurance, he may have realized that the stability of the world, the power of laws, and the glory of majesties were all based on deviousness.
As World War I approaches and the monarchy's limitations become apparent, Trotta's son and grandson become even further removed from this paradise. They continue to follow the codes of honor and duty, though such behavioral guides become pointless, even burdensome, in a world shorn of simple faith in an emperor. Trotta's grandson Carl Joseph finds his military career overwhelmed by bad horsemanship, alcohol dependency, frivolous roulette and baccarat debts, and misguided love affairs--the kinds of flaws, he thinks, that are inevitable without the self-assurance and practical knowledge that he would have gained had he earned (rather than inherited) his position. Not long ago, he thinks wistfully, his family lived as peasants "in dwarfed huts, making their wives fertile by night and their fields by day." It is here that the Trottas' demise is at its most poignant, as the focus of the narrative shifts from the loss of status to the far more devastating loss of purpose.

In both style and temperament, Roth's novel stands between the 19th and 20th centuries, and the three Trottas could be seen as part of a progression that stretches back to Tolstoy's Prince Andrei and looks ahead to the Mathieu of Sartre's Les Chemins de la Liberté trilogy. Although The Radetzky March illustrates why the monarchy was doomed, and isn't blind to the new nations and ideologies on the horizon, Roth is more interested in his characters' psychology than their politics. And their central difficulty--the bewildering meaninglessness that follows the dissolution of an ideal--has been a fundamental 20th-century dilemma. The Trottas are, in Roth's stunning phrase, "homesick for the Kaiser." One need only substitute "the Chairman" or "Marxism" or "God" to understand the novel's lasting resonance. --John Ponyicsanyi

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:29 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

In 19th century Austria, a peasant is ennobled for saving the emperor's life. His son further elevates the family's name by becoming a civil servant, but the grandson brings it back to square one with gambling and debauchery. A new translation of a classic.… (more)

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