Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 4, 2018

The Radetzky March, by Joseph Roth, translated by Michael Hofman #BookReview

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.  As Emma from Book Around the Corner explains in her review the Baron steered his only son into the bureaucracy because he was livid about the misrepresentation of history in the legend that proliferated about the way he saved the Emperor.  Truth takes second place, because a mere infantryman from a peasant background could not be seen to have saved an emperor.  (Or even to have touched him). So the story in the schoolbooks transforms Trotta into a cavalry officer, and when the newly ennobled Van Trotta appeals to the Emperor, he is told that the legend is meant to inspire Austro-Hungarian patriotism.  But the story is removed from the textbooks anyway, thus ensuring that Van Trotta’s son and grandson wrongly think that they are of aristocratic lineage.

This unusual level of access to the Emperor is a motif in the book as well.  Carl-Joseph is a poor soldier, his lofty ideals having no outlet since the country is at peace.  The only time he sees any action is when his unit is required to put down industrial action in the region bordering Russia, and so he drifts into a dissipated life of drinking 90% proof, amassing a colossal debt due to gambling, and dereliction of duty due to womanising.  When his folly causes a fatal duel and he is in serious trouble, his dutiful letters to his father begin at last to confront reality and the family’s special connection to the Emperor rescues him, not for the first time.

Too late, father and son begin to forge a relationship as disillusionment with empire sets in for both of them.  Carl-Joseph had never enjoyed family life.  As a small boy he was sent away to school so that he could realise his widowed father’s ambitions that he would become a cavalry officer.  (A career destined to become irrelevant in the mechanised warfare of WW1).  They communicated in a routine of diffident letters which made it impossible for either one to know the other.  In a parody of the relationship that the Emperor has with his subjects,  the District Commissioner has exactly the same conversations each time with his underlings because he has no idea who they are or even if their children are boys or girls.

The strict regimes of Carl-Joseph’s father’s and his routine pretensions to nobility sabotage all his relationships, and late in life he realises that he has had no friends.  The death of the old family retainer Joseph provokes a crisis because he is irreplaceable and the District Commissioner has no one to talk to or help him with advice about his son’s catastrophes.  While Roth’s portrait of Carl-Joseph is not unsympathetic, his character’s eventual rescue by the Empire is symptomatic of a regime that looked back to protecting an entirely useless, accident-prone young man at the expense of better people who had something worthwhile to offer.

The novel is superbly written, evoking a bygone age with finesse and the translation is perfect.  (Hofman is a poet, and he also translated Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin). It is a tragedy that Roth (1894-1939) was forced to flee Germany under the Nazis and died in poverty in Paris aged just 44.

Apart from the fact that this is a thoroughly engaging novel, why should readers find a story tracing the decline of an empire relevant now?  Well, we are living through the decline of the American empire and the same lessons apply.  Poor leadership in political life; flawed education systems more focussed on test results than on preparation for the future; dysfunctional family life; mythmaking history through mass media; a failure to teach ethical standards of behaviour in the military; inequitable economic policies and an intolerance of diversity. We in Australia might not have an empire, but we might do well to interrogate how many of these lessons apply to us too…

Author: Joseph Roth
Title: The Radetsky March
Translated from the German by Michael Hofman
Publisher: Granta Books, 2003 (first published in 1932, first English translation 1933)
ISBN: 9781862076051
Source: Dandenong Library


Responses

  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  2. Now I KNOW you are stalking my library, Lisa! It’s uncanny how similar our book responses are.
    This is one of the great books, for me. Part of a whole, not genre, but group of books chronicling the end of a way of life, of an era dying, of the old passing into the modern. And the incomprehension of those it left behind. Brideshead Revisited, The Leopard, Isabel Colgate’s The Shooting Party, and many others. It’s the end of ‘The Long 19th Century’. Everything changed. Half the western world was dead or about to die: of wars and Influenza and revolution. Nothing could ever be the same again. Roth’s characters did not know all of this but felt it – the air was full of foreboding and presages and omens. The two old men, the doctor and the lawyer, had both lost their sons and their certainties. And yet, in a beautiful passage, they glance at each other in the bar and realise they are reading the same thing in the same newspaper. They have things in common. And when they begin to play Chess together, their fingers touch as they move the pieces and a spark of the simple human condition is lit, and they have each other, in the face of the world lost, they are not alone. I bought an old painting because it depicts that very scene. Do you remember the Trevelyan quote in my own book: ‘One generation vanishing into another/gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone.’ The Radetzky March was strongly in my mind when I quoted that. I am so glad you reminded me of this book and what it means.

    • *giggle* One of many libraries I’m stalking, I must confess:)
      This novel is a perfect model of an historical novel, because it’s written from the heart. Roth witnessed the breakup of the Austria he had grown up in and loved, and I feel sure that he heard people saying some of the things that he uses in dialogue. And even though all the characters are flawed, I couldn’t help feeling compassion for them.

  3. You are right on all of your assessments on the present state of this country. Some days I verge on despair but then the books give me succour as always. I must read this one as have never explored this great writer but have read The Leopard a few times.
    Big thanks as always for your insightful reviews.

    • Thank you, Fay. I like to think that America will be great again, but not in the way That Man is barking about! We in Australia have more values in common with the US than we do with China, and I think that good people in both countries will rise above the current debacle and put things right again.

  4. Thanks Lisa for your thoughtful and illuminating review of a book I found unusually challenging, possibly because the unpleasantness of the second and third von Trotta men drove me away from it several times and I had to read my way back in.

    • Hello Lyn, thanks for your comment:)
      I think I might have had more patience with Carl-Joseph than I otherwise might because I’d read in Tolstoy how the military life was so harmful to young men of the nobility. With nothing much to do, and often garrisoned in out of the way places, it was too easy to drift into drinking and gambling and because of their privileged positions, they were able to get away with bad behaviour (much like our sports stars of today).

  5. I respected the book, but did not like it much at the time, repelled by the life of the mostly-useless young man. He was destroyed by the life he was bred up to lead, but did not do anything to correct his situation. My (deceased) husband was born in Hungary. All members of his family always spoke well for Franz Joseph. It was not so much that they admired him personally but they were nostalgic for a time of certainty and security.

    You touched me with the parallels you cite to the death of empire. I am living through it here, and it is very painful. The pain is not for the loss. I never wanted empire much in the first place — at least I think I didn’t — but for the mean reactions to it.

    Someone reminded us of The Leopard. The first time I read it, I could not see what all the fuss was about. Some years later I reread it on the advice of a friend and I was smitten with its insights, perfectly embodied in the story. We live and learn.

    • Hi Nancy, thanks for dropping by:)
      I think the nostalgia comes through in the book, and I think many of us too young to have lived through even its dying days still regret the loss of certainty and the entire debacle of the 20th century…
      I was using the word empire loosely of course: the American empire has been an empire of ideas and ideals, and the values of honorable leaders like Rooseveldt and Obama were values worth exporting to the world.

      • Roosevelt and Obama were not the problem. There is another empire, often described as “the military industrial complex,” which seeks dominance and control through military presence and capitalistic manipulations. Our current would-be Caesar finds any failure to completely submit to be a defiance and a potential loss of power. It seems to be a insecure male thing. Anything less than total control threatens masculinity.

        • Well, yes, I did think about military adventures… I forget which president (Bush?) was reported here as invoking the intervention in Iraq as a way of exporting democracy into the Middle East with the hope that a democracy there would pressure the other Arab states into political change. I assumed at the time that he also meant economic change that would suit US purposes, and this was often glibly interpreted as an intervention to secure oil supplies. But I really don’t know enough about it or US NATO activities to have an opinion about that aspect of US dominance in world affairs.
          So I was primarily thinking of what some people call cultural imperialism: swamping local cultural industries and products with US film, literature and also news. Our film & TV is dominated by US products, and so are our bestseller lists. It would probably astonish you to see how much of our daily news is about stuff that’s happened in the US, compared to stuff that happens in our Asian neighbourhood. We hear about a US bus crash killing 10 people in great detail and a monsoon that kills thousands in Asia gets a paragraph. And the values that underlie that cultural dominance are not as closely aligned to ours as they used to be. The gun issue is a good example: Australians have comprehensively rejected the idea of gun ownership as a right so the films where the gun is an everyday accessory to solving problems seems remote and unrealistic to us.

  6. Great review Lisa. This is one that’s been lurking on my shelves for ages, and I have read some Roth which I have enjoyed. Sounds like this one is still very relevant…

    • I think I’m going to hunt out some more of his books:)
      (LOL when I have time and some space on my shelves….)

  7. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Roth is a great writer and strongly recommend -Summer Before the Dark: Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, Ostend 1936 by Volker Weidermann too!

    • Yes, Stefan Zweig is very important. Beware of Pity was the first book of his, I read.

    • Thanks for that, I’ll keep an eye out for that one:)

  8. It’s strange butcwhenever I consider reading a book by Roth I rarely think of this one and yet it’s generally considered to be his best book – it’s the only one of his on the 1001 list. I must read it soon.

    • I think you’d like it. (I love it when 1001 Books works like this, actually introducing me to a new author who turns out to be terrific).

      • There are quite a few books on the list that I’d never heard of. I finally added a ‘1001 Books’ page to my blog a fw months ago. I’m not necessarily concentrating on them specifically but I’m keeping note.

        Haven’t you read any other Joseph Roth? I really love ‘The Legend of the Holy Drinker’ which was his last book.

        • Me too. I don’t set out to read them as you would if you were doing a challenge, but I tend to recognise titles on my 1001-to-read list if I see them at the library and so I do get through a few of them every year. (Though I suspect that old age will get to me before I get anywhere near completing it!)
          I haven’t read that one. I’ve read Fallada’s The Drinker, but I have to say that I don’t have much interest in reading books by/about people with addiction problems.

          • I may try to read some of the 17thC & 18thC ones from the list that I still haven’t read, e.g. Fielding, Diderot, Richardson, Defoe etc.

            TLOTHD isn’t about addiction as such; the main character is homeless and a drunk but it concerns his attempts to pay back some money that was lent to him. It’s really just a short story.

            • Well, maybe… but the current preoccupation with drink and drug addiction in Australian publishing doesn’t interest me at all.

  9. Great review, Lisa.
    Thanks for mentioning my billet.

    I like your conclusion.

    I have a feeling of dread each time I read a book from the 1930s. What they describe feels too close to home. And when you know what happened then…

    • It does seem eerily familiar… I have trouble believing what I read in the news sometimes, it seems so stupid.


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