Monday, January 14, 2019

falling to pieces, disintegrating - The Radetzky March

I have not been writing but I have been reading good books.  The best was The Radetzky March (1932).  The best novel.  There, I have set aside Yeats and The Tower.  The best novel.  Great novel.

Joseph Roth’s book would have fit in well several years ago when I spent a year or so reading a lot of Austrian literature.  His story of three generations of the Trotta family, military men or civil servants, and I mean “men” since the mothers sadly all die early, is in many ways a summation of earlier Austrian literature.  I thought the dialogue with Arthur Schnitzler was particularly explicit.  Roth will have his young officer work his way through most of the idiocy Schnitzler inflicts on his young officers – duels, gambling debts, destructive affairs.

The timing is central, though.  Roth begins his novel at the Battle of Solferino in 1859, but soon enough the pace and page count make it obvious that the novel will end with World War I.  All of the ideas of glory and honor, along with the duels and suicides, will be blown up, along with everything else, in the war.  It is an immense, blatant irony that the narrator openly mentions on occasion, noting that soon the officers in some scene will all be killed.

I know; Roth knows; every one of his readers knows.  “The country of the Trottas was falling to pieces, disintegrating” (Ch. 19, 288).  The Austrian Empire, a great culture in so many ways, could find nothing better to do with its young men than park them on the border in anticipation of war.  So of course war came.

The second great irony for Roth: in 1932, are we Austrians so sure that the break, before the war and after, is so clean?  Historical irony is the worst irony.

If I were to write more about The Radetzky March, I would write a post about Ch. 15, which is from the perspective of Emperor Franz Joseph I.  “Better far to seem simple than wise” (208).  The irony here is that he is present in the first scene – in the novel’s third paragraph – and alive for the entire fifty-seven years of the novel, dying two pages from the end.  “’I wish I’d been killed at Solferino,’ he said.  They did not hear” (317).  But what was he supposed to do?  What choice did he have?

Another post would have been about the big party scene at the end.  The announcement of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the spark of a war that will massacre the officers at the party, coincides with a massive thunderstorm.  It is a literal crashing irony.  Roth is a bold writer.

I think my favorite piece is Chapter  9, a description of a swampy borderland in Galicia, right in the middle of what I know will become a horrific bloodland, and not much fun for an army officer before that.

No one was as strong as the swamp.  No one could hold out against the borderland…  The isolation and swampy boredom of the garrison sometimes drove an officer to despair, to gambling, to debt, and into the company of sinister men.  The cemeteries of the frontier garrisons concealed many young corpses of weak men. (122-3)

Not that it would be much better, soon enough, to be strong.

The title page of the Overlook edition says “Translated by Eva Tucker based on an earlier translation by Geoffrey Dunlop.”  That original translation was from 1933.  This was a popular novel in some sense.  Well done, readers of 1933.


  1. Your title caught my eye, because last night at symphony rehearsal we played The Radetsky March. Now that I know more about it, I'll like it better. (For the second violins, who have the traditional trombone oompah part, it's not that interesting.)

  2. Right, the novel, not the march. The march is a recurring theme in the novel. It increases the pathos of the Emperor's life, having to hear that dang thing so often.

    The other irony is that Vienna is so music-rich, but Roth's novel is set out in the provinces, where the band plays the march every Sunday, forever, or until the collapse of the Empire.

  3. I've had the Neugroschel translation for a long time; your post has convinced me to finally get around to reading it.

  4. Good, it is excellent, has great characters, is of a sensible length - many positive features.

    I'll bet the Neugroschel is good, good, good.

  5. After I read this I added Roth to my read all I can list. The collections of his journalism are really brilliant. I have now read all his translated available as an E book works. There is no bad Roth accept maybe Roth himself.

  6. All! That is impressive. I have just read two novels. It is good to know that I have a lot left to enjoy.