Strauss's Radetzky March,signature tune of one of Europe's most powerful regimes, presides over Joseph Roth's account of three generations of the Trotta family in the years preceding the Austro-Hungarian collapse in 1918. Grandfather, son and grandson are equally dependent on the empire- the first for his ennoblement; the second for the civil virtues that make him a meticulous servant of an administration whose failure he can neither comprehend nor survive; the third for the standards of family conduct which he cannot attain but against which he is too enfeebled to rebel
There’s been a lot of negative comment about Hofmann in the 75 Book Challenge group recently, including my complaint about this introduction, but to be fair, it did have some helpful comments. According to Hofmann, Roth believed human character to be essentially flat. He (Roth) says that the world is complicated, complicated situations arise, but people are essentially simple. Roth also apparently described the actual piece of music “The Radetzky March” as “the Marseillaise of conservatism”. Both of these explain the apparent passivity of the characters – it’s not about those who want to change the world, or themselves, but about those who don’t see any reason for change, and who don’t expect any.
The story opens at the battle of Solferino in 1859 where, in a moment of quick thinking bravery, the young lieutenant Joseph Trotta, from a simple background, saves the life of the young Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph I. he is promoted and ennobled, and his family rises up in the world. His son, Franz, becomes a civil servant, eventually a district commissioner. His grandson, Carl Joseph, who is the focus of most of the book, goes back into the military and becomes a not very distinguished officer. The book proceeds through Carl Joseph’s life – school, two love affairs, various army postings, making and losing friends, drinking, going to parties. Nothing really momentous, just the stuff of ordinary life. Most of the time he’s not happy, but he’s not terribly unhappy, he just is. Eventually, there are vague stirrings of rebellion, then World War I starts, and the story moves on to its end.
One of the most striking things about this book is the suppression of emotion. Carl Joseph and his father virtually never hug, never relax with each other, only correspond in formal letters, with neatly drawn margins. When Carl Joseph learns his ex-lover, a married woman, has died, he goes to console the husband, who hands him a pack of his letters to the woman. No anger is expressed, no regret, no grief, not even any surprise or embarrassment. There are also very few women in the book – none of the Trotta mothers/wives appear, both Carl Josephs’ love affairs are short lived, and otherwise there are only a handful of minor female characters.
Throughout, though, although character isn’t deeply described, scenery is. Rooms, tables, clothing (especially uniforms), army drills, villages, are all so well described that if I were able to draw I could draw them. The writing is really good – after all, it’s hard to describe things that the main characters don’t seem to notice, to care about, to contemplate.
After all that thinking, I decided I really did like the book, even though “nothing happened”. The trivial everyday events were well described, there was enough drama happening to the minor characters, even if not to Carl Joseph himself, to keep things interesting, and it was a good portrait of a bygone age, a period in which things ostensibly did just trundle along, at least for those who were part of the mainstream. And of course we, the readers, know all along that the end is nigh, so can see it as the tragic story which the characters themselves only vaguely sense.
The Book Report: The book description from Amazon is unusually cryptic. It says:
“The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth's classic saga of the privileged von Trotta family, encompasses the entire social fabric of the Austro-Hungarian Empire just before World War I. The author's greatest achievement, The Radetzky March is an unparalleled portrait of a civilization in decline, and as such, a universal story for our times.”
My Review: The Trotta family, beneficiaries of the gratitude of the most inept politician and soldier ever to lead an empire, rise to dizzying social heights based on a misunderstanding of an actual brave and generous act. The First Baron saves the Emperor's life by knocking the fool off of his horse in the course of losing a battle. The Emperor's gift of a title to his Slovenian savior sets in motion a long, slow decline and fall, paralleling the Empire's own fate.
The Second Baron, excited by Papa's rep as a war hero and having no other information about the subject than other peoples' gossip, wants to be a cavalry officer like his papa. Papa, who was actually an infantry lieutenant and who is revolted by the gossipy fate of his deed, refuses either to discuss the matter or to allow his son into the military. So the second baron becomes a bureaucrat ruling the lives of people he feels superior to. He and the rest of the Trotta family are firmly convinced they are to the manor born. Papa sighs to himself, keeps his lip zipped, and dies.
The Baron-in-waiting becomes the cavalry officer his papa wanted to be. What a complete wastrel this goofball is. He truly buys in heavily to the privilege and prerogatives of being titled and in the Army. YUCKAPOOVICH. And then, in the course of duty, the scales fall from Lieutenant Trotta's eyes. The story of how that happens is a spoiler, so I have to leave it out of this review, except to say that it was at this point that my flagging interest in finishing this tome woke right back up and I wanted to read more.
I read the ending of the book in a rush, saddened and hurting for the Second Baron whose life was ending as his world was too. It was 1916, the Empire's effective end, and it is told in the simplest and most moving terms, in a scene of touching misdirected loyalty and typically unanswered love.
[[Joachim Neugroschel]] translated the edition I read. It was a pleasure to read...when the story could be bothered to perform its parlor tricks to keep me interested. There are stretches of the Second Baron's life that made me want to scrub my eyelids with witch hazel to tighten them into the open position. But as I read on, lulled by the gentle rocking of the style-train Roth sent me to war aboard, I realized that this, the warm velour first-class seat in the wood-lined first-class compartment, was a comfortable place to be, and I was content to trust the train's course would end in a place I'd want to be.
It did. It's a pleasure to have taken the journey at last.
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.
Roth has reminded me that my heart lies firmly in the 19th century – the Brontës, Austen, Stendahl, Gaskell, Flaubert, and Thackeray, among others, all drove me to graduate school, and I still revel in the lush land of romantic and realistic literature of that period.
This novel of three generations, who revered and served Emperor Franz Joseph, encompasses not only the politics of the era but the relationships among fathers, sons, and even the memory of a deceased grandfather. The prose sparkles, and I am hard pressed to recall more than a few novels with prose so consistently beautiful, lyrical, and engrossing.
Normally, I provide a quote or two, but I could pull a paragraph at random from any page and give the slightest glimmer of the power of Roth’s artistry. The story he weaves holds the reader’s attention from page one through to 331. Even the introductory essay by Nadine Gordimer gushes with praise and allows the reader a glimpse or two into the magical, romantic, and psychological depth of these characters.
At times, I felt as if I were watching a film. The detail of the dress, the food, the carriages, and the houses had such precision and completeness of detail my mind had no trouble calling up clear images as backdrops for the story.
Roth wrote a sequel, The Emperor’s Tomb, and I already have it on my Amazon wish list. 10 stars for one of the finest novels I have ever read.
The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth’s most famous and acclaimed novel, is in essence a meditation on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Roth expertly captures the pomp, pageantry and formality of the dwindling years of the Habsburg dynasty at this time of change, as the old order gives way to the new. Discontent is simmering in the multi-ethnic empire, discontent that culminates towards the end of the book with the onset of The Great War.
The youngest Trotta, Carl Joseph, though known wherever he goes as the grandson of the hero of Solferino, is in reality something of a reluctant soldier. A romantic, pensive character, who eventually resigns from his military outpost, only to belatedly take up this mantle when war breaks out, meeting his demise in a heroic, yet pitiful manner; an early casualty of the fighting.
Nostalgia and melancholy, prevalent themes throughout The Radetzky March, are illustrated both by the passage of time as well as through Carl Joseph’s romantic and platonic relationships, and his later memory of them. Roth, often considered to be something of a prophet of doom, predicts through the voices of his various characters the forthcoming war and the resulting demise of the empire.
Wistful and enchanting, the style is very much of the classical genre, in keeping with the fact that it marks the end of the old era. The Radetzky March is widely regarded as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth-century and there is no doubt that many further readers will add credence to this, now that the book is becoming more widely read in the English speaking world.
In addition to the slow motion disintegration of the Empire, the book focuses on the relations between successive generations of father and son. Strict notions of honor and duty figure in their thinking above all other considerations. The third generation Von Trotta, Carl Joseph leads a foolish and dissolute life, but still clings to honor and duty above all else. The decline in the family's fortunes traces the decline in the Empire.
A New York Review of Books piece by J.M. Coetzee called Roth the `emperor of nostalgia', a phrase which summarizes my own sentiments (the article is freely available on the Internet). While the writing is excellent, at the end of the day the book is simply an examination of a mostly forgotten time and place. An enjoyable read, yes, but do not look for lasting or universal insights. (The Radetzky March was recommended by fellow Amazonians and I enjoyed the book and appreciate the recommendation.) If an extraordinarily well-written period piece on the decline of Hapsburg Empire meets your fancy, then you must not miss The Radetzky March.
It all starts with the grandfather, who save the life of Emperor Franz Josef on the battlefield - and he is rewarded and suddenly lifted from mere soldier into the aristocracy with all its pomp and riches.
But he and his son and grandson are struggling to come to terms with their new station in life.
The hero - or should we say anti-hero is third generation Carl Joseph without the principles and backbone of his grandfather and father - a weak man who is struggling to find his way forward - and also echoes in some way the decline of the empire itself.
Roth is a good writer, no doubt - but the story itself wasn't that interesting.
The youngest Trotta, the cynical army lieutenant Carl Joseph, isn't quite as engaging a character as his father and grandfather, only coming to vivid life in the moments when Roth projects his own alcoholism onto him. He's there mostly to give us a sceptical point of view on the other characters, and to illustrate the paradox that the Austrian army, which is still one of the most important elements uniting the country, exists only to fight the war which everyone knows will destroy the country and the imperial family.
A wonderful, beautifully written, absorbing book, that almost makes you want to be able to believe in Roth's quixotic Habsburgophilia...
The horrible state of the previous owners education aside, this book brought me into a world that my meager Ameri-centric historical education has never been able to take me. The world reaches only as far as the borders of the Austro-Hungarian empire and within this world unfolds strained father-son relationships, battles with alcoholism, gambling and a constant obsession with upholding ones honor against all things no matter how absurd they may seem in a modern context. The story is steeped in history and customs of the Austro-Hungarian empire yet the themes are universal. Roth captured a snapshot that will forever allow us to see the world before everything changed in ways more drastic than we can even fathom still.
Simply and beautifully written.
Roth writes with satirical wit about the military:
-- The Kaiser's soldiers are taken care of by the Kaiser. They have privileges - sabers, women. But a military code of honor dictates that if one insults another they must settle it with blood!
-- The announcement of the assassination of the Archduke comes amid an approaching thunderstorm as the garrison is partying.
The writing is wonderfully descriptive of the coming revolution. As the Empire disintegrates Carl Joseph Von Trotta awaits and hears the cawing of hundreds of ravens. They "sat rigid on the branches - like sinister fruit fallen from the air." And "they are the prophets among the birds."
The first part of the novel sets the tone of familial loyalty to the Empire and can be a little slow. Parts two and three move much quicker.
Carl Joseph undergoes a rigorous childhood and is steered into the illustrious Austrian lancers, a cavalry company, by virtue of the status of his grandfather, the Hero of Solferino. Never much of a horseman, Carl Joseph seeks the obscurity of an infantry posting on the Austrian/Russian border. War clouds are on the horizon, as is the ultimate disintegration of the Hapsburg dynasty. Much as the Empire stagnates and deteriorates, so too does the fortune and prestige of the von Trotta family, despite regularly trading on the fading glory of the family’s long dead patriarch. As one would imagine, neither survive the disaster of the First World War.
All in all, I found the novel to be both entertaining and enlightening, a helpful look into a period and region not commonly featured in other works.
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
I am developing a minor obsession with the literature of the 19th and early 20th century Hapsburg Empire, and I can't quite put my finger on why, or how it started, unless it was when I read about Robert Musil in Philip Ball's amazing Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another. Ball's interest was in Musil's unfinished two-volume novel, The Man Without Qualities, and its depiction of a mathematician's dispassion for the world, which doesn't sound terribly promising on the face of it, does it? But it's quite an engaging read nonetheless, and one that I look forward to re-reading again soon; I'm a Robert Musil fan (see also my look last year at Musil's first novel, The Confusions of Young Torless, from last year), loving his way of examining moral and social paralysis and its consequences, as well as how his German prose becomes English.
The (delightfully!) occasionally ornithological Radetzky March* both does and not partake these qualities (or, I guess, lack of qualities) as it details the misadventures of three generations of the Trotta family: a grandfather ennobled as a reward for sort of blunderingly saving Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph's life in battle, a son whom the new Baron forces into a civil service instead of a military career**, and a grandson who takes up the family's military mantle again, only to very nearly disgrace it.
But this makes it sound like The Radetzky March is a book in which things happen, and really, it's not. It's more a book in which things are felt and perceived, and what is perceived is mostly that the Empire is in a period of stasis and stagnation, a period in which the gloss of civilization is polished to a blinding brightness, the better to conceal the turmoil it hides, the turmoil of an empire that purports to bind a staggering variety of cultures, religions and ethnicities into one people*** but really hasn't, except in that all those different peoples are temporarily too busy buffing and polishing (under some duress) to get on with the business of being themselves and hating each other. But don't worry, they'll get around to it. Boy, will they get around to it.
But even that makes it sound like stuff is happening. Which is erroneous. I mean, these people don't even eat:
"The baron had a bizarre relationship with food. He ate the most important morsels with his eyes, so to speak; his sense of beauty consumed above all the essence of the food -- its soul, as it were; the vapid remainders that then reached mouth and palate were boring and had to be wolfed down without delay."
"He was sorry that Trotta had missed the schnitzel. He would have gladly chewed a second one for the lieutenant -- or at least watched it being eaten with gusto."
Nor do they ever really seem to talk to each other, especially not the Trottas. Especially not the youngest Trotta, who is constantly struggling over whether or not to utter even the most banal pleasantry: "Carl Joseph almost replied reverently 'Good evening, Herr Doctor!' But all he said was 'May I?' and sat down."
And things get worse when young Lieutenant Carl Joseph Trotta (the grandson), posted to a border village whose chief employer is a bristle factory, suddenly faces his duty as a soldier to put down an insurrection at said factory. He insists to a colleague that he "simply won't order the men to shoot!" because he now realizes that the factory workers are "poor devils" but another tells him "You'll do what you have to, you know you will." And what he has to do right away is get drunk... And do things improve from there?
"Immense files swelled around the Trotta case, and the files grew, and every department in every agency splattered a little more ink on them, the way one waters flowers, to make them grow."
So, uh, not so much, then.
And then there's the dreary love affair and whatnot (in general, women are not well-regarded in Radetzky March, but what are you gonna do? This is a story about a young man raised motherless by, apparently, a motherless son of a military hero, said son spending most of the novel either in military school or in the military. Sausage fests everywhere). Sigh.
But so then why bother to read this stuff at all, you might ask? Because it's good. As a masterful evocation of the spiritual paralysis of an entire society, as a look at the consequences of too much civilization as something that does not require robot butlers and flying cars to happen, as a vivid portrait of the twilight years of Emperor Franz Joseph (who had "lived long enough to know that it is foolish to tell the truth.") and the Hapsburg Empire just before the outbreak of World War I****, and, yes, as an exquisite piece of writing for its own sake -- as all of these things, The Radetzky March is a very, very good book.
*The book's title comes from a piece of music by Johann Strauss, Sr., which a military band plays outside of the grandfather's house every Sunday to salute their local hero.
As for my characterization of Radetzky March as occasionally ornithological, dude, it is loaded with references to birds, from a servant's caged canary to the different birds singing outdoors in every season in Austria and the empire -- a very charming touch. Seriously. More birds than anything I've read this year that wasn't by Michael Chabon. Birds signal changes in scene and setting and sometimes provide the strongest of dramatic counterpoints (hello, wild geese and Russian ravens!). This is wonderful!
**The grandfather's insistence that the son have any career but military stems from a misunderstanding regarding a children's history book that presents a tarted up version of how the grandfather saved the Emperor's life, to which the grandfather takes great but ultimately ineffectual umbrage in one of the more bitterly humorous sections of the novel.
***All in the service of allowing the Hapsburgs, once Holy Roman Emperors and lords over most of Europe in one form or another, to feel like they still had an Empire and were still a relevant power in world affairs, big terrifying inbred jaws and all (though yes, I'll admit to having been a little sad when they finally had to cut down the Sisipalm in 2008).
Oh, and check out the people, as seen through the eyes of a somewhat minor character, Count Chojnicki:
"The German Austrians were waltzers and boozy crooners, the Hungarians stank, the Czechs were born bootlickers, the Ruthenians were treacherous Russians in disguise, the Croats and Slovenes, whom he called Cravats and Slobbers, were brushmakers and chestnut roasters, and the Poles, of whom he himself was one after all, were skirt chasers, hairdressers and fashion photographers."
So, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was basically the Golgafrincham B Ark, then?
****Weirdly, it was only when the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was communicated (very dramatically) that it hit home for me that the events of this novel were taking place in the 20th century. The book otherwise feels so timeless, so universal, that a particular historical event's depiction, even second-hand as happens here, is really jarring, but not in a bad way. Just a wow way.
If you want to avoid spoilers, just stop reading here.
The narrator plays lots of tricks on the reader. He dips into the perspective of one character, even the Kaiser Franz Josef himself a couple times, and lets you guess what's going on with the others. Then he assumes an omniscient ability to describe a scene in lengthy and ornate detail, while something dramatic is happening offstage. The fate of the three women in Carl Joseph von Trotta's life is oddly opaque, real Habsburg men don't talk about such things. I got the odd feeling the the first one, a married woman named Frau Slama, died of a botched abortion. Carl Joseph is merely told she died "an einer Geburt," without a doctor in attendance. Nothing about any child. We readers don't find out that both Carl Joseph's father and the husband know all about their affair until CJ finds out from them himself when they return his love letters to him. The only love in his life is gone. There are different mysteries regarding his involvement with the doctor's wife and with the elusive Frau von Traussig. Hauptmann Jedlicek seems to be engaging in espionage in the borderlands while CJ is called away without leave to dally with Frau von Traussig in Vienna, but it's never quite clear what that all means.
Roth is at his best describing the Slavic characters that inhabit the Eastern fringes of the empire, the area that Roth came from. They indulge in nationalistic agitation, lots of gambling and slivovitz, trick horse riding, folksongs, espionage and odd moments of heartwarming generosity. Graf Chojnicki is rich, powerful, well connected, a generous host, given his experiments with alchemy--clearly crazy, often absent for extended periods, and manipulates all around him. At a well-oiled dinner, he announces that the end of the Habsburg empire is at hand, and proves it by turning on the newfangled electric light. The empire could never survive such a thing. After all, the Kaiser reads by candlelight. Chojnicki's crazy but he turns out to be right. He also seems to be involved with national separatists, but the narrator never quite reveals how or why.
In a final scene from 1916, after Carl Joseph is killed in World War I, the Kaiser is known to be dying, and the father is called by Frau von Traussig to visit Chojnicki in an insane asylum...where secrets will be revealed and the whole "Zusammenhang" will become clear. But Chojnicki's mind is not clear, and he summons the father with great ceremony to announce that the Kaiser is dying. That's it. Just what's going on with Traussing and Chojnicki and Carl Joseph? Like real life, we can only speculate.
One endearing character in the novel is the father's friend from his youth, the painter Moser. Moser paints a portrait of the grandfather, the one who accidently gets the family en-nobled through an inadvertent act of heroism that saves the life of the young Kaiser at the battle of Solferino (a bloody defeat June 24, 1859). Moser paints a regal portrait of grandfather von Trotta, that presides over the entire novel. Roth never mentions that Solferino was the first battle lost by the Habsburg army against the Italians who wanted to be free of the Austrian yoke. The first domino to fall in the long decline of empire. The painting of the hero of Solferino is mentioned at regular intervals as though it were a great triumph. The military bands keep playing the triumphant, victorious "Radetzky March" as reality descends into defeat. Self-delusion may well be the novel's main theme.
The artist Moser appears regularly to beg money from the father and then the grandson, as Moser becomes an incurable alcoholic. Moser's drunkeness, well drunkeness in general, is described with great accuracy, apparently from Roth's own personal experience. Roth would beg for money from his more successful writer friend Stefan Zweig. (Zweig, while wildly popular and financially successful, never wrote anything of the same quality as Roth's Radetzkymarsch.)The von Trotta family does not survive the empire and it seems best that way. All that is left is the portrait of the hero of Solferino.
The story follows three generations of the Trotta family in the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The later generations have great difficulty living up to the standard set by the first, when a man wins national recognition by saving the emperor.
The narration feels really detached, unfortunately, so even when the characters are wrestling with something it was hard to care very much. This is definitely a book I appreciated for the writing itself far more than the actual plot.
I'm also willing to believe that I should have read a different translation. The edition I read was via Joachim Neugroschel. Roth is meant to be a great stylist, but for most of the book (the high emotional points aside, which are very well done) this isn't much more than slightly-better-than-average translanglish. Was Carl Joseph's first lover really wearing 'blue panties'? I find it hard to believe. I also find it hard to believe that the German has the same color palate as this translation suggests: white, grey, yellow, blue, red, green, black, silver, gold. That's it. No shades in between, and everything is one of these colors rather than, say, two of them.
So my three stars could easily have been four stars. Had I come in expecting less Dr Faustus and more The Leopard, I would've gotten what I was expecting and more. Great characters, pretty well done ties between the personal and the historical, and the occasional perfect paragraph.