We’re trying something a bit different!
This post comprises two reviews of The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth (1932), one by each of us. The reviews were written without showing the other person, though we obviously chatted about our reactions and takes. We were curious to see how we would review the same novel.
We both enjoyed the novel very much and recommend that you read it. We used the Joachim Neugroschel translation for Everyman, and thought it was great to read.
The Radetszky March is a novel about the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the pre-World War I culture it stood for. It follows three generations of the Trotta family, who are not historical, although many of the events in the book are. During the Battle of Solferino in 1859 in the Second Italian War of Independence, Joseph Trotta saves the life of the young Kaiser Franz Joseph, who rewards him with a title. This is the same Franz Joseph who would over five decades later lead his country into WWI.
The Hero of Solferino, now Captain Joseph Trotta von Sipolje, wealthy and established, yet retreats to his Slovene peasant roots. His son, Franz, becomes District Captain of W, steadfastly, unthinkingly loyal to the Kaiser. Franz’s son Carl Joseph becomes an unmotivated lieutenant in the army.
The Radetzky March is episodic in structure, with each chapter focusing on one event: an affair, a problem with gambling, a duel. Roth uses an extensive array of literary techniques, from stream-of-consciousness to detailed description to journalistic recounting of events. It flits between the past and present tense, between omniscient narration and first-person point-of-view, even giving you the perspective of the old Kaiser Franz Joseph.
Being a backward looking novel, it’s often labelled nostalgic, but I think that’s largely inaccurate. The traditional culture that he looks back to, while presented as beautiful in its way, is all empty actions and empty beliefs, symbolized by the “Radetzky March” by Johann Strauss, Sr.
This martial earworm, written in praise of a victory by Field Marshal Radetzky during the First Italian War of Independence, appears at times throughout the novel, a leitmotif signifying pride in the motions of patriotism. Its vapid positivity is counterbalanced by a prophetic sense given to the characters that the Great War is approaching and their culture is destined to die.
Yet what replaces the old culture is even worse: “Back then, before the Great War, when the incidents reported on these pages took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a person lived or died.” It’s a novel is full of emptiness. Carl Joseph, the son, goes about his empty life, has affairs, gets transferred to the eastern edge of Austro-Hungary (where Roth was from), becomes a drunk, loses his belief in the empire. He’s a strange character. For me, he’s not sympathetic. He’s almost a cipher, because his reactions to things are so flat.
His relationship with his father is one of duty: “The lieutenant’s letters revealed nothing about his changed way of life and the unusual conditions at the border. The district captain avoided asking any questions. His replies, routinely dispatched to his son every fourth Sunday, were as monotonous as the lieutenant’s letters.” A stern portrait of his grandfather, done from memory by a friend of his father’s when they were young, hangs over his life as well. “What would the Hero of Solferino have done in his place? Carl Joseph felt his grandfather’s imperious gaze on the back of his neck. The Hero of Solferino dictated terse resoluteness to the timid grandson.” The weight of history and patriotism crushes the youngest Trotta.
The father is more interesting. Steadfast in his loyalty to the empire, he’s entirely rigid and self-satisfied, a man out of time. The death of his longtime servant cracks his shell. There is a lovely, sad scene towards the end of the novel when he meets the Kaiser to excuse his son’s gambling debts. The two symbols of Austria-Hungary are mirrors of each other: “They were like two brothers… Their white whiskers, their narrow, sloping shoulders, their equal physical size made each of them feel he was facing his own reflection. And one thought he had changed into a district captain. And the other thought he had changed into the Kaiser.” The two symbols die within days of each other.
You might think from what I’ve written so far that this is a bleak book, but its tone is actually light and satiric. Roth is an absolutely delightful writer, even if his tricks do get a bit thin by the end of the book, like Oscar Wilde’s inverted constructions after a while. (“The only thing worse than being famous is not being famous.”) What tricks does Roth use? He loves, for example, parallel repetition: “An estimable man! the district captain thought about Dr. Skowronnek. An extraordinary fine man! Dr. Skowronnek thought about the district captain.” Roth has a whole bag of stylistic tricks that make you smile as you read.
Besides being funny, the novel is also deeply moving in places. This passage shows Roth at his best:
The district captain tucked his arm under son’s. This was the first time that Carl Joseph felt his father’s gaunt arm on his chest. The paternal hand in the dark-grey kid glove rested in slightly bent familiarity on the blue sleeve of his uniform. It was the same hand that, haggard and wrathful, encased in the stiff clattering cuff, could admonish and warn, leaf through papers with sharp, quiet fingers, shove drawers into their compartments with grim jolts, twist keys so resolutely that the locks seemed locked for all eternity. It was the hand that drummed on the table’s edge with lurking impatience if things were not to the master’s liking and on the windowpane if something awkward had occurred in the room. This hand could raise its thin forefinger if someone had neglected something in the house; it could clench into a mute, never-striking fist, settle tenderly around the forehead, remove the pince-nez gingerly, bend lightly around the wineglass, bring the black Virginia cigar caressingly to the lips. It was his father’s left hand, long familiar to the son. And yet he sensed he was only just learning that was the father’s hand, the paternal hand. Carl Joseph felt a desire to press this hand to his chest.
Somewhere in the emptiness of the Austro-Hungarian culture there was a passionate desire for emotion without the constraints of tradition, Roth is saying. Yet those constraints are what allowed the country to exist.
The Radetzky March is a novel without an answer.
Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March (1932) is a very full book about emptiness. The novel follows two generations of the von Trotta family in the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the eve of WWI. Their relationships with one another are sieved through the empire itself, and achingly little makes it through the filter. In different ways, father and son vest the meaning of their lives in Austria-Hungary and its leader, Kaiser Franz Joseph; it is the conduit, too, of their real but deeply-repressed love for one another. Each must confront the crumbling of that meaning as the empire—a brittle, hollow world of ceremony and tradition—lurches towards war. If the novel has a plot, it follows the fumbling reach of son and father towards one another when the old forms have shattered.
It is a mark of Roth’s deep cynicism that their hands never quite touch. The listless son, Carl Joseph, falls in an early skirmish of WWI, not two years after his father pleads with the Kaiser to pay his gambling debts; the father dies a few years after, having saved his child by appealing to a sovereignty in which he is losing faith, only so that his child might later, ignobly and anonymously, die for it. Damningly, Roth allows their tragedy to surface only through plot, not prose. The omniscient narrator of The Radetzky March treats all events and all emotions with the same soft, bitter irony. Reading the account of the father’s audience with the Kaiser—he finally meets his idol, only to beg shamefully for his son’s pardon—I had to lay the book aside to feel sad. At the moment of reading, Roth’s irony forbids it.
Of the book’s many prominent formal qualities, the one I want to talk about today is its attention to material detail. Roth writes surfaces with the affection of a sensualist. Here, the father dresses before his audience with the Kaiser:
For the tenth time he stood at the mirror, adjusted the bow of his white tie over the corners of the stand-up collar, ran his white cambric handkerchief once again over the gold buttons on his coat, polished the gold pommel of his sword, brushed his shoes, combed out his whiskers, and forced down the few wisps on his bald pate even though they kept sticking up and curling, and he once again brushed the swallow tails of his coat… He tugged at the white gloves, smoothed the fingers, stroked down the kid, and paused for a moment at the large staircase mirror between the second and first floors, trying to catch a glimpse of his profile. Then, with only his toes touching the red carpet on the steps, he cautiously descended, emanating silvery dignity, the fragrance of powder and cologne, and the pungent smell of shoe polish. (288)
Because of his narrative omniscience, Roth’s devotion to these details of color, smell, texture, and gesture seems coming from his characters. This is intentional. The father’s love for the empire is a love of surfaces, though it is no less genuine for that, since he understands surfaces as inherently meaningful. The appearance of dignified order is the empire, to him. (Austria-Hungary, as Roth frequently reminds us, is a rowdy coalition of mutually-suspicious ethnic groups artificially cinched together by the silk garrote of monarchy). When the father’s faith in Austria-Hungary collapses, leaving in its vacuum only his suddenly-visible love for his son, his affection for the empire’s trappings remains as a melancholy nostalgia, in much the same way that adults recall certain vivid sensations from their childhood with a haze of amorphous feeling. Describing the father’s anticipation of his meeting with the Kaiser, Roth writes, “He yearned for morning the way that man looks forward to a ship that will carry him home. Yes, he was homesick for the Kaiser” (288).
Carl Joseph’s tragedy is that he can never muster his father’s faith, even in trappings. He craves surfaces rather than loves them. He cannot direct his affection elsewhere because he has never been taught how, and the imperial baubles with which he tries to feed his desire choke out other possibilities for love. His only meaningful friendship, with a gloomy doctor, ends when the doctor dies in a pointless duel. Consuming more and more surfaces as the novel progresses—through gambling, alcoholism, and expensive liaisons with married women—the son is shielded from the consequences of his hunger (and, so, from growth) by his father’s position. The empty mechanisms of empire save him, over and over again, in order to maintain his empty fealty.
Only his brief pre-war stint as a civilian does Carl Joseph apprehend the details of his world with the same sensual reverence as his father. Taking a post as a forest steward for a local aristocrat, he falls deeply in love with the minutiae of peasant life:
Everyone was preparing for the harvest. The peasants stood outside their huts, whetting their scythes on the round brick-red grindstones. Throughout the countryside, stone whirred against steel, drowning out the chant of the crickets.. He absorbed those voices into his sleep, along with the nocturnal crowing of roosters and the barking of dogs at the full moon. He finally felt content, lonesome, and at peace. It was as if he had never led any other life. Whenever he couldn’t sleep, he would get up, take his stick, walk across the fields, through the many-voiced chorus of the night, wait for morning, greet the red sun, breathe the dew and the gentle singing of the wind that ushers in the day. He felt as fresh as if he had slept all night. (308)
Of course, since this is Roth, the son’s reprieve flickers under the heavy pall of dramatic irony. (Roth barely bothers to mock Carl Joseph’s somewhat stereotypic passion for rural life, because he seems to assume his audiences already will). World War I is beginning. Carl Joseph will be drafted soon. And both the worlds he knows—stale, decadent empire and rough pastoral—are ending. Roth sees them out together with a bit of melodrama whose earnestness, by the end of this long and cheekily bitter novel, he has trained his audience to find suspect:
What did old Herr von Trotta care about the hundred thousand new corpses that had meanwhile followed his son? What did he care about the hasty and confused directives that came from his superiors week after week? And what did he care about the end of the world, which he now saw coming more clearly than the prophetic Chojnicki had once seen it? His son was dead. His office was terminated. His world had ended. (323)