Radetzky March Paperback – 1 Nov 2003
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'The Radetzky March can fairly claim to be one of the great novels of the last century. Its theme, beautifully articulated, is the end of an era. His anthem for a vanished world has the intense, fleeting beauty of a sunset' Sunday Telegraph 'Over recent years, the poet Michael Hofmann's glittering translations of Joseph Roth have single-handedly given a vanished voice fresh resonance in the English-speaking world. Now Hofmann has surpassed himself with the jewel in Roth's crown. The Radetzky March is a majestically assured and engaging novel' Boyd Tonkin, Independent 'He saw, he listened, he understood. The Radetzky March is a dark, disturbing novel of eccentric beauty... If you have yet to experience Roth, begin here, and then read everything' Eileen Battersby, Irish Times 'The true reading pleasure afforded by the rich environment Roth captures may well have increased over time, while the schisms at the heart of Europe continue to fascinate. It seems that we are rediscovering in twentieth-century Central European literature classics for a new millennium' Time Out
About the Author
Joseph Roth (1894-1939) was the great elegist of the cosmopolitan, tolerant and doomed Central European culture that flourished in the dying days of the Austrian Empire. He wrote thirteen novels, including The Radetzky March and The String of Pearls.
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The fathers and sons in question have a distant, reticent respect for each other but also a deep and unfathomable love. The youngest von Trotta's life unravels into an out of control heap which mirrors the demise of the empire itself. While his father, the older generation 'going on', can only look on sadly impotent.
The clarity of detail and description of the various incidents and events that mark the life of the youngest protagonist are stunningly real. The quality of the writing and the translation is so good that you feel as though you are watching something rather than reading it.
Perhaps I'm making this book sound wafty and nostalgic, it is nostalgic but it's vision is razor sharp. I was moved to tears in one chapter when the Trotta's old servant Jacques becomes ill and dies. It's beautifully and intelligently written. Another book I have to ration because it is such a treat to read writing as good as this.
The Slovenian peasant Trotta, who has achieved the rank of lieutenant, becomes the hero of the Battle of Solferino and is ennobled after pushing the young Emperor Franz Josef out of the enemy's line of fire. His son is given an easy path into the role of District Commissioner, which he performs with an unquestioning adherence to routine. He is too uptight to express his love for his son, the hapless Carl Joseph. The realisation of this comes almost too late, triggered by the knowledge that the "this world is ending": his protector the Emperor is near death, and his Empire is destined to fail under its failure to adapt to the pressures for change.
"How simple the world has always appeared...For every situation there was a prescribed attitude. When the boy came home for the holidays, you gave him a test. When he became a lieutenant, you congratulated him. When he wrote his dutiful letters which said so little, you wrote him a couple of measured sentences back. But what did you do when you son was drunk? When he cried `Father'? Or something in him cried 'Father'?"
Trained from early childhood for the military career to which he is ill-suited, the grandson of "The Hero of Solferino" feels the weight of his destiny but proves to be a sensitive, indecisive man who inadvertently brings misfortune to others, although the remote figure of the Emperor can be relied to bale him out of the worst consequences of his actions - until the old man dies and the First World War breaks out.
Although I have never been to Vienna, Roth created for me vivid images of the old city, together with the atmosphere of the military barracks - you can understand only too well why young men were driven to drink, gambling and reckless duels by the endless prospect of waiting for a battle to fight. I particularly liked Roth's description of the landscapes of the eastern borders with Russia, the back of beyond to which Carl Joseph is consigned - the frogs croaking in the swamps, in which willows mark the only safe path, and the closely observed changing colours of the sky. Here at last, Carl Joseph finally regains his peasant roots and feel at ease with himself.
At first I thought I had found an East European Trollope with earnest traces of Middlemarch. Then I saw that Roth was born only 20 years before the First World War, and lived on to see its carnage, the Depression of the 20s and the rise of Hitler. So there is C20 frankness and bleakness to Roth's writing, beautifully translated by Michael Hofman. Roth himself had a tragic life, as a Jew who was forced to leave Germany, married a wife who became a schizophrenic, and who died an impoverished alcoholic in Paris.
This novel is beautifully lyrical. As a couple of the other reveiwers have mentioned, one feels compelled to say that it is not sentimental, though the texture of it, its tone, sometimes makes it feel as though it almost is.
The most potent scenes, for me, were those which so pointedly expressed a feeling of regret, of disiappontment and failure. We have all felt that stomach-lurching collapse, that sudden and absolute knowledge that we have done something very wrong, that we have ruined something, that something important to us is now over. The Radetzky March is as sad as it is beautiful.
It's also wonderfully funny. The wit verges on the Dostoyevskian in its eccentricity and is brilliantly compelling and balanced. Roth's writing style, amidst a weighty, formal narrative, is so joyfully unusual. The way massive events are meticulously introduced and then torn through at a hurtling pace only to land- ta-da- at the next plot-point is so refreshing, so out of the ordinary.
My favourite comment in the introduction (and surely this translator deserves some sort of award for seemingly introducing the English-speaking world to Roth single-handedly) is his basic summation of many of Roth's protagonists- they are just tired men out of their depth. And this also allows for tragi-comedy: the passages describing Trotta's slump into ninety-proof reliance are brilliant. There is never an occasion not to have a drink in this nowhere border garrison. And he cheerfully drinks the days away, amiable to all he passes, though only he doesn't realise that his step is faltering, his tunic stained, his buttons done up wrong...
I'd recommend anything by this author, to anyone, and this, surely, will eventually gain its rightful standing as a vital must-read for anyone interested in literature.
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