This is a masterpiece to be savored, celebrated, and shared. Straddling the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, The Radetzky March uniquely combines the color, pomp, pageantry, and military maneuvering of the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with the more modern political and psychological insights of the twentieth century, giving this short book a panoramic geographical and historical scope with fully rounded characters with whom the reader can empathize.
Atmospheric effects are so rich and details are so carefully selected that you can hear the clopping of hooves, rattling of carriage wheels, clang of sabers, and percussion of rifles. Parallels between the actions of man and actions of Nature, along with seasonal cycles, bird imagery, and farm activity, permeate the book, grounding it and connecting the author's view of empire to the reality of the land. Loyalty, patriotism, and family honor are guiding principles here, even when these values impel the characters to extreme and sometimes senseless actions, as seen in a duel.
Significantly, there are no birth scenes here, only extremely touching scenes of aging and death, adding further poignancy to the decline and fall of the empire itself. And just as Trotta, in the end, has a little canary brought in to him, commenting that "it will outlive us all," perhaps this novel, too, will someday emerge from its obscurity and live as the classic it deserves to be. Mary Whipple
on 14 December 2005
This is the personal story of three generations of fathers and sons against the backdrop of the decline of the Austro-Hungarian empire. I was expecting a harsh, agressive book about honour and death and indeed these themes are key to the story but the style is tender, emotive and full of confused regret.
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.
on 13 April 2013
Michael Hofmann delivers a literary gem of a translation of Joseph Roth's `Radetsky March'. The character studies of three generations of the von Trotta family, focussing on the grandson of the `hero of Solferino' Carl Joseph, and of the garrisoned military society at the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire are very engaging and the tale is well told. It's absorbing narrative. But unlike with Stefan Zweig, Roth's mentor, who almost overemphasises the point of his narrative in works like `Beware of Pity', it is difficult to discern any point Roth is making in `Radetsky March'. The character study is itself the comment - this is how society is, how that society was, this is who we are, pawns in a wallowing social process.
The collapse of the Austrian Empire at the time of the Great War becomes explicable in this clear-eyed, unsentimentally compassionate family saga which links the Trotta family indissolubly to the last Emperor, Franz Joseph: his life saved by 'the hero of Solferino', his death signalling the last of the Trottas. The novel is both epic and intimate, combining the decline into hollowness of the Habsburg Empire with three generations of one family who desperately wish to serve that empire, but find themselves increasingly out of step with society as it exists. In what appears to me a superb translation by Michael Hofmann, The Radetzky March reminds us of how insular we can be in our assumptions of what constitutes great classic literature.
Roth wrote this book in 1932 and presents us with 3 generations of the rather ordinary Trotta family. In 1859, Lieutenant Joseph Trotta, a Slovene from Sipolje, saved the life of the young Emperor Francis Joseph's at Solferino and was made a Baron, promoted to Captain and rewarded financially. His son, Baron Franz von Trotta and Sipolje, was forbidden by his father to enter the military and, as the only son of `the hero of Solferino' is offered a safe civil service career, eventually becoming a District Commissioner. Carl Joseph, the hero's grandson is pressurized by his father and the family legend to join the cavalry and the book recounts his life includes flashbacks to his father's and grandfather's times. There are problems for each of the Trottas as a result of being elevated above their station and unable to deal with their new responsibilities.
With a few exceptions, including a duel and a strike, there is little action in this novel but it is magnificent, nevertheless, in this spirited translation by Michael Hofmann, in portraying the last years of an increasingly ageing Emperor and Austro-Hungarian Empire, who as the novel progresses becomes an increasingly important character.
Like Wagnerian leitmotifs, the Radetzky March and portraits of the Emperor run through the novel. The portrait in Franz's drawing room was painted by a friend and drunkard, Moser, whilst other, official, works hang in all official buildings and also in Frau Resi's brothel until, in an act he believes equivalent to his grandfather's, Carl Joseph rescues it. The March is regularly played each Sunday by a band after which the conductor, Herr Nechwal, is offered `two demitasses of coffee, and no more and no less.' by Franz. Their conversation is the same over 20 years or more, "How is your wife?" Franz had never met Frau Nechwal, nor did he ever wish to meet `the wife from a humble background' and after the coffees are finished, "My regards to your wife. I'm sorry I haven't had the pleasure yet".
Roth is magnificent in capturing the gradual recognition of the impending catastrophe and of the simmering hatred between the Emperor's subject peoples, who are united in their hatred of the Jews. Significantly, the main characters are all male and deaths of many kinds occur, but no births. Franz's mother and wife both died early in life and, as a result, he plunges into the routine of civil service life whilst his son seeks consolation with an older woman.
The author has the ability to write equally well about focused private and personal discussions, of broadened out open-air military activities, about the boredom and repetition of military life, and of peasant farmers and nature competing at the extreme Eastern border of the Empire. Hooves and military boots strike cobbled streets, carriages rattle, soldiers drink and gamble with the expected results, sabres and uniforms are worn and hung up, rifles are fired. With each drink and each hand of cards we see Carl Joseph's life changing, and we hear the voices inside his head when he has difficult duties to carry out, including falling in love.
There are so many pages of exceptional writing: at one point opportunities for gambling in an isolated outstation increase with the arrival of a roulette wheel, "When the little white ball began to spin like a milky ring orbiting the black and red squares, and when the black and red squares themselves blended into a single ring of indeterminate colour, then the hearts of the officers began to flutter, and in their heads there was a strange whooshing, as though there was a little ball spinning in each of their brains, and their eyes went black, red, black. Their knees shook, even though they were sitting down. Their eyes flew off in desperate pursuit of the ball, but they never managed to catch it in flight". I found myself telling Carl Joseph to `keep away'.
The infantry decide to hold a big summer party and to send out letters of invitation, the job being entrusted to two colleagues "They would have furious arguments on points of style. For instance, the Colonel approved of the phrase `And the regiment, in all due humility and obedience, hereby takes the liberty...', while the Captain of Horse was of the opinion that the `And' was incorrect, and there was something not quite right about the `humility and obedience' either. They had set themselves to come up with two sentences today".
The loyalty, patriotism and family honour, that are the chains holding the Trottas at the start of the novel, loosen and fall away by its end.
on 7 September 2007
There's something wonderful about reading Joseph Roth even before one begins a novel of his. I came across him by chance rather than active effort and he is, of course, still nowhere near as well-known and alluded to as his talent should have already assured. So you get the wonderful sense of discovery, which only adds to the beauty of his prose.
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.
on 10 July 2006
Although set in the historic background of the Austrian - Hungary empire, the book is timeless in that it describes the increasing discrepancy between actual, political develoments and the set of values to which an older generation tries to adhere. The same holds for the relationship between a father and a son. Often the prose is wonderful ("living bread" rather than grain) and the subtle way in which the story develops surely must make this one of the most beautiful books ever written. Very moving, very recommendable.
I was pleased to discover via a book group this subtle, gently ironic and nostalgic evocation of the last decades of the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire.
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.
on 27 December 2015
To get into the Kindle version of this excellent book you have to skip, skim or plough through a long, tedious and rather pompous introduction by the translator, who turns out to have been to the same school as me. But persevere. The book is not heavy, but it's deeply thought provoking. And I liked its portrayal of the ramshackle anachronistic world of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, cobbled together and losing wars with a "silly army and cretinous institutions".
In spite of my carping about the translator, the style and prose are good, though it contains more than its fair share of obscure words. It is certainly not sexually explicit, but on occasion mildly and pleasantly sensual. Also it explores human feelings and tragedies without being
unduly sentimental, let alone schmaltzy. Roth himself comes through in it, not least in his affection (as a Jew) for the Roman Catholic
Church and his struggle with alcohol. Indeed, it is crucial to realise his own perspective. For all its faults, the Empire was multi-cultural and liberal. What followed was not. And Roth belonged to that Empire, with its mosaic of nations and religions. Nationalism was not for him.
The book contains several well-drawn characters and the events hold your attention. It parallels the decline and fall of a family with that of an
Empire, and in its way it's very sad. Then, of course, sadder still, we have the First World War. I've been criticised elsewhere for describing this ghastly conflict and carnage as futile, and this book (and for that matter All Quiet on the Western Front) adds yet another perspective.
The book might not be for everyone. At the risk of being arrogant (moi?) it's useful to have a knowledge of Twentieth Century history and the events leading up to the First World War. But certainly for me it worked. It's an outstanding volume and I'm glad I read it.
This goes straight on to the list as being one of the best books I have ever read. For a while, as you get into it, you wonder where it could possibly be heading. But by the time you get two thirds of the way through, that no longer matters.
It is a stunning read, written in beautifully concise and sparse language, of the inevitability of the decline of a family which mirrors (or is mirrored by?) the decline of an Empire. The futility of war, the despair of living, the rhythm of peasant life and the turmoil of the growth of nationalism - all is reflected here in the seemingly mundane world of the von Trotta family.
Stunning, spectacular, sad, tragic, and beautiful - I'm off to find some more of Joseph Roth's works - I'm only sorry it's taken me this long to discover his writing.