The Radetzky March – Joseph Roth
Book Club’s way of dealing with requests for some slightly lighter material was to opt for Roth’s 1932 novel on the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire. While this does not make for non-stop comic relief, or indeed light reading, the depiction of three generations of the noble Trotta family as a microcosmic portent of the rise and fall of the Emperor Franz Joseph’s grip over a huge swathe of Europe, mainly through the respect for and discipline of his army, actually made for diverting reading.
An instinctive action on the battlefield where a solder takes a bullet for his Emperor leads to the first Baron Trotta being entitled, to which he responds by retreating to a monastic rural existence with an absence of pomp. His son, however, ends up a District Commissioner with perhaps the most rigid daily routine ever depicted – people in the parks could time their watches by his shiny shoed perambulations as they doff their hat to him – and is the living embodiment of the dying age. The disturbance to this scrupulously routine existence comes with the ageing of his son in turn (whose conception is left a little unexplained, I don’t recall a mother really getting a mention) who joins the military after a formal but careful upbringing, and proceeds to unravel on the eastern frontier of the empire.
The first indication of dark eddies lying within Trotta Junior’s character appear slowly at first:
“He was as straightforward and blameless as his conduct sheet, and only his periodic rages would have shown an observer that the soul of Captain Trotta harboured its share of nocturnal abysses, full of dormant storms and the unknown voices of nameless ancestors.”
There is no attempt to get away from the weight of the past; his grandfather’s portrait looms ever-present in the back of his mind through an endless series of parades and formal conversation. Initially, Trotta thrives on the familiarity contained within repetition, and even strives to adapt to the absurdities that life inevitably produces. Roth creates a hugely awkward and touching scene where Trotta attempts a personal conversation with his valet, Onufri:
“So where are you off tonight?” asked Carl Joseph, still staring into the troops’ quarters. “See girl!” said Onufri. It was the first time the Lieutenant had said du to him. “To see any girl in particular?” asked Carl Joesph. “Katharina!” said Onufri. You could hear him standing ‘to attention’. ‘At ease!’ ordered Carl Joseph. He heard Onufri slide his right foot in front of his left.
‘What’s she look like, then, your Katharina?’ asked Carl Joseph. ‘Lieutenant, beg to report, sir, big white breasts!’
‘Big white breasts, eh!’ The Lieutenant cupped his hands and felt a cool memory of Kathi’s breasts. She was dead now, dead!”
They get from tits to death in a masterfully short space of time, and then the time for jollity ends, before the two men leave for their evening assignations at the same time. Disaster strikes, as Onufri feels duty bound to follow his superior officer by remaining behind him at a respectable distance, not talking, of course: “It was loyalty itself following. Each crash was a fresh, curt, stamped affirmation of loyalty from the man to his officer.”
Food is also described in the novel in such fine terms that it came as a surprise on scanning portraits of Roth that he was not morbidly obese. He writes about food in a way that enables it to hover, shimmering, within your reach:
“A brown liver pate, studded with coal-black truffles, was presented in a glittering round of ice crystals. A tender breast of roast pheasants loomed all by itself on a snow-white dish, attended by a retinue of green, red, white and yellow vegetables, each in its own blue-and-gold-rimmed bowl with the family crest. In a wide-necked crystal jar were millions upon millions of little grey-black caviar eggs, surrounded by yellow-gold slices of lemon.”
It provides important contrasts between the mostly liquid diet of the armed forces as opposed to the feasts shared by their superiors, to the old fashioned rotating menu of the District Commissioner, whose unravelling becomes clear when he does not comment on being served Sunday’s meal mid-week:
“[…] the District Commissioner didn’t say a single word about it. It was as though he were eating a common or garden chop.” While these were not cuts I had heard of, it remains a source of huge fascination that there was that much variation to the chop in those days, indeed I had not known that this was possible.
Sadly once the menu is disturbed the whole show starts to unravel, the eccentric frontiersman Chojnicki worries about the stability of the Emperor:
“An old man with not long to go, a head cold could finish him off, he keeps his throne by the simple miracle that he’s still able to sit on it. But how much longer, how much longer? The age doesn’t want us any more!”
Franz Joseph is depicted as a gentle, shy, abstracted old man, unsure of exactly how old he is, “And the Emperor didn’t like to ask”. He is also terrified of putting out his huge retinue of servants by asking them questions, as he doesn’t want to rock the boat. He ruminates after bestowing a title during a parade:
“There. Now the Emperor had made someone happy. He was pleased. He was pleased. He had done a wonderful thing for that Hartenstein. Now the day might begin….Someone whispered to him that the Jews in the village were still waiting for him. They’d been completely forgotten. Oh dear, the Jews as well, thought the Emperor. All right! Have them come! But they’d better hurry. Otherwise he’d be late for the battle.”
The political message running throughout the narrative is hard to ignore – rise up and you only have further to fall – but what I felt was an even more strident message was the distaste Roth seemed to feel for excessive consumption of alcohol. Young Trotta goes from a cognac every so often with his father to the constant intake of 90 proof much, leading him to conclude that “there were afternoons and evenings when it was imperative to drink schnapps”, but taking out his short term memory in the process, inevitably: “he was unable to recall either why his father had come today, or why he was multiplying so extremely, or yet why he, the Lieutenant, was unable to stand up”. With booze comes gambling, these two vices are combined in the doomed character of Captain Wagner, who borrows money of Trotta and yet: “They both knew they were incapable of looking the other in the eye without alcohol.”
The assassination of Franz Ferdinand seals the time of change at the end of the novel, and with the start of the First World War, young Trotta is seen to end up where he should have been all along: living simply in the country, working on an estate, far from the vices of whisky, wild women and urban bureaucracy.