Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Decline of an Empire

The Radetzky MarchThe Radetzky March 
by Joseph Roth

“That was how things were back then. Anything that grew took its time growing, and anything that perished took a long time to be forgotten. But everything that had once existed left its traces, and people lived on memories just as they now live on the ability to forget quickly and emphatically.”   ― Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March

Joseph Roth's novel takes its name from a march by Johann Strauss Senior who composed the rollicking tune, and a hundred years ago you could hear it in market towns the length and breadth of the Empire. The story follows the destiny of a family of humble Slovenian origins who rise to prominence through valor on the battlefield. Ennobled by the Emperor, the Trottas become part of the establishment, but by this stage, the cosmopolitan empire is beginning to come apart at the seams. The author's ability to evoke a sense of place, and Michael Hofmann's translation present the novel to wonderfully lyrical effect. The whole work has a dream-like quality, but there is a brooding sense of foreboding. Much of the The Radetzky March is focused on Carl von Trotta, who on joining the army, struggles to live up to the legend of his grandfather. The novel is peopled with memorable characters, such as the nonchalant Polish Count Chojnacki and the troubled Doctor Demant. Even some of the peripheral figures are beautifully sketched, such as Lieutenant Taittinger, 'whose single passion in life was the consumption of pastries.' The decline in the Trotta family that is so exquisitely presented mirrors a similar decline in the fortunes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By the time of Carl the empire had frayed at its edges and was a mess after the First World War. The Radetzky March is far more than an exercise in mawkish sentimentality, and the Habsburg regime is not given a white-washing. Roth was largely a forgotten figure for several decades, and this, his most acclaimed novel, was rarely cited by Western academics. However, when Michael Hofmann published the current translation, writers queued up to hail The Radetzky March as one of the great European novels of the twentieth century - some consolation for the embattled author, who died tragically at the advent of war in 1939. But much consolation for readers like myself who were able to discover this author and include him in our personal pantheon of great twentieth century authors.

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