William1's Reviews > The Radetzky March

The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth
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's review
Mar 24, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: 20-ce, austria, translation, fiction
Read from December 27 to 30, 2011

I want to single out The Radetzky March as my favorite book of 2011. It is the story of the fall of the Austrian Empire as reflected in the fortunes of the Trotta family through three generations. Our story largely centers around young Carl Joseph von Trotta of the third generation and his father, the District Captain of W. To get to that story, however, Roth compresses into the first 35 pages or so, a beautifully patterned and nuanced story of Carl Joseph's forebears. That is, first the story of Joseph Trotta, the peasant from Sipolje, who, on saving the life of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I at the Battle of Solferino is raised to the rank of captain and ennobled, and his father. (Carl Joseph's great grandfather.)

Carl Joseph von Trotta is a sensitive fellow capable of deep love and friendship whose time in the Army is a mistake from the start. We watch him endure his upbringing by a widower father who has even less intellectual acumen than himself. Carl Joseph is the grandson of the Hero of Solferino. He cannot sit a horse, nevertheless he is in cavalry. He is allowed to skate through academic challenges he would otherwise fail. Opportunities are open to him that his fellow officers could never attain. We see the empire though his eyes as one of empty pomp and immense drunkeness which leads to a terrible entropy that pervades everything. The multi-cultural empire's time is passing. No longer will such a vast heterogeneous stew of ethnic groups (Magyars, Poles, Ukranians, Czechs, Serbs, Croats, Romanians, etc. representing all three monotheistic faiths) allow themselves to be artificially melded together by foreign force. We are at the onset of the age of nationalism and sectarian violence. Hitler and Stalin are in the wings.

This political context is important but it is the narrative of the Trottas that brings it home and gives it tragic immediacy. Everyone is so locked into their roles. When Carl Joseph writes his father to announce the news that he will leave the army, his father's world, much like the son's, comes tumbling down. All the assumptions about the correct path to dignity and honor are changing. Indeed, the District Captain simply looks up one day and notices that everything has changed--and he never saw it coming. The District Captain then says something that for me encapsulated the thrust of the whole novel. When he is told by a club crony, Dr. Skowronnek, that he is starting to play chess like a champion, he says: "Maybe I could have become one!" Dr. Skowronnek then sums it all up:
Things were different back then, he says. Now not even the Kaiser bears responsibility for the Monarchy. Why it even looks as though God himself no longer wishes to bear responsibility for the world. It was easier in those days. Everything was so secure. Every stone lay in its place. The streets of life were well paved. Secure roofs rested on the walls of the houses. But today, Herr District Captain, the stones of the street lie askew and confused, and in dangerous heaps, and the roofs have holes, and the rain falls into the houses, and everyone has to know on his own what street he is taking and what kind of house he is moving into. When your late father said you would become a public official rather than a farmer, he was right. You became a model official. But when you told your own son he had to become a soldier, you were wrong. He is not a model soldier.

It is about this time, too, rather late in the book, that the tone turns elegaic. It's as if we're seeing the past glories of the Empire rushing past like the lives of the dying are said to do. From the start the writing is vivid and sustained over great stretches in a way that seems almost miraculous. Highly recommended.
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