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The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth
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Jun 19, 12

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Read in June, 2012

A little of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, even on its way out, goes a long way. It was a pot in which the ingredients didn't melt: Austrians, Czechs, Slovenes, Slovaks, Hungarians, Romanians, northern Italians, southern Poles, the ethnicities that made the end of Yugoslavia so lethal, and people or two who are still nationless--the kind of vast swath of earth united, apparently, so that the Habsburg Emperors would have an Empire (having given up Spain and its colonies, the Netherlands, etc.). The military march that gives the book its title is one of the Strauss family's lesser compositions and it appears periodically in the novel as one of Joseph Roth's many sly comments on the disintegration of both the Empire, its army, and the Trotta family that provides most of the narrative. The Trottas are comprised of a lieutenant who saves the life of the long-lived Hapsburg Emperor and is named a Baron but who dies and moves offstage quickly, a son who retires and spends his time as a minor functionary, and grandson Carl Joseph, whose slow, inglorious decline takes up much of the book. Too much, to my mind. The difficulty about 19th century armies at peace in the boondocks is that the officers are so bored that they blow everything on gambling, women, and the inevitable duels, or at least that was the case for both the Russian military of Lermontov and Roth's version of the Austro-Hungarian one. It finally swings into action with the political agitation and World War I with lethally counter-productive results. The central problem of the book is that Carl Joseph is weak; so are the Emperor and the Empire, but for this reader the mirrored decline and fall of family and nation did not solve the conundrum of a main character who is so listless. Tellingly, the Trotta women, Carl Joseph's mother and grandmother, give birth and then die. The other women in the book serve mostly as plot points who are attracted to the directionless Carl Joseph. Frau Taussig, his last and most vivacious liaison, does come across as lively. Still, Roth's point about the decay of an empire and a military is well-expressed, witty and, when Carl Joseph isn't slowing things down, vivid.
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