by Joseph Roth [translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel]
Back then, before the Great War, when the incidents reported on these pages took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a person lived or died. If a life was snuffed out from the host of the living, another life did not instantly replace it and make people forget the deceased. Instead, a gap remained where he had been, and both the near and distant witnesses of his demise fell silent whenever they saw this gap. If a fire devoured a house in a row of houses in a street, the charred site remained empty for a long time. For the bricklayers worked slowly and leisurely, and when the closest neighbors as well as casual passersby looked at the empty lot, they remembered the shape and the walls of the vanished house. 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.
(The Radetzky March, 112)
(The Radetzky March, 112)
Just as one of the worst possible things that could happen to you in your reading life is discovering for yourself that a super famous novel really isn't all that good, so one of the best things surely has to be finding out that a celebrated book is even better than expected. On that note, I'm so, so glad I read Joseph Roth's The Radetzky March for this year's German Literature Month as it joins works like Bolaño's 2666, Di Lampedusa's The Leopard, Grossman's Life and Fate, and Tolstoy's War and Peace on the list of things that almost make me proud to call myself a human or something. I kid, of course, but only slightly. In any event, for a novel in which Death with a capital "D" figures as one of the major recurring characters, one of Roth's most surprising achievements here is the way he generates concern for his mortal characters even when the reader knows what's in store for them. From the outset, for example, you know that both civilian District Captain Trotta and his military son Carl Joseph are doomed despite their family relationship to the so-called Hero of Solferino (an ancestor who saved the Emperor's life in a battle during happier times); amid the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire and the imminent onset of World War I, the only mystery is how and when the novel's characters will march off to their unhappy ends. So what's Roth's secret? He is, among other things, expert at creating buy-in by telegraphing how war will mercilessly upend his characters' future lives: "Death hovered over them, and they were completely unfamiliar with the feeling. They had been born in peacetime and become officers in peaceful drills and maneuvers," he writes of the hours before an unnecessary duel. "They had no idea that several years later every last one of them, with no exception, would encounter death. Their ears were not sharp enough to catch the whirring gears of the great hidden mills that were already grinding out the Great War" (91). He's also great with the noncombatants' death scenes. Jacques, the faithful servant to the district captain and a tie to the golden days of 1859 since he actually served the Hero of Solferino in the flesh, gets this star farewell turn when it momentarily looks like he might make a sudden recovery from illness: "Now he looked like an old rogue, and a thin giggling emerged from his throat. He laughed. He laughed nonstop. The pillows trembled softly, and the bedstead even creaked a bit. The district captain likewise smirked. Yes, Death was coming to old Jacques like a vivacious girl in spring, and Jacques opened his old mouth and showed Death his sparse yellow teeth. He lifted his hand, pointed to the window, and still giggling, shook his head. 'Nice day today,' the district captain observed" (146). Politically, he's deft enough to take one character's concise but drunken explanation that "the Fatherland no longer exists!...This era no longer wants us! This era wants to create independent nation-states! People no longer believe in God. The new religion is nationalism" (161-162, ellipses added) and humorously but convincingly turn it into another character's long-overdue wake-up call: "The old revolver that Herr von Trotta had taken along pressed in his back pocket. What good was a revolver? They saw no bears and no wolves in the borderland. All they saw was the collapse of the world!" (164). Above all perhaps, Roth is masterful at making you wonder whether he's a hopeless humanist or an optimistic cynic; at the very least, the tension between these two positions helps explain the "pedagogical" interest and the primal, Iliad-like feel of two scenes where Roth takes on the matter of human agency amid the build-up to the Great War. The unspoken questions: What can we learn from ourselves? What can we learn from fiction? Here is how Roth answers. In the first scene, Lieutenant von Trotta seems to have a rare face to face with his own failings as a gambler and an alcoholic but does not seem all that sincere about it in the moment: "It was obvious--it was, as they say, clear as the nose on his face--that Lieutenant Trotta, the grandson of the Hero of Solferino, in part caused the doom of others and in part was drawn along by the doomed, and that in any case he was one of those ill-fated persons on whom an evil power had cast an evil eye" (256). In the second, the narrator steps away from Carl Joseph's rationalizations about his own agency to deliver this extended zinger (264):
The lieutenant remembered that autumn night in the cavalry garrison when he had heard Onufrij stamping behind him. And he recalled the military humoresques he had read in the slim green-bound booklets at the military hospital. They teemed with poignant orderlies, uncouth peasant boys with hearts of gold. Now Lieutenant Trotta had no literary taste, and whenever he heard the word literature he could think of nothing but Theodor Körner's drama Zriny and that was all, but he had always felt a dull resentment toward the melancholy gentleness of those booklets and their golden characters. Lieutenant Trotta wasn't experienced enough to know that uncouth peasant boys with noble hearts exist in real life and that a lot of truths about the living world are recorded in bad books; they are just badly written.
All in all, Lieutenant Trotta's experiences amounted to very little.