It’s very difficult to describe the pitch of this book, its approach to the military and administrative life of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the years before WWI. I’m tempted to use the word ‘camp’, which Susan Sontag delineates as ‘failed seriousness’. It is not quite satire, because it is too sincere, but it is certainly not serious in the sense except in its pathetic, touching sincerity. All of the Trottas and almost everyone else in the book has this quality. The significant exception is the generous, sensible, hedonistic (I use these words carefully) nobleman Chojnicki, who, in more than one sense sees the gathering storm and its consequences. If it were not for Chojnicki, the book might be unbearable; the intellectual and emotional balance of the book hangs on him as on a tent pole.
While it is Chojnicki’s clear-sightedness that throws the rest of the cast into campy tragic silliness, he himself actively facilitates the carnival atmosphere, relieving the corrosive boredom of military life in peacetime and keeping up the appearance of high old world civilisation in the manner of a string quartet playing on the doomed deck of the Titanic. On the night that the news of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination reaches them (I trust this isn’t a spoiler), our protagonist Carl Joseph and his colleagues are capering about festooned with paper garlands at one of Chojnicki’s parties, and as the band drunkenly play Chopin’s Funeral March, the guests dance. This is the decadence that the war crunched up and swallowed, along with Herr Trotta’s pantomime of self adornment, along with a generation of men across Europe. Roth’s painting of this world is ridiculous, and never even slightly sentimental, but it is impossible not to be moved by it.
Roth’s rendering of physical detail is exquisite, even excessive; I feel it’s a modernist device. His lengthy dwellings on food and dinners are as lavish as Woolf’s, if less frequent. However, as Michael Hofman’s introduction points out, The Radetzky March is full of action, of meaningful plot. Rather than expanding days or hours like Woolf and other modernists, Roth spans generations like a Russian classic, with the result that it feels like an epic. Actually though, it’s not a very long book; it has the tragic brevity of a meagre life cut short.
What kept me hungrily reading was Roth’s ability to capture the ineffable feelings of transcendence that attends pivotal and sometimes trivial moments of life by dramatising their attire, their context. Somehow he finds the right landscape feature, the right constellation of sense data, to make the sudden overwhelming symphony of emotion audible to me. I take off my hat to Hofman for his luminous, crystalline translation. The fruit of his labour is poetry.
The glimpses of Jewish lives offered in this book made me urgently want to read more of Roth’s reflections on this subject. I am usually fascinated by books from the pre-war and inter-war periods (like Patrick Leigh Fermor’s youthful memoirs) because they depict this glorious tapestry of life in Europe that was utterly destroyed. The Radestzky March focusses on the military pageantry of the last days of Austria-Hungary, but it contains, like precious stones, in the obscure yearnings of Carl Joseph, whose life is so disastrously misdirected, flashes of lives not woven of pomp and parade, about which Roth is almost romantically solicitous of sympathy, the lives of peasants and workers, culturally diverse, oppressed, mysterious to officialdom. Carl Joseph’s manservant Onufri and his (grand)father’s butler Jacques read, superficially, like fairytale cliche, but there is an undertow so treacherous and powerful that Roth has to break the wall to begin to express it. These types exist, he insists, and the caricatures of them in literature are ‘bad copies’. Herr Trotta and his son are, finally, morally and intellectually unworthy of those over whom they have power.