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The Radetzky March (Works of Joseph Roth) Paperback – August 1, 2002
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While I have reviewed a few classics, The Radetzky March may the first book I call a masterpiece. Joseph Roth as well known in his day as a journalist as he was known as a novelist, represents another and perhaps better voice of the post-World War I Lost Generation. Among the reasons why he may be little known in America is that he was not writing in English and was not well known among the America Ex Pats made famous by Hemingway among others.
The story of the Radetzky March begins with a junior Officer serving the Army of the Austro-Hungarian Army. During the course of the Battle of Solferino, Lt. Joseph Trotta heroically saves the life of the then young Emperor Franz Joseph I. For this act he is ennobled, and promoted. Suddenly he is Captain Joseph Trotta Von Sipolje and wears this medal of the Order of Maria Theresa.
Thus after one formal visit to the Capital and an pro forma ceremony of investiture, the young man is forever divided from his father, his fellow officers and left to function is a society that is alien to himself. Another man might have made this leap with grace and brought his father along. Joseph is not equal to any of these tasks. Instead he becomes a remote and fearsome family figure as well as father and grandfather to a new titled noble house.
The book quickly shifts to the 2nd and 3rd generation of what becomes a titled but not particularly grand household. The son becomes a District Captain. A position of some standing, but only because his is a remote district and the grandson becomes an officer in the Army.
Shortly before the founder of this dynasty leaves the narrative there is a brief meeting between the elevated hero and his retired constable sergeant father. The paragraphs that describe the shining, reflectively polished grand uniform of the son and the grubby but functional home of the father includes writing that stands besides anything in the recognized library of classic books. There are a number of passages like it.
The bulk of Radestzky’s march is concerned with the Grandson and his father. They are strictly of the older generation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but quickly become aware that this older world is dying. Independently they seem to know in dying these two will be overtaken. As much as I like this book, this aspect was least convincing. My sense was that the Totta family was, in their DNA peasants. Absent the titles, they would have been simple hard working people and as such of little interest to a reader. Their lives are artificially enhanced such that they connot live as simple working people nor to they ever find a way to function as fully integrated members of their force adopted class. That the social structures they were supposed to move in are in early stage collapse is important to the time line of the story but it is not necessary that these two people should have this keen of an insight. Little indicates that they equal amounts of insights on any other topics
There were at least two instances in the novel where the flow of events shifts too abruptly. At one point the District Captain visits his officer son at the son’s remote border town post. This visit ends abruptly when the DC learns of a major threat of social unrest in his District. Shortly thereafter the young Lieutenant becomes involved in a strike by local workers from the bristly factory. This cannot be the unrest that sent the DC home and we never find out any details about it.
More important than these small errors was the difficulty in maintaining sympathy for the three Trotta men. The grandfather is not part of the narrative for long enough to b be more than a remote and threatening figure. The Father begins as a boring bureaucrat and gains much in his appeal but the shift is not entirely credible. The son, is something of a miserable person. We are not intended to like him. It will become clear that he is not so much unsympathetic as miscast in the role that has been given him.
Most analyze Radetzky March as being about the failure of social structures that have outlasted their era. Instead I suggest that the consistent theme is the alienation between people and their society when they people are expected to perform in roles not of their real nature. Further, for any in these 3 generations to assume the place wherein they would have most naturally performed, they would have had to accept major reductions in their financial and social standing. Most of the literature of the Western world is about promoting yourself or your family and not about the possible victory to be had by returning that promotion. Even where a protagonist achieves heroic status by rejecting promotion it is because the promotion is a bribe or a seduction, not because it makes more sense not have a title or station.
And the writing itself is outstanding on many levels.
Eigentlich ist dieses Buch eine Erinnerung an den Ausbruch des ersten Weltkrieges 1914. Die Menschen haben sich inzwischen verändert aber das Menschliche bleibt so wie es immer war. Joseph Roth hatte es meisterhaft verstanden das Geschehen und die daran beteiligten Menschen in einen Roman zu fassen der durch die Übersetzung ins Englische vielleicht noch besser zu lesen ist