“The Radetsky March” by Joseph Roth – A Neglected Masterpiece

This is my review of Radetzky March by Joseph Roth.

I was pleased to discover via a book group this subtle, gently ironic and nostalgic evocation of the last decades of the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Slovenian peasant Trotta, who has achieved the rank of lieutenant, becomes the hero of the Battle of Solferino and is ennobled after pushing the young Emperor Franz Josef out of the enemy’s line of fire. His son is given an easy path into the role of District Commissioner, which he performs with an unquestioning adherence to routine. He is too uptight to express his love for his son, the hapless Carl Joseph. The realisation of this comes almost too late, triggered by the knowledge that the “this world is ending”: his protector the Emperor is near death, and his Empire is destined to fail under its failure to adapt to the pressures for change.

“How simple the world has always appeared…For every situation there was a prescribed attitude. When the boy came home for the holidays, you gave him a test. When he became a lieutenant, you congratulated him. When he wrote his dutiful letters which said so little, you wrote him a couple of measured sentences back. But what did you do when your son was drunk? When he cried `Father’? Or something in him cried ‘Father’?”

Trained from early childhood for the military career to which he is ill-suited, the grandson of “The Hero of Solferino” feels the weight of his destiny but proves to be a sensitive, indecisive man who inadvertently brings misfortune to others, although the remote figure of the Emperor can be relied to bale him out of the worst consequences of his actions – until the old man dies and the First World War breaks out.

Although I have never been to Vienna, Roth created for me vivid images of the old city, together with the atmosphere of the military barracks – you can understand only too well why young men were driven to drink, gambling and reckless duels by the endless prospect of waiting for a battle to fight. I particularly liked Roth’s description of the landscapes of the eastern borders with Russia, the back of beyond to which Carl Joseph is consigned – the frogs croaking in the swamps, in which willows mark the only safe path, and the closely observed changing colours of the sky. Here at last, Carl Joseph finally regains his peasant roots and feel at ease with himself.

At first I thought I had found an East European Trollope with earnest traces of Middlemarch. Then I saw that Roth was born only 20 years before the First World War, and lived on to see its carnage, the Depression of the 20s and the rise of Hitler. So there is C20 frankness and bleakness to Roth’s writing, beautifully translated by Michael Hofman. Roth himself had a tragic life, as a Jew who was forced to leave Germany, married a wife who became a schizophrenic, and who died an impoverished alcoholic in Paris.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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