Gerry Cordon on Joseph Roth’s classic 1932 novel about the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire…
Just as the our century seems likely to be defined by the act of terrorism perpetrated in New York in 2001, so was the twentieth century defined by the shots fired in Sarajevo in 1914. In a brilliant passage in The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth describes how the news of that world-changing event slowly seeps into the consciousness of a drunken outdoor celebration on the far eastern margins of the Austro-Hungarian empire as a storm breaks on one sultry night in July 1914.
But that is just one of many such superb passages in The Radetzky March. I don’t know how I could have lived so long before reading such a marvellous book. Roth’s elegiac evocation of the slow decay of a way of life that disappeared with the collapse of the multinational Habsburg Empire and its dominant class might seem unexpected from an author born to Orthodox Jewish parents who named him Moses Joseph Roth, and a man who began his journalistic career in Vienna after the First World War, writing for left-wing newspapers under the pen-name Red Roth.
For that was Roth’s own story – born in 1894 in Brody, a town on the far eastern edge of the Empire, just a few miles from the Russian border in the imperial crownland of Galicia, where two-thirds of the population were Jewish. Galicia had become part of the Austrian Empire in 1772, when Poland was dismembered; it was a poor region densely populated with Ukrainians (then known as Ruthenians), Poles, and Jews. The circumstances of Roth’s birth begin to explain the vision of the novel he came to write in 1932, amidst the turmoil that had followed the collapse of the Dual Monarchy.
The title evokes the twin monarchy of Austria and Hungary and the music of Johann Strauss I, who composed the march in honour of a field marshal who won key battles that asserted Austrian domination of northern Italy in the 1840s, and which soon became the theme song of the empire. But, whereas the historical novel usually celebrates the triumph of the nation-state, in The Radetzky March Roth reverses the trend, seeing in the nationalist movements that inspired the terrorists in Sarejevo and which contributed to the end of the Hapsburg Empire the force that destroyed his own heimat, his homeland. ‘His birthplace had been ceded to Poland,’ his translator Michael Hofmann wrote, ‘his country – the supranational Dual Monarchy comprising 17 nationalities – was a figment of history, and he lived off his wits, out of a couple of suitcases.’
Reviewing Michael Hoffman’s translation of Roth’s Collected Stories for the NYRB in 2002, JM Coetzee added this:
Nostalgia for a lost past and anxiety about a homeless future are at the heart of the mature work of the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth. “My most unforgettable experience was the war and the end of my fatherland, the only one that I have ever had: the Austro-Hungarian monarchy,” he wrote in 1932. “I loved this fatherland,” he continued in a foreword to The Radetzky March. “It permitted me to be a patriot and a citizen of the world at the same time, among all the Austrian peoples also a German. I loved the virtues and merits of this fatherland, and today, when it is dead and gone, I even love its flaws and weaknesses.” The Radetzky March is the great poem of elegy to Habsburg Austria.
In 1914 Roth enrolled at university in Vienna, which at that time had the largest Jewish community in Central Europe, some 200,000 in number. ‘It is hard enough being an Ostjude‘ (a Jew from the East), remarked Roth, ‘but there is no harder fate than being an Ostjude outsider in Vienna.’ Ostjuden had to contend not only with anti-Semitism but with the aloofness of Western Jews. Roth was an outstanding student, but his education was terminated by the war. Although he had pacifist leanings, he enlisted in 1916, at the same time abandoning the name Moses. In 1917, ethnic tensions in the imperial army led to him being transferred out of a German-speaking unit to a Polish-speaking unit in Galicia.
Galicia, the most distant and northernmost province of the Hapsburg Empire, is the setting for the scene referred to earlier in which a celebration, organised by the local army unit, is taking place outdoors. As a summer heatwave breaks, thunder draws closer and sheet lightning illuminates the night sky:
No one heard the rapid gallop of the orderly who raced across the forecourt, came to a sudden stop, and in full regulation kit, with glittering helmet, rifle across his shoulders and cartridge pouch on his belt, white lightning flashing around him and purple clouds darkening him, looked not unlike a herald of war in a play. The dragoon dismounted and asked for Colonel Festetics. He was told the Colonel was already inside. A moment later, the Colonel came out, was handed a letter by the orderly, and went back inside. He stopped in the circular hall, which had no ceiling lighting. A footman came up behind him, with a branched candlestick in his hand. The Colonel tore open the envelope. The footman, though trained from earliest youth in the great arts of serving, was nevertheless unable to keep his hand from shaking. The candles he was holding started flickering violently. He made not the slightest effort to peer over the Colonel’s shoulder, but the text of the message came within view of his well-trained eyes, a single outsize sentence written very clearly in blue copying pen. As incapable as he would have been of ignoring through closed eyelids one of the flashes of lightning that now were quivering in ever faster succession in every quarter of the sky, so he was averting his eyes from the terrible, large, blue letters that spelled out: ‘There are unconfirmed reports that the heir to the throne has been assassinated in Sarajevo.’
The words struck home, like a single, unbroken word, into the consciousness of the Colonel and the eyes of the footman standing immediately behind him. The envelope slipped from the Colonel’s hands. The footman, holding the candlestick in his left hand, stooped down to pick it up with his right. When he stood up straight again, he found himself staring at Colonel Festetics, who had turned round to face him. The footman took a step back. He held the candlestick in one hand, the envelope in the other, and now both were trembling. The flickering candlelight played over the Colonel’s face, alternately lighting it and darkening it. The coarse, flushed face of the Colonel, graced with a grey-blond moustache, was now purple, now chalk-pale. The lips trembled slightly, and the moustache quivered. No one else was in the hall, only the Colonel and the footman. From the interior of the house came the sounds of the first muffled waltzes from the two bands, the jingling of glasses, and the murmurs of conversation. Through the door that led out to the forecourt they could see the reflections of distant lightnings, and hear the feeble echo of distant thunder. The Colonel looked at the footman. ‘Did you read that?’ ‘Yes, Colonel!’ ‘Not a word to a soul!’ said Festetics, applying his finger to his lips. He walked off, tottering slightly. Perhaps it was the uncertain illumination that made his walk seem unsteady.
The Radetzky March brims with such brilliant passages. The novel follows the fortunes of three generations of the Trotta family, loyal servants of the crown. The first Trotta is a simple soldier who is elevated to the minor nobility for an act of heroism at the battle of Solferino in 1859 (the last major battle at which all the armies were under the personal command of their monarchs). This man of lowly rank dares to push the Emperor Franz Joseph to the ground, taking in his own body the bullet which would have struck the Emperor. But Roth instantly (in only the fourth sentence of the novel) gives us a foretaste of the grandiosity and ridiculousness of an empire that will decay:
Fate had elected him for a special deed. But then he made sure that later times lost all memory of him.
The Hero of Solferino is celebrated in a textbook for the schoolchildren of the Empire. But the account is exaggerated, and Trotta seeks an audience with the Emperor to ask for things to be put right:
“Listen, my dear Trotta!” said the Kaiser. “The whole business is rather awkward. But neither of us comes off all that badly. Let it be!”
“Your Majesty,” replied the captain, “it’s a lie!”
“People tell a lot of lies,” the Kaiser confirmed.
“I can’t, your Majesty,” the captain choked forth.
Trotta requests his discharge from the army, though Imperial favour does not abandon him. He is made a Baron, 5,000 guldens are allocated for his son’s education, and – thanks to the Emperor’s casually expressed wish – the offending textbook disappears from the monarchy’s schools.
Trotta’s son – partly because of his father’s legendary status – obtains a secure post in the Civil Service, eventually becoming a prominent District Commissioner, conscientious, totally dedicated to routine and order, but lacking all imagination. His son, Carl Joseph, is an army officer who begins to feel a growing sense that his life is dissolving into futility as the Habsburg mystique he is reminded of each Sunday when a military band plays the Radetzky March, loses its hold on him. Finally, he perishes without issue in the Great War. The trajectory of the Trottas mirrors the decline of the empire.
This may sound dry and somewhat schematic, but Roth recreates the lost world of the Hapsburg empire in scenes that range between precise ironical observation of society and manners, erotically-charged encounters, and satirical comedy. The novel’s central protagonist is Carl Joseph, whose life coincides with the slow decline of the empire. He has affairs with two women – Frau Slama, the frustrated wife of a sergeant in his regiment, and Frau von Taussig, an older woman who resists the ravages of time with a succession of younger lovers. These affairs serve only to deepen his sense of life’s disappointments.
Ironically, an innocent evening encounter with the wife of an Army surgeon is misinterpreted, with the result that the near-sighted surgeon, Trotta’s only real friend, dies in a duel with an officer who has mocked him and branded him a ‘dirty Yid’. This event leads Carl Joseph to ask for a transfer to a regiment in the north-eastern borderlands of Galicia (and Roth’s home province), vividly described by Roth in a superb passage, of which this is beginning:
At this time, the border between Austria and Russia, in the north-east of the dual monarchy, was one of the strangest areas. Carl Joseph’s rifle battalion was stationed in a town of ten thousand inhabitants. The town had a spacious ring square, with two large thoroughfares crossing at the centre. One ran from east to west, the other from north to south. One led from the train depot to the graveyard, the other from the castle ruins to the steam mill. Of the ten thousand inhabitants of the town, roughly one third worked at some kind of craft. Another third lived wretchedly on their tiny farms. And the rest were involved in some sort of commerce.
We say “some sort of commerce.” For neither the wares nor the business practices corresponded to the civilized world’s notion of commerce. The tradesmen in those parts lived far more on happenstance than prospects, far more on unpredictable providence than any commercial planning, and any trades-man was willing at any time to seize the goods that destiny had put his way or to invent goods if God had blessed him with none. Indeed, the livelihoods of these tradesmen were a riddle. They had no shops. They had no names. They had no credit. But they did possess a finely whetted, miraculous instinct for any and all secret and mysterious sources of money. They lived off other people’s work, but they also created work for others. They were frugal. They lived as squalidly as if subsisting on manual labour, but it was other people’s labour. Always on the move, always on the alert, with glib tongues and quick minds, they might have had the stuff to conquer half the world – had they known what the world was all about. But they did not know. For they lived far from the world, between East and West, squeezed in between night and day -virtually as living ghosts spawned by the night and haunting the day.
The passage goes on to evoke the landscape and nature of this liminal region, Roth’s own homeland, and a powerful suggestion of his own sense of marginalisation as a Galician and a a Jew. It was curious coming across passages such as this, so soon after seeing Edgar Reitz’s epic Heimat trilogy, with its own sense of roots, of belonging to a homeland on the margins of a nation.
In this mysterious, swamp-infested landscape where ‘any stranger … was doomed to gradual decay’, Trotta eases the pain of existence with the consumption of the local 180 Proof:
Lieutenant Trotta had grown accustomed to the 180 Proof. It never went to your head, it went, as the connoisseurs liked phrasing it, “only to your feet.” First it created an agreeable warmth in your chest. The blood started rolling faster through your veins; appetite replaced queasiness and the desire to vomit. Then you drank another 180 Proof. No matter how cool or dismal the morning, you stepped into it boldly and in the best possible mood, as if it were a sun-drenched, happy morning. During halts, you had a snack with fellow officers in the border tavern, near the border forest, where the riflemen drilled, and you drank another 180 Proof, It ran down your throat like a swift fire that snuffs itself. You barely felt that you had eaten. You returned to the barracks, changed, and went to the railway station for lunch. Even though you had walked a long way, you weren’t at all hungry. And so you drank another 180 Proof. You ate and were promptly sleepy. So you had a black coffee and then another 180 Proof. In short, in the course of the boring day there was never an opportunity not to have a drink. On the contrary: there were any number of afternoons and any number of evenings on which a drink was called for.
For life became easy as soon as you drank. Oh, miracle of this borderland! It made life hard for a sober man, but whom did it leave sober?
The descriptions of Trotta’s drinking bouts are a reflection of Roth’s own addiction, intensified after he had fled Germany after the Nazi takeover in 1933 for exile in Paris, described by one biographer as ‘a kind of slow method of committing suicide’.
Trotta begins to accumulate fearful debts, the money often advanced by Kapturak, a smuggler who also runs the gambling casino in the garrison town, a character introduced by Roth in this way:
In those days there were a lot of men like Kapturak on the borders ofthe Austro-Hungarian monarchy. They began to circle around the old empire like those black cowardly birds that ogle a dying man from infinitely far away. Dark and impatient, beating their wings, they wait for his end. Their slanting beaks jab into their prey. No one knows where they come from or where they fly off to. They are the feathered brethren of enigmatic Death; they are his harbingers, his escorts, and his successors.
Kapturak is a short man with a nondescript face. Rumors flit around him, fly ahead of him on his twisty paths, and follow the barely perceptible footprints he leaves behind. He lives at the border inn. He associates with the agents of the South American shipping companies whose steamers carry thousands of Russian deserters to a new and cruel homeland year after year. He gambles a lot and drinks little. Nor does he lack a certain careworn affability. He says that for years he used to do his smuggling of Russian deserters on the other side of the border and that he left a home, a wife, and children there for fear of being packed off to Siberia after several officials and officers had been caught and sentenced. And when asked what he plans to do here, Kapturak tersely replies with a smile, “Business.”
Throughout the novel, Roth describes the languid daily routines of a military garrison in an empire dedicated to unchanging order and protocol. But the world begins to change, and Trotta finds himself required to deal with an unprecedented phenomenon – a strike amongst the local bristle workers. In this passage, Roth provides a brilliant description of the appalling conditions under which the bristle workers laboured, emphasised by contrasting their situation with the ‘golden bounty’ of the surrounding countryside:
Bristle manufacturing is the only wretched industry in this region. The workers are poor peasants. Some of them survive by chopping wood in winter, by harvesting in autumn. In summer, they all have to go to the bristle factory. Others come from the Jewish lower classes. These Jews cannot do arithmetic and cannot do business, nor have they learned any trade. Far and wide, within a radius of some twenty leagues, there is no other factory.
The manufacture of bristles was governed by inconvenient and expensive regulations; the manufacturers did not like observing them. The workers had to be provided with masks against dust and germs, the workrooms had to be large and bright, the refuse had to be burned twice a day, and any workers who started coughing had to be replaced. For everyone whose job was to clean the bristles began spitting blood after a short time. The factory was an ancient tumbledown ruin with small windows and a defective slate roof; fenced in by a wildly rampant willow hedge, it stood in the middle of a broad, desolate square, where garbage had been dumped since time immemorial: dead cats and rats decomposed, metal utensils rusted away, smashed earthen pots lay next to tattered shoes. All around, fields stretched out, alive with the golden bounty of grain, athrob with the incessant chirping of crickets, and dark-green swamps constantly echoed with the cheery croaking of frogs. At the small grey factory windows, the workers sat, tirelessly combing the dense shrubs of the bristle clusters with large iron rakes and swallowing the dry cloudlets of dust to which every new cluster gave birth, and the iridescent summer flies danced outside the windows, white and coloured butterflies flitted about, and through the big skylight came the victorious blaring of the larks. The workers, who had come from their free villages just a few short months ago, the villages where they had been born and bred in the sweet scent of hay, in the cold breath of snow, in the pungent smell of dung, in the shattering din of the birds, in the whole mercurial wealth of nature – these workers peered through the grey cloudlets of dust and saw swallows, butterflies, and dancing gnats and felt homesick. When the larks trilled, the workers grew dissatisfied. Earlier they had not known that the manufacturers were required by law to protect the workers’ health, that there was a parliament in the monarchy, that this parliament included deputies who were workers themselves. Strange men came, put up posters, held meetings, explained the constitution and the gaps in the constitution, read newspaper articles to them, and spoke in all tongues. They were louder than the larks and the frogs: the workers went on strike.
This was the first strike in this region. It frightened the civil authorities. For decades they had been accustomed to taking leisurely censuses, celebrating the Kaiser’s birthday, assisting with the annual military recruitments, and sending the same old reports to the governor’s office. Now and then they arrested russophile Ukrainians, an Orthodox priest, Jews caught smuggling tobacco, and spies. For centuries this region had cleaned bristles, sent them to the factories in Moravia, Bohemia, and Silesia, and received finished brushes in return. For years the workers had coughed, spit blood, fallen ill, and died in the hospitals. But they never went on strike.
Trotta befriends the witty and cynical Count Chojnicki, who reveals to him, long before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, that the fate of the empire is sealed:
As we speak, [the empire is] falling apart, it’s already fallen apart! An old man with not long to go, a head cold could finish him off, he keeps his throne by the simple miracle that he’s still able to sit on it. But how much longer, how much longer? The age doesn’t want us any more! . . . People have stopped believing in God. Nationalism is the new religion. People don’t go to church. They go to nationalist meetings. The Monarchy, our monarchy is founded on faith and devotion: on the belief that God has chosen the Habsburgs to reign over a certain number of Christian peoples. Our emperor is like a worldlier pope, his full title is His Royal and Imperial Apostolic Majesty, there is no other apostolic majesty anywhere, and no other royal family in Europe is as dependent on the grace of God and the people’s belief in that grace.
Roth’s politics are hard to pin down. But what is clear is that by the time he came to write The Radetzky Waltz, with the Nazis knocking at his door, he had come to see the Austro-Hungarian monarchy as having maintained peace and stability in central Europe, the supranational authority of the Emperor a first and last line of defence for the Ostjude on the Empire’s eastern margins. Towards the end of the novel, the ageing Emperor rides out early one morning to greet his subjects, the Jews of Galicia, in a field near the garrison where Trotta is stationed. Franz-Joseph’s whiskers ‘shimmer in the silvery autumn sun’ as white mists rise from the fields all around:
Like a field of strange black stalks in the wind, the congregation of Jews bowed to the Kaiser. He could see their bent backs from his saddle. Then, riding closer, he could make out their long, flowing, silvery-white, coal-black, and fiery-red beards, which stirred in the gentle autumn breeze, and the long bony noses, which seemed to be hunting for something on the ground. The Kaiser sat, in his blue coat, on his white horse. His whiskers shimmered in the silvery autumn sun. White mists rose from the fields all around.
The leader of the Jews, a patriarch with a wafting beard in a white prayer shawl with black stripes, flowed toward the Kaiser. The Kaiser paced his horse. The old Jew trudged slower and slower. Eventually he seemed to both pause in one spot yet keep moving. Franz Joseph shivered slightly. He suddenly halted, and his white horse reared. The emperor dismounted. So did his retinue. He walked. His glossy boots became covered with highway dust, and their narrow edges were coated with heavy grey mire. The black throng of Jews billowed toward him. Their backs rose and sank. Their coal-black, fiery-red, and silvery-white beards wafted in the soft breeze. The patriarch stopped three paces from the Kaiser. In his arms he carried a huge purple Torah scroll topped by a gold crown with tiny, softly jingling bells. The Jew then lifted the Torah scroll toward the Emperor. And in an incomprehensible language his toothless, wildly overgrown mouth babbled the blessing that Jews must recite upon seeing an emperor. Franz Joseph lowered his head. Fine
silvery gossamer floated over his black cap, the wild ducks shrieked in the air, a rooster hollered in a distant farmyard. Otherwise there was silence. A dark muttering rose from the throng of Jews. Their backs bowed even deeper. The silver-blue sky stretched cloudless and infinite over the earth.
“Blessed art thou,” the Jew said to the Kaiser. “Thou shalt not live to see the end of the world.”
I know! thought Franz Joseph. He shook the old man’s hand. He turned around. He mounted his white horse. He trotted to the left over the hard clods of the autumnal fields, his suite behind him. The wind brought him the words that Captain Kaunitz said to the friend riding at his side: ”I didn’t understand a thing the Jew said.”
The Kaiser turned in his saddle and said, “He was speaking only to me, my dear Kaunitz,” and rode on.
In 1928, Roth’s wife developed schizophrenia. Roth wrote his masterpiece The Radetzky March while enduring a deep crisis, both emotional and financial, created by her move to a sanatorium. Not long after the novel’s publication in Berlin, Hitler came to power. On that day Roth went into exile, living mainly in Paris. It was there that he learned that The Radetzky March was amongst the books deemed un-German and burned by the Nazis in March 1933. At that moment, Roth wrote in a letter to his friend, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig:
Very few observers anywhere in the world seem to have understood what the Third Reich’s burning of books, the expulsion of Jewish writers, and all its other crazy assaults on the intellect actually mean. The technical apotheosis of the barbarians, the terrible march of the mechanized orangutans, armed with hand grenades, poison gas, ammonia, and nitroglycerine….all that means far more than the threatened and terrorized world seems to realize. It must be understood. Let me say it loud and clear. The European mind is capitulating. It is capitulating out of weakness…out of lack of imagination…as the smoke of our burned books rises into the sky. […] You will have realized by now that we are drifting towards great catastrophes. Apart from the private — our literary and financial existence is destroyed — it all leads to a new war. I won’t bet a penny on our lives. They have succeeded in establishing a reign of barbarity. Do not fool yourself. Hell reigns.
In Paris, while Roth went on writing, he drank more and more heavily, his love of Hapsburg Austria growing into an obsession. He died in 1939 and was soon forgotten. He did not live to know that his wife was murdered under the Nazi policy of euthanasia.
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 neighbours as well as casual passers-by looked at the empty space, 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.
This article was first published on That’s How The Light Gets In and re-posted with the kind permission of its author, Gerry Cordon.