Friday, April 5, 2019

An excerpt from The Radetzky March

An excerpt from The Radetzky March, which clarifies some of its central themes


It was very still. The final glint of twilight had long since vanished. Through the narrow gaps of the green blinds they could have seen a few stars in the sky. The broad and blaring chant of the frogs had been replaced by the quiet metallic chant of the nightly field crickets. From time to time they heard the harsh cry of the cuckoo.

The district captain, put in an unfamiliar, almost enchanted state by the alcohol, the bizarre surroundings, and the count’s unusual words, stole a glance at his son, merely to see a close and familiar person. But Carl Joseph too seemed neither close nor familiar to him. Perhaps Chojnicki was correct and they all really no longer existed: not the Fatherland nor the district captain nor his son! Straining greatly, Herr von Trotta managed to ask, “I don’t understand. How can you say the monarchy no longer exists?”

“Naturally!” replied Chojnicki. “In literal terms, it still exists. We still have an army”—the count pointed at the lieutenant—“and officials”—the count pointed at the district captain—“but the monarchy is disintegrating while still alive; it is doomed! An old man, with one foot in the grave, endangered whenever his nose runs, keeps the old throne through the sheer miracle that he can still sit on it. How much longer, how much longer? 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. Nations no longer go to church. They go to national associations. Monarchy, our monarchy, is founded on piety, on the faith that God chose the Hapsburgs to rule over so and so many Christian nations. Our Kaiser is a secular brother of the Pope, he is His Imperial and Royal Apostolic Majesty; no other is as apostolic, no other majesty in Europe is as dependent on the grace of God and on the faith of the nations in the grace of God. The German Kaiser still rules even when God abandons him; perhaps by the grace of the nation. The Emperor of Austria-Hungary must not be abandoned by God. But God has abandoned him!”

The district captain rose to his feet. He would never have believed there could exist a person in this world who could say that God had abandoned the Kaiser. All his life he had left matters of heaven to the theologians and regarded the church, the mass, the Corpus Christi ceremony, the clergy, and the Good Lord as institutions of the monarchy; but now all at once, the count’s statement seemed to explain all the confusion he had been feeling for the past few weeks, especially since old Jacques’s death. That was it: God had abandoned the old Kaiser! The district captain took a few steps, the old boards creaking under his feet. He went over to the window, and through the gaps in the blinds he saw the narrow stripes of the dark-blue night. All processes in nature and all events of everyday life suddenly achieved an ominous and incomprehensible meaning. Incomprehensible was the whispering chorus of crickets, incomprehensible the twinkling of the stars, incomprehensible the velvety blue of the night, incomprehensible the district captain’s trip to the border and his visit with this count. He returned to the table and ran his hand over one sideburn, as he would do whenever he felt a bit perplexed. A bit perplexed? Never had he been as perplexed as he was now!

In front of him stood a full glass. He swiftly drained it. “So,” he said, “you believe, you believe that we—”

“Are doomed,” Chojnicki completed. “We are doomed, you and your son and I. We are, I tell you, the last members of a world in which God sheds his grace on majesties, and lunatics like myself make gold. Listen! Look!” And Chojnicki stood up, went to the door, turned a switch, and the lights on the large chandelier shone. “Look!” said Chojnicki again. “This is the age of electricity, not alchemy. Chemistry too, you know! Do you know what this thing is called? Nitroglycerine.” The count articulated each syllable. “Nitroglycerine!” he repeated. “No more gold! In Franz Joseph’s palace they still often burn candles. Do you understand? Nitroglycerine and electricity will be the death of us! It won’t last much longer, not much longer!”

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