Thursday, April 4, 2019

The Radetzky March read along - notes on part 1

{ This is a good excuse to revive this dead blog. }

Thanks to Lizzy for emailing the questions for the readalong and the discussion in advance. It certainly made the task of writing this blog much easier.

Ok so here we go:

Welcome to the #germanlitmonth spring readalong of Joseph Roth’s most famous novel, The Radetzky March.  What enticed you to readalong with us?

"The Radetzky March" is one of my European novels of all time. I first read it in 2007 and I was immediately struck by, more than anything else, its vision of History (note the capital 'H'). It is a Historical novel not just in the sense of being set in a specific period in the past but also in the sense of having a specific vision and a specific attitude towards the process of Historical change and the meanings it may or may not have. The great Hungarian literary critic and philosopher Georg Lukacs said that only the novels which do the latter can be called Historical novels and the novels which treat the past as just a background setting for the story and characters are merely "antiquarian" novels, and he naturally was quite dismissive of the latter. The Radetzky March is a true historical novel as per this definition even though it seems to invert the conception of Histoical process Lukacs and other Marxist philosophers believed in. In this sense it is probably much closer to the philosophy of History that Lukacs's contemporary Walter Benjamin believed in namely a "catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble."

Reading the novel at the time also made me think and question certain ideas and beliefs which I had always thought to be too obvious, too common-sensical to question or think about. When you think about standard oppositional concepts like democracy and monarchy or Nationalistic self-determination and Empire, or History as a story of progress and History as a Disaster, it is obvious for most of us to choose the former in each case. Roth made me rethink all these assumptions. Even outside of these lofty intellectual excursions, I was very deeply and very personally moved by the melancholy and the despair and the vision of the decline that Roth brings to the story. It is not just the despair of a specific set of characters or specific events described in the story but an all consuming despair which colours and touches everything Roth describes and gives everything a flavour of the apocalyptic and an aura of mourning. For a lot of Europeans of Roth's generation, specially the Jews, the end of the Austro-Hungarian felt as an apocalyptic event in their personal lives. This novel is an expression of that feeling.

Long story short, I love this novel and I jumped on the idea of revisiting this after such a long time.

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading?

I am reading the Joachim Neugroschel translation published by Penguin Modern Classics, which is the same as I read earlier. This edition comes with a substantive introduction by South African writer and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer. I will try to write a separate post or post some excerpts from her introduction later. Incidentally this is also a favourite novel of another Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, who calls it the greatest historical novel ever written.

I wanted to read the Michael Hoffman translation but I found it was a little too expensive here and since I already had this book I just decided to read this one. The translation appears fine to my non-expert ears.

Is the novel living up to your expectations?

Yes, it is. The first part is mostly setting up the background context. The story really kicks up only with the tragic duel scene towards the end of part one when it takes on dark and menacing undertones. The narrative never really lets up then on, specially as it moves to the fringes of the Austro-Hungarian empire where Roth is really in his elements. He himself came from Galicia which is in modern day Ukraine but at the time was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire just on the border with another Empire, the Russian empire.

How would you comment on the first few sentences? Is this an effective opening? “The Trottas were not an old family.  Their founder had been enobled following the battle of Solferino.  He was a Slovene.  The name of his village - Sipolje - was taken into his title.  Fate had singled him out for a particular deed.  He subsequently did everything he could to return himself to obscurity.” (Translation: Michael Hofmann)

It is definitely intriguing. I am always intrigued about the regions which lie on outskirts of Europe, specially Central and Eastern Europe. So the mention of a Slovenian village immediately intrigues me.

Roth subscribed to Chekhov’s view that a writer “should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness”.  That doesn’t mean that we as readers need to be the same!  How do you feel about the hero of Solferino’s crusade to return to obscurity? What are the ramifications of this for his descendants?

I do not like making moral judgments about characters in a novel as if they were real people. I am more interested in thinking and learning about the representation of the character itself. What are the different techniques the author uses to represent the specific character's thoughts, feelings and actions and their interrelations and what all these together say about the personality of the character and in turn what all these may mean for the author's overall aims in telling this specific story.

Carl Josef von Trotta follows his grandfather into the military.  Is his life there honourable and meaningful? Is his fateful relationship with Dr Demant’s wife innocent?

Carl Josef von Trotta to me feels like a figure representing the decadent and dissipated spirit of the times he belonged to. He symbolizes the decline and death of an entire culture in the specific character of his own persona.

Strauss’s Radetzky March is heard almost as a refrain throughout this section.  What is the significance of that?

I need to read a little more about Strauss and the titular musical piece before I can comment but from what I understood my reading is that it provides a unifying character to the diversity of the empire much like secular emblems like a flag or a national song provide to modern nation states. No matter which part of the empire you belonged to, The Radetzky March always made people of the empire feel as if they belonged to a common whole.

Roth may not judge his characters, but his sights are aimed at other targets: the social order and the military code of honour, for instance.  How does Roth critique these?

Roth is generally written as a nostalgist for the old order. There is certainly some truth in that but it is not the whole truth. Roth is also unsparing in the depiction of the rigid strictures of social code and military honour which people lived with and which stifled genuine human aspirations and noble pursuits and often led to senseless tragedies, like the duel scene whose aftermath and the scenes that precede it Roth describes at such length and with so much feeling.

Set in what was very much a man’s world, what do you think of the way Roth portrays the female characters?

Both Frau Slama and Frau Demant in part one are presented in heavily sexualised terms, almost like seductresses. This is quite par for the course for the Austrian literature of the period. The Austrian society as a whole was extremely repressive of its women and of sexuality in general. At the same time, the character of a woman was highly sexualised. Prostitution and brothel culture was also very mainstream. In this sense it was as hypocritical as any other cultural historically, may be only a little extreme when it came to its representation in the arts. You can see this in this novel too with the casual ease with which the male characters visit the brothels! For more on sexuality in fin-de-siecle Austria also see: Otto Weininger's Sex and Character, Freud's "A Case of Hysteria", many of Arthur Schnitzler's stories specially "Fraulein Else", Robert Musil's The Confusions of Young Törless, and his short fiction collected in "Five Women" (specially Tonka). Some of these are most definitely misogynistic but they are also extremely provocative and provide a unique window into the culture of the period. There is also this view of sexuality as a form of dissipation and decadence that is of great interest to Roth as he develops these themes later in the novel

Do you have any further comments on this section?

I will raise two points here:

First the way Roth prefigures and presages death and decay in the narrative. Notice the repetitive scenes of characters visiting the cemeteries and imagining worms eating up the flesh of the dead and buried.

Here is Carl Josef von Trotta thinking about Frau Slama after her death:
The traces of the dead woman’s caressing hands still lay upon his skin, and his own warm hands still contained the memory of her cool breasts, and with closed eyes he saw the blissful weariness in her love-sated face, the parted red lips and the white shimmer of the teeth, the indolently bent arm, in every line of the body the flowing reflection of contented dreams and happy sleep. Now the worms were crawling over her breasts and thighs, and decay was thoroughly devouring her face. The more intense the dreadful images of rot before the young man’s eyes, the more vehemently they kindled his passion. It seemed to be reaching out into the incomprehensible boundlessness of those regions where the dead woman had vanished. I probably would never have visited her again, the lieutenant mused.
 A little later again musing about his grandfather's and father's (impending) death
The Hero of Solferino had grown old and died. Now the worms were devouring him. And his son, the district captain, Carl Joseph’s father, was also growing old. Soon the worms would be devouring him too.
The idea of death and decay is there in text almost like a musical refrain and as I remember it gets even more intense and prominent as the narrative progresses further.

The second point is Roth's repeated invocation of the portrait of the Emperor Franz Joseph and comparing its omnipresence with that of the God himself.

Here is just one example (you can find many such examples in the text and again, it gets intensified later in the story)
Carl Joseph’s gaze focused on the portrait of the Kaiser on the opposite wall. There was Franz Joseph in a sparkling-white general’s uniform, the wide blood-red sash veering across his chest and the Order of the Golden Fleece at his throat. The big black field marshal’s helmet with its lavish peacock-green aigrette lay next to the Emperor on a small, wobbly-looking table. The painting seemed to be hanging very far away, farther than the wall. Carl Joseph remembered that during his first few days in the regiment that portrait had offered him a certain proud comfort. He had felt that the Kaiser might step out of the narrow black frame at any moment. But gradually the Supreme Commander in Chief developed the indifferent, habitual, and unheeded countenance shown on his stamps and coins. His picture hung on the wall of the club, a strange kind of sacrifice that a god makes to himself. His eyes—earlier they had recalled a summer vacation sky—were now a hard blue china. And it was still the same Kaiser! This painting also hung at home, in the district captain’s study. It hung in the vast assembly hall at military school. It hung in the colonel’s office at the barracks. And Emperor Franz Joseph was scattered a hundred thousand times throughout his vast empire, omnipresent among his subjects as God is omnipresent in the world.
This is very important to the thematic development of one of the strands of the story. We modern readers, citizens of secular republics and nation states, may find it ridiculous to think of a time when people thought of their Monarchs as God-like figures but the power of this novel is that by the time you are finished reading it, the idea will not feel as ridiculous as it did originally.


  1. Fantastic post and insights, Alok. Thanks for taking so much time to do this. However, I can’t let you get away with that answer on not judging characters. :)

    I take your point, but I feel that there must be a reason why Roth decided not to be explicit about Carl Joseph’s relationship with Frau Demant. The ambiguity is deliberate. Why do you think Roth chose to write it that way?

    1. To me it looks he did this to give the irony of the subsequent duel and the tragedy a much more bitter and ironic edge. If the sexual element was made explicit the whole sequence would have lost some of its power.

  2. One of the many great crashing ironies of the book is that at this exact period, the culture is not dying and not in decline. Viennese culture is astounding. Music, theater, visual art, literature - what else - architecture. Plus science, psychology, etc. It's a Golden Age, a high point of human achievement.

    And then every Sunday, people choose to listen to that piece of music, out of everything.

    1. You mean Strauss's music. Is it considered middle-brow? I need to read more about it.

      Last year I read this history book The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark. It is about the origins of the first world war. In the second chapter he talks about Austria-Hungary and very convincingly argues against the received wisdom that Austro-Hungarian was on its last legs. If it was not the Sarajevo assassination then something else soon would have sounded the death bell. Clark is very convincing about it.

      There is a recent history of The Habsburg Empire by Pieter Judson which also seems to take a pro-empire (and anti nationalist) position. I haven't read the book and but I read a long review essay on the book in the London Review of Books.

      Roth seems to me a kind of historical determinist and a death-obsessed pessimist so his portrait of the empire is a coloured accordingly.

    2. Not Strauss's music as such but that particular piece, which has the associations Roth describes. It still does, for Austrians. It's pretty weird.

      I think Roth's picture is accurate, but the contrast between the political world and the cultural world is huge. It is a bit, or maybe a lot, like Golden Age Spain.

  3. “Roth seems to me a kind of historical determinist and a death-obsessed pessimist so his portrait of the empire is a coloured accordingly.”
    But I wonder how much of that was coloured by his writing RM in early Weimar Republic Germany, another culture for which the writing was on the wall ....

  4. That should read *** early 1930s Weimar Republic”.

  5. Exactly - Roth saw that it was not as simple as "before the war and after." The crisis was ongoing.

    1. Yes this is very good point. as the novel progresses it becomes clear that he is generalizing from the specific example of Austro-Hungarian empire to the whole of History which he sees as a series of one disaster after another. Somewhere in the middle of the novel he starts capitalizing Death with a capital D. It is death that is omnipresent and provides a perspective to everything that exists.