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I had wanted to read Joseph Roth’s masterpiece ‘The Radetzky March‘ for a long time. So when I discovered that Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ and Lizzy from ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life’ were hosting a readalong of the book, I was so excited! Here is the first post for the readalong which covers the first part of the book.

For those of you, who haven’t read the book, this post is filled with spoilers. Please be forewarned.

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

I love readalongs, especially German Literature readalongs. I have participated in many German Literature Month readalongs across the years. I also have wanted to read Joseph Roth’s ‘The Radetzky March’ for a while now. When these two things came together – a German Literature Readalong and Joseph Roth – I couldn’t resist joining.

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

I am reading the Michael Hofmann translation. The translation reads quite well. I have loved Michael Hofmann’s translations in the past and I love this one too.

Is the novel living up to your expectations?

I finished reading the first part and the novel is wonderful till now. The edition I am reading has an introduction by Jeremy Paxman and Paxman says this in his introduction –

“The challenge for writers of historical fiction is much more than capturing what things looked like : they have to show readers how the unchanging impulses, lusts and kindnesses of humanity felt in that context. Most historical novels are paper cups full of coloured water made from instant granules. Joseph Roth is a strong black coffee on a Viennese sidewalk.”

I got hooked into the book from that passage itself. I am loving Joseph Roth’s strong black coffee on a Viennese sidewalk.

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 ennobled 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)

I liked those first lines. It shows the diversity of the Austrian empire, by stating that the main character was Slovene in origin. It also shows that simple people could gain glory by performing great deeds during those times, by describing that Trotta was ennobled. It also shows a distinctive personality trait of Trotta – that he is uncomfortable with fame and prefers to be anonymous. All these things are hinted at in the first few lines and we want to find out more.

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 admired what the hero of Solferino tried to do – removing the exaggerated story of the war from the textbook and making it more accurate. It sounds like nitpicking and most people wouldn’t do that, but it showed his scrupulous honesty that he even went to the extent of meeting the emperor in the service of truth. It is hard to imagine what were the ramifications for his descendants – if the hero of Solferino had continued in the army, he would have risen to a high position, his wife would have had a more comfortable life and his descendants would have had it easier. But I also liked the fact that, inspite of Baron Trotta leaving the army, the imperial favour continued to be bestowed on his family for generations – it showed the Emperor in good light.

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 joins the military because it was probably the in-thing to do those days. It was probably either that or the civil service. And with long decades of peace and with soldiers enjoying a more comfortable lifestyle than civilians, it was probably a preferred career. Is Carl Josef’s life honourable? From the perspective of his era, it seems to be. It is hard to define what honourable means outside the context of a specific time and a specific geography or culture. It means different things in different times and different contexts. It wouldn’t be proper to assess whether Carl Josef’s life was honourable when looking at it through 21st century eyes. But from the perspective of his time, it seems to be. It is not very clear whether Carl Josef’s relationship with Frau Demant is platonic or romantic. It feels like Joseph Roth purposefully left that to the reader’s imagination, unlike Carl Josef’s relationship with Frau Slama, which is clearly romantic. I personally think, based on what was described in the book, that Carl Josef’s relationship with Frau Demant was innocent.

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

Maybe it means that time marches on, we all march to its beat, and war is never far away. I am looking forward to Roth telling us more about how the Radetzky March is related to the story.

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?

The military code of honour – I understand why it was there at that time, but when two good people die because of it, it feels silly. It would have been easy to apologize, shake hands, have a drink, slap each other on their backs, and make up. Two good people dying for nothing is a real shame and waste. I loved the way Roth describes it but doesn’t pass judgement on it – he ‘shows’ but doesn’t ‘tell’ and lets us make up our own minds. I also liked the way the difference in life, is portrayed, between the haves and the have-nots, the privileged and the normal person. When Carl Josef has an affair with Frau Slama, and later she dies and her husband Sergeant Slama discovers it, he doesn’t do anything but just returns the letters that Carl Josef wrote to Slama’s wife. But when there is a suspicion of a clandestine relationship between Carl Josef and Frau Demant, it leads to a duel and two people get killed. It appears that during that time, words like code and honour applied to the privileged class and not to the others. Is that a good or a bad thing? It is hard to tell. On one side two people from the officers’ class are dead because the code of honour was applied. On the other hand, someone like Sergeant Slama can’t do anything when a superior officer has an affair with his wife. He can’t take offence or ask for a duel. He has to just take it lying down. I love the way Roth’s depicts the social order and describes the contrasts between these two incidents.

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

That is a very interesting thing about the book. There were very few female characters in the first part. I loved both Frau Slama and Frau Demant, but they had very less screentime. I also loved the depiction of the wife of the hero of Solferino, though she makes only a fleeting experience. There is also Frau Resi Horvath who runs a brothel, who seems to be a fascinating character, but she also makes only a fleeting appearance. I hope there is a female lead in the second part of the book.

Do you have any further comments on this section?

My most favourite passage from the first part of the book was this :

“In the years before the Great War, at the time the events chronicled in this book took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a man lived or died. When someone was expunged from the lists of the living, someone else did not immediately step up to take his place, but a gap was left to show where he had been, and those who knew the man who had died or disappeared, well or even less well, fell silent whenever they saw the gap. When a fire happened to consume a particular dwelling in a row of dwellings, the site of the conflagration remained for a long time afterwards. For masons and bricklayers worked slowly and thoughtfully, and when they walked past the ruins, neighbours and passers-by alike recalled the form and the walls of the house that had once stood there. That’s how it was then! Everything that grew took long to grow; and everything that ended took a long time to be forgotten. Everything that existed left behind traces of itself, and people then lived by their memories, just as we nowadays live by our capacity to forget, quickly and comprehensively.”

I think it is a beautiful ode to the central theme of the book and a poignant poem to a lost world.

I also loved the way the father-child relationship is depicted throughout the story. There is the original Baron Trotta, the hero of Solferino, whose father doesn’t talk much and when he does, tries to undermine his son’s achievements. Then there is Baron Trotta himself, who is a nicer father, but still emotionally distant from his son. Then there is Franz, the original Baron’s son, who though a tough parent, is able to understand his son better and gives him emotional support through his letters and gives him good advice. I loved the way how Roth describes, how fathers change across generations, from being distant and aloof and not capable of real affection, to being able to give emotional support to their children. It was quite fascinating to read.

I can’t wait to read the second part of the book now!

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Summer Before the Dark‘ covers one summer during the year 1936, when a few Austrian and German writers got together in a Belgian seaside town called Ostend and bonded together, had conversations and discussed the state of their countries, fell in love, had intellectual fights, wrote books and had fun. The two main writers that the book focuses on are Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth. It also talks about Irmgard Keun, who became Joseph Roth’s lover during this summer, and touches upon a few others like Hermann Kesten, Ernst Toller and Arthur Koestler.

I loved the way the book presented the bleakness of the situation in Europe, with the Nazis gaining power in Germany, Austria and England signing agreements with Hitler hoping to pacify him and keep him in check, and Jewish people being harassed and books of Jewish writers being banned, and contrasted all these with the good times a few writers were enjoying in a holiday resort, for probably the last time. The contrast between the bleak overall situation and the sunny interlude was interesting and fascinating. Though the book starts with a depiction of Stefan Zweig (which was the reason I started reading it), a significant part of the book is reserved for Joseph Roth, in which the book describes his background as a poor Jewish person from the east and how he made it into the Vienna and Berlin literary circles, how money or rather the lack of it plays an important part till his final days. I also loved the way his relationship with Irmgard Keun is depicted – how two very different people got attracted to each other. While nearly all the writers who were staying in Ostend were Jewish, Irmgard Keun was odd because she was not – she was a Catholic German and she was not harassed by the Nazis, but she was in exile by choice. It added to the complexity of her relationship with Roth. By the end of the book, I fell in love with Joseph Roth. I have read one book by him before, called ‘Flight Without End‘. Now I want to read more books by him, especially his masterpiece, ‘The Radetzky March‘. I loved Irmgard Keun too and I hope to read her books one of these days.

When the summer ends, the book also ends and we feel sad, because we know what awaits most of the characters we meet. Most of them die before the war is over and the ones who survive live hard lives carrying the scars of that difficult time. Irmgard Keun was presumed dead, but she survived and lived in secret till a journalist did detective work and discovered her decades after the war got over, and wrote about her, and after years of living anonymously, she came back into the public eye and a new generation of readers fell in love with her and made her feel wanted and she spent the last few years of her life feeling happy. I got goosebumps when I read that.

I loved ‘Summer Before the Dark‘. It may not interest everyone. But if you like the above writers and have wondered what they did when their books were banned by the Nazis, this is a fascinating book to delve into.

I will leave you with one of my favourite lines from the book, written by Joseph Roth.

“It is true that you cannot share your pain without doubling it. But this doubling also contains an immeasurable comfort. My suffering moves from the private sphere to the public and thus is easier to endure.”

Have you read ‘Summer Before the Dark‘? What do you think about it?

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GLM 2014 Badge

So, this week is like Lake Constance out here, in these parts of the blogosphere. Like Lake Constance brings together three countries – Germany, Austria and Switzerland – through its shores, this week brings together German Literature Month, Joseph Roth Week and the Literature and War Readalong into one beautiful event. And the book which is the star of that event is called ‘Flight Without End’ by Joseph Roth.

Lake Constance

Lake Constance

I got Roth’s book last month and I had to really resist the temptation to read it earlier. I repeatedly opened the book and read the first few lines, but then decided not to ‘cheat’ and wait for this week to arrive, before I read it. So, I finally picked it up yesterday and read it in one sitting. I even switched off my TV after dinner (something which I almost never do – I love watching TV series after dinner) and read Roth’s book till I finished the last page.

Joseph Roth Week

So, what is this book about?

Flight Without End By Joseph Roth

‘Flight Without End’ follows the life of Franz Tunda, First Lieutenant in the Austrian army, during the First World War. Tunda is captured by the Russians and sent to a prisoner of war camp. He escapes from there and ends up in Siberia where he becomes friends with a Pole. This man Baranowicz takes him under his wing and Tunda lives in his place and helps him with his work. At some point the war ends and Tunda decides to leave and go home to his native Austria and find out whether his fiancée Irene is still waiting for him. But on his way back he discovers that the Russian Revolution is in full swing. He is captured by the Red Army and after a few tense moments he becomes a part of them. And instead of going home, he becomes a revolutionary who is fighting for the communists. He meets a girl called Natasha there, who educates him on revolutionary principles. Before he knows it, Tunda is in love with her and forgets all about his fiancée. But a love forged during the times of war and revolution is not sustainable. Once the revolution gets over and Tunda and Natasha end up in Moscow, they discover that they are very different people and fall out of love. Tunda writes articles for papers and after a while ends up in Baku, working on literary and cinematic projects for the government. He meets a local girl there and gets married to her. But after a few years of life in Baku, the yearning for home gets to him and one day he just leaves Russia and goes to his native Austria. But there is no grand welcome for him. Austria has changed drastically and is a different place now. He meets old acquaintances, his brother and sister-in-law, tries to search for Irene (who is by now married to another man), goes to Paris – the rest of the book follows Tunda’s adventures through different cities and how he discovers that the world he encounters now is very different from the world that he left when he went to war. Is he able to find Irene? Is he able to adapt himself to the new world that he encounters? You have to read the story to find out.

 

So, what do I think about Joseph Roth’s book? 

It is less about war and more about the society of that time, the post First World War time, when the old order changed and the new one was starting to occupy its place. How one man who loses his way after the war can get lost in the new world – the book beautifully depicts that. 

I got hooked into ‘Flight Without End’ after the first three pages. They describe mostly Baranowicz’ life and what he does. In a few sentences Joseph Roth paints a beautiful picture. There is a character called Ekaterina Pavlona who is described in just a few sentences in the second page and then in a couple of sentences at the end of the book. Roth describes and develops that character so beautifully and I fell in love with her, though she makes just the briefest of brief appearances and she is not really important to the story. It is such a rare talent – to be able to sketch a fully fleshed out complex character with just a few deft strokes. It was magical, to see a master in action. There were many beautiful passages in the book, which described the world of that era – the people, their attitudes, their way of thinking, their value systems – offering insights and painting beautiful sketches of that period with a few broad brushstrokes. They were a pleasure to read. 

It was also interesting to see the author come as a character in the book and make us believe that the story is true. (I don’t know whether Franz Tunda was a real person and whether his story was actually true or whether the author was just making a guest appearance in the fictional story like Somerset Maugham used to do in some of his books like ‘The Razor’s Edge’). 

I liked Joseph Roth’s book very much. I would definitely be reading my favourite passages from this book again. I also would love to read more of Roth’s books. 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book

Between the two there now existed that distance which exists between the man who gives help and the one who accepts it, a distance different from that between an older and a younger man, a native and a foreigner, someone powerful and someone who, though weak, is still independent. Although there was no contempt in the President’s gaze, it no longer showed that quiet preparedness for respect, the open-minded hospitality, which distinguished people reserve for foreigners. It may be that Tunda had touched his heart. But they were no longer as free with each other as they had been. Perhaps, after this, the old man would have trusted Tunda with one of his secrets, but he would no longer trust him with one of his daughters.

It takes a long time for men to acquire their particular countenances. It is as if they were born without their faces, their foreheads, their noses or their eyes. They acquire all these with the passage of time, and one must be patient; it takes time before anything is properly assembled. 

Then, one evening, he sat in a train travelling westward and felt as if he was not making this journey of his own free will. Things had turned out as they always had in his life, as indeed much that is important does in the lives of others, who are deceived by the more noisy and deliberate nature of their activities into believing that an element of self-determination governs their decisions and transactions. However, they forget that over and above their own brisk exertions lies the hand of fate.

In all probability the love which had developed on this basis would not have survived the attainment of legal majority, the end of the war, the Revolution, had Tunda returned. But missing persons have an irresistible charm. One may deceive someone who is not missing, a healthy man, a sick man, and under certain circumstances even a dead man. But one waits as long as is necessary for someone who has mysteriously disappeared. A woman’s love is inspired by various motives. Even waiting is one. She loves her own yearning and the substantial amount of time invested. Every woman would despise herself for not loving the man she has waited for.

Have you read ‘Flight Without End’? What do you think about it?

Other reviews : 

Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

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