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Posts Tagged ‘The Radetzky March’

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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