Monday, July 07, 2008

The Radetzky March

I have spent the last few days amongst ghosts. The more literal (and talkative) ghosts of Juan Rulfo's magnificent work Pedro Paramo, the haunting ones of Sebald's Emigrants (which I am still reading), and if these were not enough, the ghost of an entire empire speaking through the sombre voice of Joseph Roth in The Radetzky March.
I tried and tried to find the Michel Hoffman translation of this illustrious work, but found only the version translated by Joachim Neugroschel. Before reading, I had read enough about the superior quality of the former, and the wanting standards of latter. May be I do not have the ability to judge translations, but I was quite moved by the version I read. It was masterful story-telling, which was neither dense nor complicated, but a simple narration about an empire which suddenly found itself hung between changing times.

The novel is set in the Austro-Hungarian empire, where Roth had served in the army, and which he was quite nostalgic about for all his life. However, in stead of directly outlining the decline of this empire, in a creative stroke, Roth exchanged the empire with the Von Trotta family and described the empire's fate only in so much as it affected the fate of this family. The novel moves through three generations of the family, and each von Trotta is in many ways a constrained man. The largest part of the story revolves around the youngest generation, Carl Joseph Von Trotta, who is a very weak man, forever caught between the lure of duty (as chracterized by the playing of the Radetzky March) and his lack of conviction towards any ideas. He often considers leaving the army, but does not have the motivation to look for a civilian job, and hangs around in anticipation.

In fact, the entire novel is about anticipation. The empire is on a verge of change, and therefore in the chaotic stage where the old order is not respected enough and a new order is not formed yet. This abatement is very beautifully played out by Roth, may be because he felt this abeyance throughout his life after his exile from Austria.

There is so much in the book that makes it a superior work. There is the experience of an empire felt through personal pain, there is a presence of many powerful characters (Dr. Demant the best of them, whose death makes the meaninglessness of times even more pronounced), there is the haunting and helpess presence of the Kaiser in every place, there is a conflict of generations and those of thoughts, there is love, and honour and most underlined - there is death. Mostly meaningless and unheroic, which is not a mean achievement in an epic novel. For isn't every death in a novel about an empire supposed to be a death of honor and valor? And the fact there is no explanation for the decayence of the empire, except the expression of the widespread bias in minor incidents- against Jews, Slavs, Hungarians and everyone else.

Reading this novel, at many points I had a sense of deja-vu, for at those places it reminded me very closely of Zweig's Beware of Pity. Both Zweig's hero and Carl find themselves in the Austrian army, amidst similar kinsman who often dwell in rumours and squander hours in a pub. Both heroes find themselves implicated in matters of honor, which forces them to chose transfers. And both go to war without heroism. I wonder if the similar fate of the two is responsible for such a strong parallel, or if one's text influenced the other in some way. But that is beside the point, for the emotions each expresses is so difficult that they can never be confused for the other.

I loved the book. It is after all individuals who experience wars, crumbling empires and changing times. The empire simply crumbles without experiencing any emotion. I wonder why such a simple idea occurred to only this relatively obscure writer?

9 comments:

Alok said...

Actually I read the same translation. Hofmann is a great translator and his version will definitely be even better but still even this version convinced me that it was a masterpiece...

The scene where the doctor prepares for the duel is really one of the most memorable. before that i was reading it like one of those realist-historical novels, well-written and full of small details about daily life but that scene was like a hammer blow... and after that the novel lets up. it gets darker and darker, more and more melancholic. there are couple of other death scenes which are marvellous as well. I don't think i have read anything like this anywhere... specially how he summarises the thoughts of how one spent the entire life just before he is going to die... there are also great description of alcoholism which no doubt came from personal experience. Roth in effect killed himself by alcoholism in paris, just before the second world war was going to start.

some minor quibbles: I wouldn't really call them "weak men" because that involves a negative judgement which Roth never indulges in. These are people whose identities were closely linked to the kaiser and the austrian empire and with its demise they knew that their life had no meaning. the empire also stood for a way of life, a worldview, a set of values and the characters so passionately identify with these that they are disillusioned when history deals a cruel blow to these. Roth mixes up all these very well... personal life story of disappointments and disillusionments and also larger forces of historical destruction. There are also other prescient and dark undercurrents - specially what was coming to the jews. Jews had a homeland in that multicultural empire but with its dissolution and rise of ethnic nationalism they were left without homeland which had again disastrous consequences not long after. Roth understood this and could see what was coming. It is there in his other works too.

also about why he doesn't provide any rational and historical explantions for the demise of empire (though he does mention the rise of petty and small-minded nationalism and disapproves of them strongly)... i think it works well in the novel because it makes you see it in some mystical, universal way. an angel of destruction passing over history. He masterfully captures this melancholic view of history. (It is there in Sebald too. specially in the rings of saturn.)

Alok said...

There is a sort of "sequel" to this novel The Emperor's Tomb which I didn't like that much.

His earlier short novel Rebellion however is another masterwork of the same order, though at a much smaller scale. His shorter fiction is also worth looking for... two stories were really remarkable Stationmaster Fallmereyer and The Bust of the Emperor.

Madhuri said...

:) Even before you pointed this out, I had changed it to constrained men- the three Trottas were rather straight-jacketed in their thinking, though I would still say Carl was a weak man, who could not stand up to convictions. He drifted along in his unformed feelings of guilt, hating the army but never being able to escape it except through a cowardly route of unexplained absences. His courage only comes afloat after Duke Ferdinand is murdered, and that is more because he is shattered rather than an infusion of heroism.
I loved the whole section on Demant and the imagery of Carl and him as two grandsons. The friendship, though close, seems like a doomed melancholic relationship from the very beginning
As for absence of explanations, that was not a complaint, but in fact an appreciation. I think it must be difficult to keep politics and jingoism out of such writing, but Roth wrote from a broken heart and cared nothing for it, and that's why the novel has come to be what it is.

Madhuri said...

As for his other works, I have read The Silent Prophet, which was great, and will begin on Weights & Measures once I finish with Emigrants and some Hindi works that I am reading (admittedly the first time). His shorter fiction is hard to find, I have tried before, but I think I need to keep looking.

Kubla Khan said...

Please don't get me wrong but I have a niggling suspicion that this novel is not really as great as it is generally made out to be. Ok, ok, conceded that it reflects a certain nostalgia, a melancholic inlection for a fading fading time but nowhere does it rise to meet the psychological demands that such a work imposes. it falls, just falls on that account.the development of characters, their psychological and conscious motives are only flirted with. otherwise it ia a great read but vastly over-rated.

i am taking the liberty of admonishing you to even consider thinking about Pedro Paramo and this novel in the same space for nothing could be as different as these with paramo the symbol of genuinely beautiful and great writing. it is all that is great about fiction. it restores faith in reading novels. you are in various worlds simultaneously.i remember i wrote a post on paramo.
on the other hand, you have written a good post!

Madhuri said...

I do take the admonishing, though to be fair, I spoke of them in the same space only because they happened to me in the same time, and when multiple books are read almost simultaneously, thoughts and ideas often intersperse. They are of course completely different works, also in different leagues - but having said that, I don't think I will denounce Radetzky March as a work which falls far below Pedro Paramo. I was quite awed with Pedro Paramo, but I do not think it was the literary value of the book which so fascinated me. It was a transportation to another world and the surreal experience it offered - something even more, that I am quite unable to put into words and analyze. And very little of it had anything to do with words - but more with the honesty and 'reality' of Rulfo's story.He really wrote the book from his heart(because he simply had to), without tainting it with any creative literary skills.

On the other hand, the delight of reading Roth's work comes from his creative expression - and a prolonged experience of an empire waiting to be taken over and revolutionized. The complaint that you have with the work, that the motives are only flirted with, to me also expresses the same lethargy of the time, the unwillingness to look too deep within, but just hang in a laziness because you are serving an empire which is plunged far below its crowning times. I liked this work simply for capturing this instability and for telling a historical tale in a personal context.

Alok said...

Oh good some dissenting opinions...

i don't think comparing such different works (in place, time, culture) for evaluative purposes is of any value.... but it is natural that the mood created by one book seeps into other and you find a sort of continuity there...

Coming back to Roth, it is understandable that you find the characters don't have very complex psychological motivation or a complex inner reality. I won't call them "weak men" but they are definitely a character type...there is a sense of doom and a certain death, the feeling of helplessness over the powerful and mysterious forces of historical destruction, this is what defines the inner reality of all these characters. This "being toward death" to use a term from philosophy. this is not really about psychology but about a way of being in the world. this is the reason why most of these characters even appear so similar to each other. he describes their deaths in a very similar way too. In fact in the second half the book almost becomes repetitive... there is one tune and he keeps humming it till the end.

btw, latin amerianc lit reminds me... it is one of mario vargas llosa's favourite novels. He says that this and war and peace are the greatest historical novels ever written and took them as benchmarks when he was writing his own historical novels like the war of the end of the world.

Alok said...

there is also another charge that is often hurled at this book (and justifiably I think) is that the book is conservative and also sentimental.

If you read kafka or musil, the Austrian empire that Roth so sincerely mourns for, comes across as a heartless, inhuman and absurd bureaucratic monster. it is only from a historical context and in retrospect that the book gets its tragic weight, specially the fate of the jews in eastern and central europe... also the demise of the idea that one can rise beyond one's ethnic and national identity and be a citizen of a multi-cultural state defined on rational principles... something we are still struggling with in our time and which has led to some much violence in the 20th century and in fact in our time right now too.

about conservative... I think we should distinguish it from a "conservationism".. the desire to preserve values and ways of life which were good or at least mourn for them when they have been destroyed. Roth in this sense is a conservationist.

Madhuri said...

I believe it is inconsequential whether what has been destroyed was good or bad. The destruction is always a pointer to mourning for a way of life is changed.
I think the 'being towards death' is something that must have crept in post-facto, after Roth had already had those experiences. I wonder if while the monarchy persisted, such hopelessness had really seeped in so strongly - because generally a change is mostly awaited with bated breath rather than a sigh.