‘The Radetzky March’ by Joseph Roth (Review)

Over the past couple of years, partly owing to the influence of Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month, I have been reading a lot more books in the German language (good to know that my university time wasn’t completely wasted…).  While some of that reading has been fairly contemporary (e.g. Peter Stamm, Judith Hermann, Birgit Vanderbeke), I haven’t been neglecting the classics.

A while back, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a famous German literary critic, published his Kanon, a list of the most noteworthy works in German-language literature.  I have been working my way (slowly!) through the list of novels, and today’s post looks at another of Reich-Ranicki’s recommendations – and a very good book it is too…

Joseph Roth’s major work Radetzkymarsch (The Radetzky March) is a novel which you will find on any list of best German-language novels, occasionally at the very top of the tree.  It is a family saga spanning three generations, set in the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where the fate and fortunes of the Trotta family are intertwined with those of Emperor Franz Josef I – and of the empire itself

The story begins in 1859, at the Battle of Solferino, where a quick-thinking soldier dives on the Emperor to save him from being assassinated by an enemy sniper.  The monarch’s gratitude expresses itself in the form of riches and promotion to the aristocracy – a fair reward for the son of a Slovenian farmer.  However, the prize turns out to be a double-edged sword – both the brave soldier and his descendants struggle to come to terms with their new station in life.  The new Baron is astounded by the way his life has changed:

“Als hätte man ihm sein eigenes Leben gegen ein fremdes, neues, in einer Werkstatt angfertigtes vertauscht, wiederholte er sich jede Nacht vor dem Einschlafen und jeden Morgen nach dem erwachen seinen neuen Rang und seinen neuen Stand, trat vor den Spiegel und bestätigte sich, daß sein Angesicht das alte war.”

“As if his life had been exchanged for a strange, new one, one which had been factory-made, every night before sleeping and every morning after waking up, he repeated his new rank and position in life, walked up to the mirror and checked that his face was still the same old one.”***

He passes away, never having quite come to terms with his elevation in life.  However, for his son and grandson, life is to be even more difficult…

Franz, the son, becomes a high-ranking goverment official, having been expressly forbidden by his father to enter the military.  However his son, Carl Joseph, at his father’s request, does become a soldier.  Sadly, just like the first baron, the two are unable to enjoy life as privileged gentlemen; a constant feeling of being slightly out-of-place mixed with misfortune in love leads to a lifetime searching for a reason to keep going.

Part of the problem is the absence of female influence in their lives.  Both Franz’s mother and wife passed away at an early age, events which have lasting effects on the Trottas.  The father buries himself in work and tradition, following a regime so regimented that the outside world is unable to penetrate or surprise it.  The son wanders around lost, in search of affection, often finding it in the arms of an older woman – a mother figure…

There is one more important male character in the novel though, one who has an enormous influence on events.  Kaiser Franz Joseph himself appears several times, meeting all three generations of the Trottas, and the fate of the Barons seems inextricably linked to those of the Emperor and his realm.  As the Empire totters towards its destruction, decaying gradually over decades before being given the coup de grace by the events of the First World War, so too does the ageing Franz Joseph move gracefully towards the grave.  And let’s not forget, the Emperor also lost his wife at an early age…

Roth skilfully uses a visual metaphor to bind the fortunes of the two families further.  The first Baron had his portrait painted by one of his son’s friends, a painting which remains in the family, and which his grandson is obsessed with.  As the second Baron ages, he begins to resemble the portrait remarkably – but this is not the only resemblance.  The Kaiser too has his portrait (found all over his empire), leaving the youngest Trotta to be watched over by two formidable old men – it isn’t easy being constantly in the eyes of the Kaiser…

“Seine Gnade selbst, die über der Familie der Trottas ruhte, war eine Last aus scheidendem Eis.  Und Carl Joseph fror es unter dem blauen Blick seines Kaisers.”

“Even his favour, which rested upon the Trotta family, was a burden of ice.  And Carl Joseph froze beneath the blue gaze of his Emperor.”***

As the empire draws closer to its inevitable doom, so too does the family line of the Trottas, men lifted above their station, a historical aberration soon to be smoothed out.  In linking the fate of the family with that of the empire, Roth allows the reader to witness the death throes of what was one of Europe’s great powers.  It all makes for a wonderful novel, one worthy of its inclusion in Reich-Ranicki’s pantheon of German-language greats.

So, after the success of Hotel Savoy, that’s two out of two for Roth – time to look for more of his work 🙂  As for the Kanon, despite my recent activity, that is just the ninth of the top novels that I’ve read.  Another eleven to go…

*** All translations are my own, pitiful efforts 😉

17 thoughts on “‘The Radetzky March’ by Joseph Roth (Review)

  1. I ve only read Job by Roth had this out library last year but they want it back before I got to it (bastards lol ),I hope to get the new granta copy that has just come out next time I m in a big city ,great review Tony ,all the best stu


  2. Ooh, ooh, ooh, I've been meaning to read this for ages! Interesting to read your take on it, and confirm it's worth the effort. A few years ago at uni I read an Austrian novella with a Trotta figure in it, and found out about Roth's book, but since then I've not managed to get my hands on a copy. (The novella by the way was Bachmann's Drei Wege zum See, which is definitely worth the read if you get the chance)


  3. Thanks for the review Tony. Roth is on my list but he's someone I haven't got to yet. That German Lit month certainly encouraged me to try more German books. Two this month alone.


  4. Stu – That happened to me a few times last year 😉 My next Roth reading will probably be some short stories I downloaded – this is where being able to read German is a huge advantage (public domain!).


  5. curious_sloth – I wonder if Bachmann was using a Roth character (probably just a coincidence…). As to 'Radetzkymarsch', definitely worth the effort 🙂


  6. Guy – Good to see it's had an effect 🙂 It's always difficult to start reading in a new culture – you get the feeling that you could never make an impression on hundreds of years of literature…

    …still, you have to start somewhere 😉


  7. The strange thing to me – I have not read the book – is how short it is. Based on the description you give – three generations, sweep of history, etc. – it ought to be as long as Buddenbrooks. But no – 352 pages in the Overlook paperback edition.


  8. Tom – It is deceptive. In fact, the first Baron is gone in a matter of pages, and I suspect that by page 50 we are already within ear-shot of WWI (the novel ends in 1916, from memory). The majority of the book is concerned with the period when the second baron is middle-aged and his son is a young bachelor soldier. However, the three generations are all important to the story.

    Hope that makes sense…


  9. I own this, and love Roth's work, so I'm holding it back for when I have a chance to read it properly and really appreciate it. Still, your review does raise the chance of that time being soon, by reminding me quite why I bought it and how good it sounds.


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