The Radetzky March

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Read 02/01/2022-09/01/2022

Rating 5 stars

Onwards in my European literary tour to Austria. Joseph Roth was born in a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that is now in Ukraine, but studied in Vienna and is considered to be an Austrian writer. I have his novel The Radetzky March in a Folio edition, which is no longer in print.

The Radetzky March is considered to be a political masterpiece that draws parallels between the elevation and subsequent fall of a military family and the decline and eventual collapse of the Habsburg monarchy. The focus of the novel is the Trotta family, Austro-Hungarians of Slovenian origin, the patriarch of whom rescues Emperor Franz Joseph I from death during the Battle of Solferino. This earns him an elevation to the nobility and the title Baron Trotta von Sipolje.

It’s a funny book that captures the camaraderie of military life, the ridiculous nature of civil service life, the generational changes in parent-child relationships, and the curious rigidity of friendship between men of a certain class. Having studied the causes of the First World War at school, it also provided a different, more social context to the political one I garnered from O Level text books in the 1980s.

It’s also a poetic book, in the way Roth describes landscape, seasons, thoughts and emotions. His turn of phrase is perfection. I loved the lightness of his touch, the humour and fondness for his characters, and the way he skewers the social structures of the time, while simultaneously mourning their passing.

Austria is another country that I’ve never visited. I’ve chosen to have a virtual holiday in Graz, as it’s closer to Slovenia. It’s also home to a UNESCO World Heritage site and was European capital of culture in 2003.

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The Mur River and Schlossburg in Graz, © Ralf Roletschek, resolution restricted CC-BY-SA

According to this Austrian tourism site, Graz “has plenty to flaunt, especially for those foodies, history buffs, and nature lovers”, so let’s have a look around.

I’m starting with the World Heritage site, Schloss Eggenberg. The Eggenbergs were similar to the Trottas, in that they rose from humbler beginnings in the merchant class to become members of the nobility. The Baroque architecture of the schloss follows astronomical principles: there are 365 windows (days in a year), 31 rooms on each floor (days in the longest months), and 24 state rooms (hours in a day) which have 52 windows between them (weeks in a year). One of the state rooms is known by the name Japanese Cabinet. When the room was refurbished in the mid-18th century, its walls were covered with panels from a Japanese folding screen that depicts the Toyotomi court at Ōsaka castle. The official museum website has more information. Ōsaka-jo was one of our favourite visits on our honeymoon, and I feel like we saw a replica of this screen in the castle.

In the city centre, I’m going to head to Glockenspielplatz to watch traditionally dressed automata dance to the tune of 24 bells high above the square.

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Glockenspiel, © Graz Tourismus / Harry Schiffer

If I’m in the mood for some contemporary art, I’ll head for the Kunsthaus Graz, known locally as The Friendly Alien. This space age pod was designed by British architects Peter Cook and Colin Fournier, founder members of the 1960s avant garde architecture group Archigram. The Kunsthaus Graz was built for the city’s year as European capital of culture.

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View of the Kunsthaus Graz from the Schlossburg, Marion Schneider & Christoph Aistleitner, CC-BY-SA 2.5

After that, I’m going to pop along to the Hofbäckerei Edegger-Tax bakery in Hofgasse Street to admire its frontage and pick up some Panthertatzen, biscuits made with pumpkin seeds and almonds and shaped like a panther’s claw.

And now that I have something to munch while I read, down to the business of reading.

The opening paragraph of The Radetzky March tells us that the head of the Trotta family, one Lieutenant Joseph Trotta, after his enoblement and elevation to the rank of Captain, “… did everything he could to return himself to obscurity.” His act of alleged bravery, we discover, wasn’t born of a desire to save his Emperor, but to save his troops from the stupidity of the officer class, those men who knew so little about the realities of war that they brought the Emperor to the front line and provided him with a field glass through which to watch the enemy, thus making him a target for any marksman worth his salt. Trotta’s subsequent elevation creates an unwanted gulf between him and the men he commands, as well as a gulf between who he feels himself to be and who the world now sees through his title.

He felt as though he had been condemned to spend the rest of his life in borrowed boots on a slippery floor, welcomed by outlandish greetings and the subject of furtive glances.

Captain Trotta is a man of truth, and when he encounters his own exaggerated legend in one of his son’s schoolbooks, his attempts to express his indignation at this massaging of the facts fall on deaf ears; first his wife and then his chess-playing friend the Notary tell him that it doesn’t matter, the book is for children, they can learn the truth later; then a direct complaint to the Ministry of Culture and Education receives the response that, “It has long formed part of our educational philosophy to depict heroic actions by our military personnel to the schoolboys and schoolgirls of the Monarchy, in such a way as to render them conformable both to the childish character, and to the imagination and patriotic feeling of coming generations …”; finally an audience with the Emperor himself elicits the exhortation that, “It’s a bad business. But we both come out of it looking pretty good. Why don’t you drop it!”

When Captain Trotta continues to aver that he can’t comply with a lie, the Emperor tells him that, “There’s a lot of lying goes on,” and promises to make it up to him. And so, Captain Trotta becomes a Baron and his son’s future education is paid for from the Imperial purse.

Now, of course, I can’t help noting the parallels with our current government in the UK, its culture war against historians who choose the truth over patriotic obfuscation, its predilection for lying in the face of hard evidence, and its rewarding of those who comply with its self-serving abuse of power. And I definitely liked the cut of Captain Trotta’s jib.

The Captain is only in the novel for a chapter, but his character packs a punch and looms over the succeeding action. His irascible nature is joyous rather than oppressive. His eccentric dealings with his son, Franz, made me laugh. Franz grows up to be no less eccentric, but in a bureaucratic way. Forbidden by his father to join the military, educated in the law, and employed as a District Commissioner, he finds his own regimented approach to life. This includes the eating of the same meal every Sunday to the accompaniment of a military band outside the window, and his son and housekeeper needing to find ways to ensure they finish eating at the same time as Franz; the son, Carl Joseph, choosing indigestion, the housekeeper an apparent birdlike appetite that she later bolsters with a full meal from the leftovers.

The title of the novel is taken from the Strauss march that is performed at key moments in the narrative, particularly during Carl Joseph’s story, from the military band outside his father’s window to a music box in a pub. Here’s a version of from the Hallé Orchestra. In my late teens, I would attend as many Hallé performances as I could afford, most often in the cheap seats at the Free Trade Hall. The Strauss nights were among my favourites, and I always enjoyed the clip at which the band performed the Radetzky March.

Carl Joseph is a cavalry cadet when we first meet him, home from the academy for the summer. He is fourteen years old and beginning to stand up to his father in small ways. The summer when Roth introduces him to the story is the summer of his sexual awakening. He’s led there by an older woman, the wife of a local sergeant who patrols the town at 4 o’clock every other day; every other day, between 4pm and 7pm, Carl Joseph and Frau Slama have a liaison. There’s no comment on the seduction of a fourteen year old boy by an older, married woman, but I found it quite shocking. As shocking as if a man seduced a fourteen year old girl. For Carl Joseph, it marks the start of a life more dissolute than his father’s. For the majority of the novel, he is the focus, and the burden of bringing the family back down in the world falls on his shoulders.

On his graduation from the academy to the rank of Lieutenant, Carl Joseph returns home to tragic news. Roth cleverly weaves in little symbols of his love affair to build a sense of Carl Joseph’s emotions, culminating in the requirement for him to visit the Slama home at 4 o’clock for a very different purpose. Throughout, it is as though his father always knew but never alluded to his son’s part in Frau Slama’s infidelity. It’s a beautiful portrait of a boy becoming a man, suddenly aware of responsibility and consequences. The dénouement to the episode draws together a world of hidden knowledge.

It isn’t long before Carl Joseph is accused of making the same choice as before. At his regimental officers’ mess, he makes a new friend, someone else as unfitted for military life as he is. Lieutenant Demant is the Regimental Doctor. He is also Jewish and from a poor family. These twin conditions have led to his only opportunity to complete his medical studies lying with the army.

A note on the depiction of Jews in this novel: with Demant, his Jewishness is incidental, but elsewhere Jews are a trope. Roth incorporates into the narrative, without comment, the prejudice built into Austrian society at the time towards Jewish people. He also incorporates the prevailing pejorative beliefs about Jews, that they are crafty, money grubbing, corrupt. It’s a subtle and ingrained antisemitism, as antisemitism and other forms of racism often are, accepted and practised without any thought. The feeling of disgust and weariness that I got reading, yet again, the disparagement of one group of people for being perceived as different to the majority culture reminded me of David Baddiel’s documentary from January 2021. It’s not currently available to watch again on iPlayer, unfortunately. What struck me later is that Roth himself was Jewish and potentially experienced some of that antisemitism in society. To show such restraint in portraying prejudice in a matter of fact way seems remarkable to me.

Demant and Trotta bond over their legendary grandfathers who each cast a powerful shadow over the lives of successive generations. This friendship, however, doesn’t stop Demant, aware of being a cuckold many times over, in many different towns, accusing Carl Joseph of having an affair with his wife. Prompted by his father-in-law’s suspicions of his own daughter and by his wife’s admission that she doesn’t love him, Demant starts on a path to tragedy. Carl Joseph protests his innocence, but can’t prevent regimental gossip from adding to Demant’s distress and sense of shame.

After Demant’s tragedy, Carl Joseph feels he must leave his cavalry regiment and instead join an infantry division, echoing his grandfather’s career. He is redeployed to Ukraine, where he becomes part of the high ranking noble Count Chojnicki’s social circle. Chojnicki predicts the end of the Habsburg monarchy, taking democracy and socialism, and a loss of belief in God, as indicators that Austria-Hungary will collapse once the Emperor dies. It’s a sense of foreboding shared by Carl Joseph’s father Franz, who sees a change locally in the way different factions are organising themselves, much to his displeasure. Franz likes things to be the way they have always been, with people accepting of their position in society, not questioning or seeking to change the status quo. As time goes on, his trust in the regularity of the system he is part of begins to weaken, as he encounters more people who enact the crumbling of the Monarchy or who voice an opinion about its certain demise. He becomes friends with the local doctor towards the end of the novel, a man who believes in individual responsibility to the extent that he washes his hands of responsibility for others, including his own children, and urges Franz to do the same.

The imminent collapse of the Empire is mirrored by Carl Joseph’s descent into alcoholism. The local schnapps is known as ninety-proof, and is drunk throughout the day to numb the senses. Carl Joseph takes to it like the proverbial duck to water. His fall is further accelerated by the opening of a casino by a man called Kapturak, whose essential character is vividly speared by Roth.

On the frontiers of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy there were at that time many men of Kapturak’s sort. All round the old Empire they started to circle like those cowardly black birds that can see someone dying from an enormous distance.

Kapturak is a background figure in the casino business, with various other shady interests to occupy his time, including usury and people trafficking. On the face of it, the casino is operated by the owner of the town’s hotel, the gambling hall located in the adjoining café. The town transforms into a sort of frontier Atlantic City, with a boom in visitors and trade, and an influx of girls to entertain the visiting gamblers. This part of the book didn’t engage me. I’ve never seen the appeal of gambling and lack the curiosity needed to make tales of luck and chance seem exciting. Carl Joseph is similarly inured to the temptations of the roulette wheel and the card table, but becomes embroiled nonetheless in the gambling disasters of his colleague Captain Wagner.

In parallel, and of much more interest to me, is the interlude in which the workers in the main industry of the region, bristle manufacturing, are encouraged to strike for better working conditions. Roth portrays a world of lung disease, pollution and unsafe buildings, in which the factory owners ignore the legal requirements for safer working conditions because making improvements would cost them money, and labourers are easy to come by. It’s a moment of transition from the expendability of serfdom to the organisation of labour in pursuit of their human rights.

It was interesting to read this novel as someone who believes that exploitative systems of government that don’t provide equal rights to all citizens should be dismantled. Roth is nostalgic for the Trottas’ world and the hierarchies of Empire, and depicts the concerns of characters such as Franz Trotta and Count Chojnicki sympathetically. And yet, he presents both sides of the fight over worker rights in a matter of fact way that suggests he understands the change that needed to happen. He creates a world in which each side is in its own echo chamber, its position shored up by confirmation bias, and a culture war instigated. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Throughout the novel, Carl Joseph is haunted by a portrait of Emperor Franz Joseph I that hangs in reproduction in public and private buildings alike. When he encounters it in the brothel of his first garrison town, he removes it from its frame, unnerved by the Emperor’s eyes and what they might be seeing in the brothel parlour.

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Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria (1830-1916) wearing the uniform of an Austrian Field Marshal, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, in the collection of the Vienna Imperial Palace, public domain image

There’s an interlude when the Emperor reflects on his own life, partly in response to a file on Carl Joseph Trotta being placed on his desk. Carl Joseph, having returned to his regiment from a three day furlough during which he fell in love with the married Frau von Taussig, who is also Chojnicki’s mistress, and decided to leave the army, was given responsibility for ending a demonstration by the striking bristle makers. His handling of the situation left him open to investigation, his case sent up the system to the Emperor himself. Roth portrays the Emperor as old, vague and slightly bumbling; he is a man aware that his hold on life is drawing to a close, his memory failing him, and his heart containing some regrets about the role he has had to play as Emperor. It’s a portrait of everything that is wrong with inherited power and the sham of being born to a position without qualification.

Nothing comes of the investigation into Carl Joseph, thanks to the Emperor’s scribbled “To be settled favourably” on Trotta’s file, but he plunges deeper into debt and deeper into infatuation with Frau von Taussig. His is a story of mental anguish caused by his acceptance of his father’s insistence that he becomes an army officer when it is not the life he wants. His choices are focused on easing that anguish, but only serve to make it worse. When the consequences of his choices inevitably catch up with him and he is required to repay his debt to Kapturak, all he can fall back on is his father’s sense of honour. A chain of events ensues in which Franz von Trotta manipulates protocol in order to secure an audience with the Emperor. It made me think of the way in which certain members of the current Tory government consider the world to still operate, stuck as they are in their public school engendered way of thinking; if you know the right person, all manner of corruption and scandal can be brushed off.

Towards the end of the novel, a party is held, coincidentally on the day of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The responses to the rumour of the assassination, made by the high ranking officers of the different regiments invited to celebrate the near-centenary of the dragoons stationed in Trotta’s frontier town, are representative of the fragmentation of the empire. Each man has his own nationalist viewpoint, determined by the country absorbed into the empire that he represents. Some believe the rumour and demand that the party ends; others dismiss it, preferring to continue their enjoyment of the celebrations until the rumour is confirmed; a few express the opinion that Bosnia is nothing to do with them, forgetting that they are one empire. Carl Joseph is outraged by the displays of disloyalty, and reasserts his personal dedication to the Emperor.

What I liked most about The Radetzky March is how human and conflicted the characters are. I don’t read many books that depict military life, but the narrative around Carl Joseph and his colleagues doesn’t romanticise it. It shows the boredom of not being at war, and the monotony of endless drills and manoeuvres. And when war eventually arrives, that isn’t romanticised either. Perhaps this is down to Roth having served during the First World War himself, cutting short his studies in 1916 to enlist. As I mentioned earlier, the irascibility of the elder Trotta is a joyous depiction of one aspect of humanity. Even Franz von Trotta, in his regimented civil service life, has flaws where he might have been depicted as an entirely dull bureaucrat. Roth’s portrayals of his characters brings a modernity to people whose era I’m separated from by more than a century, and I felt closer to them than I expected to.

13 thoughts on “The Radetzky March

  1. I know the history, wish I had the time for reading I used to have, because one of the best ways of making the history real is to follow an interesting novel set in a time period by a good author. The best historicals don’t have anachronisms (always a potential problem) if they were written soon after the events that form the background for the fiction. Sometimes it feels as if WWI were centuries ago, but it’s barely a hundred years now.

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    1. Roth had the advantage of direct experience, too, Alicia, having served on the eastern front during the First World War, and being a young man for the majority of the novel’s setting in the years running up to the war. Thanks for jogging my memory about that with your reference to avoiding anachronisms in historical fiction!

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      1. I don’t dare write too far in the past – I work hard enough to keep the WIP, set in 2005/2006, unanachronistic, and I LIVED through those years! In THIS century.

        It is very difficult to do, and much harder to do well.

        My excuse is that going too far back annoys me because women were treated so poorly, and I don’t want to return to those times, even in fiction. The present is bad enough. And yet, I love Jane Eyre. And Dickens. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

        I think I read the classics at a young enough age not to be so hardened a feminist, and science fiction when I was getting the PhD in hard science (hmmm). There have always been a few women who were stubborn enough to do math and science when the men wouldn’t let them, but I’m not sure I would have been sturdy enough. Those women often had family connections, and I had none.

        But my grandfather and my husband’s served in WWI, and our fathers in WWII, and our families were lucky immigrants. Makes you think, doesn’t it? The past is not that long ago.

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  2. I’d heard of this novel but only vaguely, and would never have been interested if not for your post, which has now piqued my interest! Of course, as a musician I know the Radetsky March, but knowing what it signifies here heightens its interest for me. Your opening chapter description reminds me of the premise behind Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije incidental music about a lauded character who never existed!

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    1. I’ve just looked Lieutenant Kijé up – how fascinating. The only Prokofiev I know is Peter and the Wolf, but I will explore his suite of music for the film version of this story. Thank you!

      I only have the Roth novel because I flirt with Boxall’s 1001 books list and this edition was in the Folio sale a few years ago, so I thought I’d give it a go. Boxall can be a bit hit and miss, I find, but this one is a corker.

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  3. I admire your ability to make Virtual Travel almost as enticing as the real thing! Not somebody usually drawn to anything military, you have piqued my interest (oh,and that of Calmgrove too!) and I’ll see if I can hunt down this out of print book.

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    1. It’s only the Folio edition that’s out of print, Margaret – if you click the cover image, it’ll take you to bookshop.org’s listing for the same translation by a different publisher – that should help you track it down.

      I’m having fun with my virtual tour and am keeping a list of actual places I’d like to visit one day.

      Liked by 2 people

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