Wednesday, 27 April 2011
The Radetzky March
(translated by Michael Hofmann)
Early on in this book reading is discussed. - "Then he took his booklist out of his pocket, and handed it to his father. 'Some solid reading matter there!' said the District Commissioner. 'Now. Tell me the plot of Zriny!' Carl Joseph gave a résumé, act by act. Then he sat down, tired, pale, his tongue parched." At times this blog's demand that I report on each book can start to resemble a sort of formal grilling. It is somehow harder when the book is richer and broader and seems to demand a response that does it justice.
This has probably been the highlight of my reading year so far. It is a magnificent book. It manages to combine in it's pages broad comedy (Carry on Hapsburgs) with individual heartbreak, history, philosophy and the ache of centuries.
It shifts tone, tense and place with great naturalness and is about time, civilisation, understanding, belonging and much, much more. The book hangs on three men, three generations of the (Von) Trotta family. They are ennobled when the grandfather saves the life of the Emperor Franz Joseph at the Battle of Solferino. "It was as if he had received a strange, new, fabricated life in exchange for his own." "Captain Trotta had been cut adrift from the long line of his Slav peasant forebears."
When he finds that his action in saving the Emperor has been mythologised even in his own lifetime he struggles against this 'slander'. The result is that he is "raised to the baronetcy", making his exile from his own past even more pronounced.
Emperor Franz Joseph himself is a character in the book and his 'dual monarchy' is a key theme. (He was both Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, where he shared power with an elected government.) There is a constant sense of tension between the world as it is and as it will be. The war to end all wars (sic) is coming up and that it will bring the Dual Monarchy to an end. Characters in the book have premonitions of this and the reader, of course, knows.
There is an overwhelming sense of the propriety needed to support the world as it was. The soldier learns "the many many mechanical phrases that stand in for thought in a soldier's brain and obviate all need for decision making." A father is responsible for the acts of his son and the son for the honour of his family. Nechwal (a bandleader who conducts the Radetzky March amoung other marches every Sunday) thinks that "other bandleaders' casual habit of putting the musical adjutant in charge of the first march, and only taking the baton for the second was.... clear evidence of the decline of the Dual Monarchy." Later on the third Trotta has a sort of epiphany and feels that his platoon; "these men with their drilled precision were dead parts of dead machines that didn't produce anything."
This is a book of fathers and sons. Mothers die early in all of their lives and family warmth is not evident. Like everything else it is buried under layers of formality and unease. The tension between this formality and the deeply buried feelings between father and son is almost unbearable at times, laughable at others. This reflects the position of the Emperor, who is in a sense, father to all. Indeed he holds a position of such importance that the fact that "there were other countries which were not subject to Emperor Franz Joseph" "was just as bewildering as it might be for us to consider that the earth is only one of millions upon millions of heavenly bodies, that there are innumerable other suns in our galaxy, and that each of these suns has its own planets, and that we therefore are relegated to being a very obscure thing indeed, not to say: an insignificant speck of dust!"
There is a wonderful scene where the second Trotta goes on a journey to visit his son and they go to the castle of Count Chojnicki, who practices alchemy. The scene is redolent of Alice in Wonderland, as a few quotes will show. "'Curious, curious, very curious indeed!' said Herr von Trotta"...
"Never in his life had he been so utterly bewildered as he was now!
There was a full glass in front of him. He drank it down. 'Well then,' he said, 'so you're telling me that we, we're ...' 'We're lost,' Chojnicki put in. 'Yes we're lost, you and your son and I" ...
"'You see!' said Chojnicki, 'this is the age of electricity, not alchemy. And chemistry too, of course!' ... 'Electricity and nitroglycerine will be the end of us.'"
'The District Commissioner pulled out his watch, but couldn't quite make out the time. It was as though the hands were whirling round the white face of the watch, as though there were a hundred of them instead of the normal two. And instead of twelve digits there were twelve times twelve!'
The whole novel tells of a world that seems ridiculous as it disappears but the world that is coming is not any better, just inevitable. Roth's control of time during the novel is extraordinary. He moves between TIME and particular moments with ease. At one point a change occurs in how the third Trotta lives and he settles into his new life and habits until it feels like he has always lived that way. Then we discover that it has only been a couple of weeks. It is as if we are being shown that some changes are absolute and wipe away the history that preceded them. "The Lieutenant had a sudden premonition of the end of the world. ... For a split second, the Lieutenant was endowed with a lofty visionary power; and he saw the epochs rolling one against the other like two boulders, and himself, the Lieutenant, being crushed between the pair of them."
It is the power of this insight that makes this as relevant today as it was when it was written. Eras come to an end and when they do the truths that underpin them can be seen to be no more than habits, but until this happens, many people live blindly by these 'truths'. We all become history. "He was wise, and he understood that he stood powerlessly between his ancestors and his descendants, themselves destined to be ancestors, one day, of an entirely different breed."
Oh that we could be so certain now that our descendants will become ancestors. They would all have this book to look forward to.