Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Radetzky March, Part One: each died a soldier’s death for the honor of the regiment

Back then, before the Great War, when the incidents reported on these pages took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a person lived or died. If a life was snuffed out from the host of the living, another life did not instantly replace it and make people forget the deceased. Instead, a gap remained where he had been, and both the near and distant witnesses of his demise fell silent whenever they saw this gap. If a fire devoured a house in a row of houses in a street, the charred site remained empty for a long time. For the bricklayers worked slowly and leisurely, and when the closest neighbors as well as casual passerby looked at the empty lot, they remembered the shape and the walls of the vanished house. That was how things were back then. Anything that grew took its time growing, and anything that perished took a long time to be forgotten. But everything that had once existed left its traces, and people lived on memories just as they now live on the ability to forget quickly and emphatically.

(all quotes are from the translation by Joachim Neugroschel)

Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March traces the history of the Trotta family across three generations. The grandfather, Joseph, saved Emperor Franz Joseph’s life at the Battle of Solferino, an act that helps and haunts the family across the years. The novel parallels and intertwines the connection between sons and fathers in the Trotta family with the relationship between the Austro-Hungarian empire and its subjects. In both cases, the head of the family/empire becomes a symbol that proves to be wildly overblown, causing members on both sides of the relationship to struggle with unrealistic expectations.

Captain Joseph (Trotta von Sipolje): for saving the emperor’s life he was awarded the Order of Maria Theresa and a knighthood. Upon learning that textbooks include an exaggerated account of his exploit he requests a discharge from the army, earning the nickname “The Knight of Truth”. Even though he requests the verses to be purged from textbooks, the lie and its use in propaganda fuels a simmering rage in him, leading him to lash out at times at people around him.

Baron Fritz: Joseph’s son, raised in an emotional and fiscally parsimonious manner. His father forbids him from joining the army. His father’s heroic act, though “disappeared from the authorized schoolbooks” “had not vanished from the secret files of the higher political authorities.” He rises to the level of a district captain.

Carl Joseph: relationship with his father (Fritz) follows very formal lines. Fritz constantly reminds his son that he does not live up to expectations even though Carl Joseph mimics his father’s actions as often as he can. He is assigned to the Tenth Lancers after being given a lieutenant’s commission. He becomes “A tool in the hands of misfortune”, an unfortunately accurate statement since Carl Joseph indirectly causes two deaths related to his amorous actions.

Max Demant: the Tenth Lancers regimental surgeon. Max represents a true, earned achievement of family improvement in status, although whether or not such elevation proves good for him can be debated. Although Max avoids most social contact, he proves to be “a good doctor…and thus in every respect an oddity among army medics.” Desiring to have a private practice, his dreams are frustrated by his lack of money. Max may be the one likeable character in this section but his wife, Eva Knopfmacher, is Roth’s marvelous creation. Max’s love for her is misplaced since she doesn’t love him. Worse, she makes his life more, a theme that can be expanded to other characters’ relationships.

Roth implies the older generation was heroic by nature, as demonstrated by the grandfather. Carl, on the other hand, has to deliberately think about traits that were second-nature to his grandfather. Don’t take this as a blanket endorsement of the older generations, though. There is a distance, rarely bridged, between fathers and sons, paralleling the gulf between emperor/state and subjects. The veneer of glamour and affectations masks the true inefficiency and incompetence of the empire.

Several traits of the older generations destabilize families and empire (and by implication in families, too). There is a uniformity in behavior and actions that cover many areas, some inconsequential like the same dinner every Sunday at the Trotta house while adherence to the military code of honor costs lives for no good reason. Related to this uniformity is a form of inertia, an inability to change the direction things are headed, even if what is being done no longer makes sense.

I have probably made the book sound preachy and dull, which would be a mischaracterization. Even though the shadow of 1914 looms larger as the story progresses, Roth’s style makes the book a delight to read. His sentences are deft and lively, conveying action or description in a minimum of words and with unexpected turns. I plan to include several examples in the next couple of posts on The Radetzky March to demonstrate his remarkable ability. For the remainder of this post I want to look at a few significant ideas that recur throughout this first part.

Roth constantly highlights the detachment between an ideal and its reality. Examples of this distance begins early with the grandfather reading in schoolbook the unrecognizable, exaggerated account of saving the emperor’s life in a school reader. Not able to overlook the falsehood, he lodges a complaint. The official reply: “[T]he primer selections of historic significance, in particular those relating to the august person of His Majesty Emperor Franz Joseph…are to be adjusted to the intellectual capacities of the pupils and kept consistent with the best possible pedagogic goals.” History is rewritten for simple understanding and to provide lessons supporting the empire. The rewriting of events carries through to the end of this section, when “In the afternoon, the junior officers on duty read Colonel Kovac’s announcement to the troops: Captain Count Tattenbach and Regimental Surgeon Dr. Demant had each died a soldier’s death for the honor of the regiment.” No…no they didn’t. They died because of a rigid adherence to a code of honor that no longer has any principles underlying it save carrying out the code. The adjustment “to the intellectual capacities”, a nice way of saying infantilization, expands to cover not just students but all subjects. Messages are not the only disconnection from reality—symbols of the empire lose their meaning over time, too. Swords become decorations and uniforms turn into holiday costumes. The bases for such messages and symbols have eroded over the years until there is no longer a connection to their original intent or meaning.

In addition to distance from original meaning, the distance between Emperor Franz Joseph and his subjects as well as the mirrored distance between fathers and sons is shown in several ways, such as Roth’s use of paintings:

Carl Joseph’s gaze focused on the portrait of the Kaiser on the opposite wall. …The painting seemed to be hanging very far away, farther than the wall. Carl Joseph remembered that during the first few days in the regiment that portrait had offered him a certain proud comfort. He had felt that the Kaiser might step out of the narrow black frame at any moment. But gradually the Supreme Commander in Chief developed the indifferent, habitual, and unheeded countenance shown on his stamps and coins. His picture hung on the wall of the club, a strange kind of sacrifice that a god makes to himself.

The theme of distance happens often within the Trotta family. The grandfather’s promotion after saving the emperor’s life adds distance between him and his father, making their relationship more formal and measured. Carl Joseph never meets his grandfather until the hero’s funeral. His father admonishes Carl Joseph to not forget his grandfather but the boy cannot forget what he does not know. As Carl Joseph grows, the grandfather he knows comes from the legend, reflecting a partial truth, and from a painting. Similar to gazing at the portrait of the emperor, Carl Joseph would stare for long periods of time at a painting of his grandfather: “The grandson’s mute conversations with the grandfather took place every summer vacation. The dead man revealed nothing; the boy learned nothing.”

Death, and the foreshadowing of death, runs throughout this section. Max Demant comments to Carl Joseph as they stroll through a graveyard:
“There are so many graves,” said the regimental surgeon. “Don’t you feel as I do the way we live off the dead?”
“I live off my grandfather,” said Trotta.

Roth isn’t subtle about death (see opening quote) or the impending carnage of World War I about to occur. Within these direct addresses is the hint of the death of the empire:

Death hovered over them, and they were completely unfamiliar with the feeling. They had been born in peacetime and became officers in peaceful drills and maneuvers. They had no idea that several years later every last one of them, with no exception, would encounter death. Their ears were not sharp enough to catch the whirring gears of the great hidden mills that were already grinding out the Great War.

In the interest of wanting to start reading Part Two, I’ll stop here…

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