Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Radetzky March, Part Two: a feeble attempt to click his heels under the blanket

I want to highlight some quotes (all quotes are from the translation by Joachim Neugroschel) from this section since the themes I outlined in the post on Part One continue in Part Two. I’ll go into detail on some of the themes and motifs of Part Two in a separate post. While the following quotes can be easily understood and enjoyed, I recommend reading the post on the first part to catch the shades of humor and irony in them. OK, now…some quotes:
He [Emperor Franz Joseph] stood in front of the lieutenant for a while, but he saw neither Trotta nor the others. He no longer felt like striding along the lines, but he had to go on lest people realized he was frightened by his own age. His eyes, as usual, peered into the distance, where the edges of eternity were already surfacing. But he failed to notice that a glassy drop appeared on his nose, and that everyone was staring, spellbound, at that drop, which finally fell into his thick, silvery moustache, invisibly embedding itself.

And everyone felt relieved. And the march-past could begin.

Lieutenant Trotta, the grandson of the “Hero of Solferino”, attends what Roth later calls “the rainbow splendor of the Corpus Christi pageant,” a procession that Roth describes by highlighting all the colors seen in the parade:

The porcelain-blue eyes of the Supreme Commander in Chief—eyes grown cold in so many portraits on so many walls in the empire and now filled with a new fatherly solicitude and benevolence—gazed like a whole blue sky at the grandson of the Hero of Solferino. The light-blue breeches of the infantry were radiant. Like the serious embodiment of ballistic science, the coffee-brown artillerists marched past. The blood-red fezzes on the heads of the azure Bosnians burned in the sun like tiny bonfires lit by Islam in honor of His Apostolic Majesty. In black lacquered carriages sat the gold-decked Knights of the Golden Fleece and the black-clad red-cheeked municipal councilors.

There’s more descriptions but the comparison of the blood-red fezzes to tiny bonfires captures Roth’s colorful prose. I mentioned in the previous post that he includes a lot of humor, much of it easy to miss since it passes so quickly. Here’s a short passage where Baron Fritz Trotta, the middle Trotta of the three generations shown, visits his sick servant. The servant’s reaction to the baron provides a view into one of the older generation's understanding (Jacques is over 80) of their role in the world:

The district captain sat on a bedside chair and said, “Well, the doctor’s just told me it’s not so bad. Probably a cold in the head.”
“Yessir, Herr Baron!” replied Jacques, making a feeble attempt to click his heels under the blanket. He sat up. “Please forgive me,” he added. “It’ll be over by tomorrow, I think.”

OK, maybe you had to read all of the lead-in to this quote...I can’t help but laugh at Jacques’ involuntary reaction. The final chapter of this section goes into great detail inside the world of Emperor Franz Joseph and it’s the point where the book went from very good to great. In addition to the opening quote on the bead of sweat on the emperor’s nose (although it may have been something else since he was had the sniffles and was trying to hide that fact from his retinue), Roth goes into detail about a few things that give the emperor pleasure, including his well-intentioned acts meant to reward people. In this excerpt, Franz Joseph, on a surprise visit to the eastern border of the empire, tries to soothe the nerves of the local barber:

”What’s your name?” asked the Kaiser. …
“Hartenstein!” cried the barber.
“Why are you jumping like that?” asked Franz Joseph. But he received no answer.
The corporal timidly reapproached the Kaiser and completed his work with hasty hands. He wished he were far away and back at the camp.
“Hold on!” said the Kaiser. “Ah, you’re a corporal! Have you been serving for a long time?”
“Six months, Your Majesty!” the barber breathed.
“I see, I see! Corporal already? In my day,” said the Kaiser, as veteran might have said, “it never went that fast. But then you’re a very smart-looking soldier. Do you plan to stay in the military?”
Hartenstein the barber had a wife and child and prosperous shop in Olomouc and had already tried feigning rheumatism several times in order to get out fairly soon. But he couldn’t say no to the Kaiser. “Yes, Your Majesty,” he said, knowing he had just messed up his entire life.
“Fine. Now you’re a sergeant. But don’t be so nervous!”
So. The Kaiser had made someone happy. He was glad. He was glad. He was glad. He had done something wonderful for that Hartenstein.

The ruin of a man’s life in an instant appears so easy, as does the tripartite delight it provides the granter. Hartenstein’s ruin provides a comparison with the benevolence shown to the Trotta family, benefits that continue down to the third generation due to the “long memory” of the emperor’s gratitude and the “long arm” of his benevolence. The question that lingers around those acts for the Trotta family is how helpful were they? The youngest Trotta is a complete mess, mirroring the deterioration of the empire.

I’m working on paring down an additional post on Part Two since I want to include so much of this wonderful book. I will probably limit it to the new character introduced and the role that music plays in the book…the title comes from a Johann Strauss’ march, after all.

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