Roth tends to overemphasize the impending destruction from World War I, as in the case of describing a visit of Russian and Austrian officers. Even with this overemphasis, his imagery remains powerful:
When evening set in, the kegs, kicked along by the Cossack boots, trundled and rumbled over the bumpy streets toward the Russian officer’s club, and a soft splashing and gurgling revealed the contents of the kegs to the populace. The czar’s officers showed His Apostolic Majesty’s [Emperor Franz Joseph’s] officers the meaning of Russian hospitality. And not one of the czar’s officers and not one of His Apostolic Majesty’s officers knew that Death was already crossing his haggard, invisible hands over the glass beakers from which the men drank.
I won’t go into detail about the opening of a casino house where the troops on the border are stationed other than to say gambling becomes a substitute for battlefield heroics. The soldier’s code leads Carl Joseph to assume an IOU in order to support his fellow officer: “Because he was drunk, his heart was bursting with the commiseration for the captain. The poor comrade had to be rescued. He was in great danger.” Roth’s gambling scenes have the feel of Dostoevsky’s The Gambler. Even when someone wins at the roulette table they aren’t happy. The winnings are never enough to satisfy the winner and there is a lingering feeling that fate is still somehow cheating them.
Carl Joseph descends into alcoholism, a state that gives him a sense of belonging as well as numbness. He becomes good friends with those around him during his inebriation, highlighting an underlying theme in the novel of belonging. Unfortunately for someone trying to live up to the standard of his grandfather’s heroics, Carl Joseph recognizes his shortcomings and his unpayable debt to everyone, dead or alive: “The dead! I can’t forget the dead! Father, I can’t forget anything! Father!” The appeal across the generations cannot be heard by a father overwhelmed because of his own powerlessness and the changes going on around him. The father feels alone and helpless, too. Yet despite his feelings of ineffectualness, the father carries on while the son succumbs to his weaknesses. The feeling of powerlessness and weakness adds another tie between fathers/sons and emperor/subjects (see quotes on Franz Joseph in the previous post). Carl Joseph keenly feels his detachment from everything around him:
The army had become alien to him. The Supreme Commander in Chief was alien to him. Lieutenant Trotta resembled a man who had lost not only his homeland but also his homesickness for his homeland. He pitied the white-bearded oldster who drew nearer and nearer, curiously fingering kit bags, bread pouches, tin cans.
So why the title The Radetzky March? Music plays an important role in the book, none more important than the title march by Johann Strauss, dedicated to the Austrian Field Marshal Joseph Radetzky von Radet in 1848. The piece invokes pride for the empire (or at least what it used to be), which Roth describes in Carl Joseph’s response during the Corpus Christi parade:
Inside Carl Joseph the old childish and heroic dreams surfaced, the ones that had filled him and made him happy during vacations at home, on his father’s balcony, when he had heard the strains of “The Radetzky March.” The full majestic might of the old empire passed before his eyes. The lieutenant thought about his grandfather, the Hero of Solferino, and the unshakable patriotism of a father who was like a small but strong rock amid the towering mountains of Hapsburg power. He thought about his own holy mission to die for the Kaiser at any moment, on water or on land, or also in the air—in short, any place. The oath he had perfunctorily sworn a few times came alive. It rose up, word for word, each word a banner. 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.
Roth also uses music to highlight irony or deterioration, such as the whorehouse piano player breaking into The Radetzky March as soldiers arrive at the establishment, or when the hotel casino adds a band with “renowned chanteuses” singing songs like “Underneath my frock I wear pink and pleated undies.” Also heard during Part Two is a new piece of music, sung at the workers’ strike, which will have implications for the future—“The Internationale.”
On to Part Three.