Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The Radetzky March: twenty or rather fifteen years ago

I didn’t mean to completely disappear but August and September will be demanding beyond usual limit-pushing levels. For now I’ll post a few quotes over the next couple of days from Joseph Roth’s remarkable work.

From Part Three, translation by Joachim Neugroschel (pages 247-248):
Frau von Taussig stood on the platform in North Station. Twenty years ago—she imagined it was fifteen, for she had been denying her age for so long that she herself was convinced her years had ground to a halt and would not go till the end—twenty years ago she had likewise stood in North Station, waiting for another lieutenant, albeit a cavalry lieutenant. She climbed up to the platform as if it were a fountain of youth. She submerged in the caustic haze of coal dust, in the hissing and streaming of shunting locomotives, in the dense ringing of signal bells. She wore a short travel veil. She imagined it had been fashionable fifteen years ago. But it had been twenty-five years ago, not even twenty! She loved waiting on the platform. She loved the moment when the train rolled in, and she spotted Trotta’s ridiculous little dark-green hat at the compartment window and his beloved, perplexed young face. For she made Carl Joseph younger, as she did herself, made him more naïve and perplexed, as she did herself. The instant the lieutenant left the lower footboard, her arms opened as they had opened twenty or rather fifteen years ago. And from the face she wore today, that earlier one emerged, the rosy, uncreased face she had worn twenty or rather fifteen years ago, a girls’ face, sweet and slightly flushed. Around her throat, where two parallel rills were already digging in, she had hung the thin childish gold necklace that had been her sole ornament twenty or rather fifteen years ago. And, as she had done twenty or rather fifteen years ago, she rode with the lieutenant to one of those small hotels, where concealed love blossomed in squalid, squeaking, and delicious bed paradises that were rented by the hour.

As I mentioned in this post, disjointment or uncertainty about time is a common theme in the book. This quote provides one of the more humorous examples since it goes beyond uncertainty about time. One area going beyond the 15/20 year gag lies with the theme of alleged higher standards in previous times versus the dissolute standards of the current (pre-World War I) Austro-Hungarian empire. Such a comparison runs into a brick wall with Valerie. She highlights the deceptiveness in such comparisons since she operates at the same level she always has, which happens to be at a level slightly less than the nostalgic ideal.

The humor in this passage doesn’t stop there. By only mentioning Valerie’s current behavior and that of 15/20 years ago, Roth conveniently omits the intervening years with many similar trysts. Or the quip aimed at Carl Joseph’s current status in the infantry—he had been a lieutenant in the cavalry until his dishonor in provoking a duel “required” his reassignment. There’s an implied pun in the comparison between Carl Joseph’s and Valerie’s mounting and disembarking with the spring in the step of the Emperor Franz Joseph alighting from a carriage and the youthfulness his subjects seek to mimic. And, to randomly choose a stopping point before the subject is exhausted, Roth highlights the reliance on tokens of the past and their irrelevance, made even more ridiculous by describing the “two parallel riffs” where Valerie’s necklace dug in—the necklace may be the same but there’s no doubt she has changed. Everything has changed, despite outward appearances, and usually not in the manner the characters perceive...

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