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.
Roth proves to be a little heavy-handed at times but usually he displays a deft and humorous touch. Roth takes a complex look at causes leading to the disintegration of the empire—while he finds fault with the codes of honor of the older generations, Roth highlights the greater danger from the lack of values in his own generation. Roth’s view of the empire adds to the ambiguity in the novel. Roth recognizes that the empire requires a monarchy with a strong personality in order to unite its disparate nationalities, but that is not the same as endorsing such an arrangement. Such a recognition points to reasons for the dissolution—weakness from above combined with increasing disunity and rot from below. Pressure from outside the empire is certain to destroy it since the empire has been hollowed out, the weakening of a common vision or purpose the catalyst to its collapse.
My ratings are loose at best, but I give this novel my highest recommendation (which doesn’t explain why it took me eight years to get beyond the first ten pages of it—I bought it in the San Francisco airport in August 2003).
I’ll have to apologize for the slow, scattershot writing about this book (well, worse than usual) but other events have been demanding my energy and focus.
A look at some quotes from two translations are here, The Overlook Press edition with translation by Joachim Neugroschel and Granta Publication’s edition with translation by Michael Hofmann.
Posts about and excerpts from The Radetzky March:
Each died a soldier’s death for the honor of the regiment
A feeble attempt to click his heels under the blanket
A lovely secret in a ruinous castle
His own holy mission to die for the Kaiser at any moment
Between lightning and thunder, eternity itself was crammed in
Tears wept by his brain
Twenty or rather fifteen years ago
For an alternate take, or rather supplemental data, on the popularity of Joseph Radetzky and the march named after him, see Vienna-Life.com. Contrary to the article's claim that the anecdote might explode "the solemnity of the novel's theme", the story and alternate lyrics support Roth's point about the divisiveness within the empire.
Update (10 Feb 2012): Michael Hofmann's article on the circumstances surrounding writing the book as reflected in Roth's letters.