What fun to be reading along for #germanlitmonth with Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March! Now this book, in the elegant Penguin Classics Edition translated by Joachim Neugroschel, was already on my shelves. I’d read it before and it only clicked when that was when a bookmark from the Jewish Museum in Krakow fell out of the pages – on a trip to Poland in 2008. ( Don’t you just love that when the bookmark, or even just a bus ticket, reminds you of when you read that book?) So I wanted to read along because I’m keen to share a book I enjoyed and admired and also because I’d become fascinated by the personality of the writer Joseph Roth since reading Ostende 36, an account of his friendship with Stefan Zweig, when they were both holed up in Ostende with other exiled writers, in flight from the Nazis.
Answers to section One: That opening sentence tells us so much- the fact that the family were ennobled following the deed at Solferino, which was to dominate the life of Carl Josef von Trotta, the grandson of the Hero. It reminds us of the reach of the Hapsburg empire- he was a Slovene, not an Austrian -and the fact that his fame had unintended consequences for him. Carl J is an average student but the fact he is the grandson of the Hero gives him special privileges. How innocent is his relationship with Dr.Demant’s wife? In this world of strict codes of honour, we must assume that he knew being seen with her would be interpreted as compromising. Perhaps because he’d got away with an adulterous relationship with Frau Slama made him careless of such things. His life in the military is fraught. He is not a particularly good horseman and an anxious and reflective person, not best suited to the military life, but totally indoctrinated with the honour of his family and the expectations laid upon him.
Roth’s critique of the military code of honour are seen in the absurd duel in which Dr.Demant is killed-as well as his opponent. Prior to the duel there are several pages narrated from Demant’s point of view, which engage our sympathy for this character, followed by the night before when the anxiety of his last hours is ratcheted up.
The female characters are only seen through male eyes-the story is not so far narrated by them at all. They are sexualised and seductresses-Frau Slama seducing the young Carl Joseph, and Demant’s wife, it is implied, is a serial adulteress. Carl Joseph’s mother is a dim, sickly character, and his father’s housekeeper a detested character, unlike the servant Jacques. This is a world where the sexes are completely segregated.
The Radetsky March is played everywhere- on Sunday mornings beneath the district captain’s window, and even in the brothel, underlining the fact that the military ethos and values permeates the intimate sphere of the brothel. There is a compulsion for the soldiers in going to the brothel, almost equivalent to a military order even though some of them including Demant, don’t want to be there.
One final comment on the first section is the extraordinary scene when Carl Joseph visits Sergeant Slama to give his condolences. There’s so much unsaid emotion here creating tension in the scene and then the shock of realising that Slama knew of the affair but said nothing by way of recrimination because of Carl Joseph’s senior rank- a kind of droit de signeur? And the non reaction of his father to the bundle of letters evidencing the affair was to me breathtaking- because of its assumption of Carl Joseph’s entitlement, because the father didn’t ask his son how he felt about losing his lover. It says everything about the emotionally distant father-son relationships which are a theme of the book too.
So these are just a few thoughts and impressions about the book so far….