Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"The Radetzky March"

"The Radetzky March" by Joseph Roth is a work of historical fiction set in the Austro-Hungarian empire in the decades prior to World War I. The book was published in 1932 yet, like much great literature, it resonates today with current insight.

Until last week this book was unknown to me and checking with well read friends I was not alone. It is the story of an empire in decline as seen, or for the most part not seen, through several generations in the life of one family. It is the story of a father and son relationship and of societal change so certain but so glacial in day to day lives. "He saw the world going under, and it was his world...The old revolver that Herr von Trotta had carried along pressed in his back pocket. What good was a revolver? They saw no bears and no wolves in the borderland. All they saw was the collapse of the world!" This melodramatic quote is not characteristic of the storyline but seemed to work in this short commentary. As does the subtle distinction here, as the resigning officer says, "the end of a career!" and his muse responds, "The career has ended, the career itself has come to an end."

Societal observations, many open to a reader's appreciation or rejection are frequent. As in "Those were principles that would be labeled 'hypocritical today' because we are so much more relentless: relentless, honest, and humorless." or "Lieutenant Trotta wasn't experienced enough to know that uncouth peasant boys with noble hearts exist in real life and that a lot of truths about the living world are recorded in bad books; they are just badly written."

The descriptions of historic sense of place and day to day life are exceptional, rivaled only by Irvin Yalom's "When Neitzsche Wept" in readings here of that general period. Two completely different subjects of course, but both make the environs and psyche of the times tangible.

"The Radetzky March" is easily the best book that I have chanced upon this year.

Postscript: Strangely it is the second book read this year in which the Battle of Solferino plays a central role. The other was "The Surrendered" by Chang Rae Lee.


Post a Comment

<< Home