Saturday, November 25, 2006

Few Notes on The Radetzky March

Joseph Roth's novel has been praised by more than one nobel laureate so there is really no point in me adding my own enthusiastic recommendation (two thumbs way way up, btw). J M Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer have both called it a "masterpiece" while Joseph Brodskey, the Russian-American poet, said that "there is a poem on every page of the book." I will just add that though it is written by a comparatively obscure central european author, it is actually quite easy to read. (Just in case if you were wary of picking it up after seeing his name clubbed together with Musil, Mann or Kafka.)

I won't attempt to write a summary. Just a few thoughts after reading this otherwise very nicely written overview in The New Yorker of Roth's life and in particular this book. Joan Acocella in her essay says:

"Roth’s politics were not well worked out, and that fact underlies the one serious flaw of “The Radetzky March.” Lacking an explanation for the empire’s fall, Roth comes up with a notion of “fate,” and he bangs that drum portentously and repeatedly. I am almost glad the book has a fault. Roth extracted “The Radetzky March” from his very innards. This rather desperate, corny fate business reminds us of that fact, and counterbalances the crushing beauty of the rest of the book."

I think it was deliberate on Roth's part to keep the politics out of the narrative and quite in line with what he was trying to say in thematic terms. The novel, I felt, is a profoundly melancholic work, melancholic, in the Benjamin-ian or Sebald-ian (of Rings of Saturn) sense. It is not at all an objective account of a slice of life at a particular time or place or a fictional investigation into the historical causes of the demise of an empire. Otherwise, it could have easily become one of those tedious and pointless "historical epics". It is not an objective, realistic narrative at all. Everything is filtered through Roth's melancholic consciousness, so that he sees death everywhere from the very beginning. Whether it was the assassination of Archduke which precipitated the fall of the empire or something else, it doesn't matter. The point is, the empire and the social order was doomed like all empires and all social orders are. If it was not in 1914, it would have been a few years later. Same is true of individual lives too. Whether a life ends because of a particular disease or accident or it is because of the so-called natural causes (Bernhard style!) it doesn't matter. Life has to end, the cause is secondary and is assigned only in retrospect. The central truth is that everything has to end. Death is THE central fact of nature!

Also in this sense I think The Radetzky March resembles "the novel of ideas" more than the realistic Flaubert-Stendhal school of novel. (I also read somewhere that it is considered one of the best nineteenth century novels written in the twentieth century.) Indeed, if one reads it from a realistic novel perspective one will definitely get irritated with the repetitive metaphors, too many forced coincidences and a plot which is a little too tight for a "literary" novel. The dustjacket claims that Roth is "alongwith Robert Musil and Thomas Mann, among the greatest of the early twentieth century Central European writers." I think it fits better with a novel like The Magic Mountain than something like The Charterhouse of Parma. Roth may not be as sophisticated as Mann, but he shares many of Mann's preoccupations (e.g. the end of European civilization is one of the main themes of Magic Mountain too) and in the end, Radetzky March is far more moving, entertaining and gripping than Mann's novel.

I have copied some quotes from the book which will illustrate what I was trying to say. Also note that in most of the places death is spelled with a capital 'D'. My favourite is the fourth one.

"In those days there were a lot of men like Kapturak on the borders of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. They began to circle around the old empire like those black cowardly birds that ogle a dying man from infinitely far away. Dark and impatient, beating their wings, they wait for his end. Their slating beaks jab into their prey. No one knows where they come from or where they fly off to. They are the feathered brethren of enigmatic Death; they are his harbingers, his escorts, and his successors."

"He walked very slowly as if following a hearse."

"He calmly fell asleep, believing the worst was over. He did not know--old Herr Trotta--that fate was brewing bitter grief for him while he slept. He was old and tired, and death was already lurking, but life would not yet let him go. Like a cruel host it held him fast at the table becase he had not yet tasted all the bitterness that had been prepared for him."

"Trotta drank. The bare room grew homier. The naked electric bulb on its twisted wire, circled by whirring moths and swaying in the nocturnal wind, aroused fleeting cozy reflections on the brownish glass of the table. Gradually Trotta's disappointment mellowed into a pleasurable pain. He formed a kind of alliance with his grief. Everything in the world was extremely sorrowful today, and he, the lieutenant, was the midpoint of this miserable world. It was for him that the frogs were croaking so dolefully; the rueful crickets were lamenting for him. It was for him that the spring night was imbued with such a sweet, gentle sorrow, that the stars were so unreachably high in the heavens; for him alone their light twinkled with unrequited yearning. The infinite sorrow of the world fitted in perfectly with Trotta's misery. He suffered in utter harmony with the suffering universe. For behind the deep-blue vault of the sky, God himself gazed down at him in pity."

"Indeed, the appearance and the words of this strange district captain made them shudder. Perhaps they already felt the breath of Death, who was to grab them all a few months later--grab them by the throat! And they felt Death was breathing icily down their necks."


bhupinder said...

Much as I avoid the Germans (Austrians included, since the language is the same) , I guess will have to read at least Roth. The New Yorker link that you posted is extremely good.

Roth's own life calls for a novel itself.

Vidya said...

Joan acocella's review was awesome.Also read that there is some storm scene description which is very beautiful..

Alok said...

Bhupinder: Avoid Germans? Why is that? :)
They are often ponderous and humourless but I like their seriousness and yes, their bleakness too. They are far too pessimistic to have any pragmatic political vision for the future, may be that's what you don't like?

Vidya: I remember that storm scene. it is towards the end. he says something like "an eternity was crammed in the few seconds between the lightning and thunder" and people felt that their end was near.. things like that. it is another of those passages which show how roth uses these descriptions not just to sketch the background on which he can plot the actions on the foreground but rather the description itself contains what he is trying to say... and so what could be melodramatic (a storm just before the climax!) becomes something prophetic, portentous and revealing.

Sometime back I had linked to Acocella's essay about another Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (who was also Roth's literary mentor). It is also very good. Worth checking out. Haven't yet read any of his stuff though.

bhupinder said...

I don't have anything against German writers per se, I admire Goethe, Schiller, Thomas Mann and Gunter Grass, Brecht but find them too demanding- they seem to go on and on. The reason, as I think it was another German- Marx who observed that since there was no German nation (or too too long to become one), they took to philosophizing, and this is reflected in the literature as well.

It would not be correct to say that they lack a political vision, I would say that it is the bleakness of German politics that is reflected in their literature. Marx himself was poet in the early 20s, before giving it up for politics. Gunter Grass and Brecht have been very much political.

Alok said...

Yes I agree with your, that's why I emphasised in the post that Roth is comparatively easy to read and offers conventional pleasures associated with literature too... :)

The German philosophers are also famous for their prolix style. Even Marx, for all his gifts of phrase making, is actually very dry and difficult to read. I think contempt for simplicity and lucidity is in the nature of German language itself :)

Agree with the politics bit too. Brecht is I think the very model of what a political literature is.

bhupinder said...

>Even Marx, for all his gifts of phrase making, is actually very dry and difficult to read.

Depends on what you read. The Manifesto and the 18th Brumaire are wonderful pieces of literature.

So is Das Capital, specially the first three chapters, though I can relent on this one since most people find these three chapters tough. I found them to be just stupendous.

Again, Marx's writings on India are superb as also the texts on France.

He is difficult in some of his earlier texts like the critique of Bruno Bauer and the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts.

Hegel is tough to follow, but many of his works are readable and if you have a basic understanding of the jargon, quite delightful.

Kant- I gave up on page 3 of Metaphysics, that was when I was in college, and haven't had the courage to pick him up since.

Schopenhauer: not worth the time and effort.

Nietzsche: haven't read except in passing. Bourgeois philosopher, hence dismissed :-)

Alok said...

I knew i was provoking you :) I don't know who it was, Marx or Engels, who coined those phrases in the manifesto ("a spectre is haunting Europe", "All that is solid melts into the air"), I suspect it was Engels :) I have tried reading a few of other short articles/essays by Marx in passing but really couldn't get hold of his style.

I have never really even gone near to the primary texts of those other philosophers. I prefer short introductions and reader's guides!

Antonia said...

haha bhupinder, collecting prejudices here, Nietzsche, a bourgeouis philosopher, I havent heard this since ages ago and must say it makes me smile. And Schopenhauer not worth reading,this is of course only consequent, those guys, that's all reactionary stuff :) and all of those mentioned have an excellent style, except Guenther Grass and Thomas Mann of course (heresy! heresy!).
Marx's german is gorgeous, I agree.
but alok, as much as I like it to come here, shame on you, short introductions and reader's guides....I understand, lack of time can make them becessary, but it is the original, alok, the can't read a Proust reader's guide and mistake it for the original, no? But I trust you would never do this? no?
but I agree, it is joyful reading, Roth, your post makes me want to read him again....
you understand I made a bit of jokes here,please not take it all too personally...

Alok said...

Haha Antonia, but remember unlike you I never studied literature (or philosophy?) in a school or university. When you were studying Proust I was doing engineering :(

But one day, I will read the original texts of the masters too. There is still a lot of time left for that I think.

Antonia said...

yes alok, but dont worry, even tho I do philosophy I learnt most of the stuff I kow about books and literature outside the university from interesting people, university is way overestimated....and engineering at least provides a better everything has its pros and cons....I didn't want to make you feel bad, just it is always good to read the original, but I know when one has no time one falls back upon these other books

yes and then there is always time to read allthe stuff, a whole life long...

bhupinder said...

Antonia, there is some self- deprecating humor latent in my comment.

I read my initial philosophy from the "ABC" series brought out by, I think, Progress Publishers :-) So, now, you can perhaps see the context of my comment on Nietzsche.

Alok: I am happy to be provoked !

H said...
good news from criterion !

i really love your blog

Alok said...

antonia: that's heartening to know, thank you :)

bhupinder: progress publishers.. have heard a lot about those books. but when I started reading with interest, soviet union was long gone!

H: thanks!

Szerelem said...


This is top of my list...but i think I will be able to read only once exams are over and I am back from my holiday. And I dont think it holds necessarily for people who write in german but I really can not stand hearing the language. Its so cold and sounds so rude!Like you being scolded! Dutch is bad also....

Alok said...

I have heard this at some other places too. All those "-achts" and "-nachts" are very tough on the ears :)

Hope you enjoy your vacation. I feel jealous, I have never been to Europe :(

jyothsnay said...

....a pleasurable pain

he finds his voice again
buried deep in the gossamerish
layers of sadness,pauses upon
that to meet an orphan
who can sing like a hidden bird
Oh that unseen companion moves closer, familiar face in all
his meditations,he whispers
I am the dilapidated shelter
your aching heart seeks tonight.
Rejoices a pair of hands drawing
an armour of strength, braces self
for a battle of oppression
with the icy cold breeze of death
that lingers past with a stern countenance at the door!
the night grows heavy on his
fragile heart, long months of
silence leave marched past
as he waits for a pleasant impediment in his life....

Alok said...

the night grows heavy on his
fragile heart, long months of
silence leave marched past
as he waits for a pleasant impediment in his life....

nice lines....

just thinking what if one gets used to silence?

Vidya said...

Germany did have its stream of romantic literature. Eichendorff, Tieck and others of that genre wrote about fantasy,love and religious philosophy (Novalis who also influenced Hesse). I can hardly classify Hesse as 'unpenetrable' - ponderous and introspective yes but certainly reader-friendly. This however was not the case with Mann and others.Goethe was kinda in between romanticist+classicist a forerunner of both.

May be because of the many parallels in Eastern thought I have found Kant to be relatively easier to understand.. translations, first degree and second degree).

The one book I have ever given up on is Das Capital..I feel like a ram butting its horns and trying to enter into some kind of fortress..

Alok said...

I have actually not read any of these writers :(

Thomas Bernhard mentions Novalis many times in his novel The Loser...

Hesse is also very popular, specially in India. There was even a movie adaptation of Siddhartha with Shashi Kapoor in the lead. I never got around to reading him though.

merlot said...

I'm in the middle of reading Roth's account of Paris from 1925 - 1939 and in the introduction, Hoffman pointed out Roth early writings (when he was still a journalist for a newspaper in Frankfurt) were full of joy, happiness and overall, approval of Parisian life. This, however, did not work well with the editor - he demanded that Roth's writings be more melancholy and subdue...the German public would enjoy it more.

I wonder if that is why German literature are more demanding.

Alok said...

this is strange merlot. i didnt know about it.

this is the only Roth book that i have read so far, and it didn't feel like that the melancholy was made up at all. if at all, at a few places, I thought roth goes overboard with his bleakness. I have heard similar things about his other novels and short fiction too.

Roth's own life was quite tragic. Most of the thirties he was hurtling fast towards self-destruction through alcoholism. it is hard to imagine him writing about the joy of life, as a jew he was left homeless after the demise of the empire and had to live in exile and in the fear of nazi persecution.

Vidya said...

I consider Siddartha to be very non-representative of the Germanic Hesse,but it does seem popular among Indian readers.His pre-1920 works are much more interesting.

Alok said...

Have been meaning to read The Glass Bead Game for long. It is on the list!

merlot said...

Oh, I'm not saying that Roth made up the melancholy tone/part. What I was trying to say was that in his early writing days (at least as a newspaper journalist) the tone was not quite melancholy as in his later writing.

Obviously, certain world events probably changed his view of the world.

Alok said...

okay, i got what you are saying now. I am looking forward to reading his other books.