The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth – Reviewed by Guy Portman
The story follows three generations of the Trottas, a family of Slovenian peasants living on the periphery of the empire, who find themselves instantly elevated to the rank of aristocracy, when the grandfather, a young lieutenant at the time, saves the life of the emperor, Franz Joseph I, at the Battle of Solferino.
The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth’s most famous and acclaimed novel, is in essence a meditation on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The author successfully captures the pomp, pageantry and formality of the dwindling years of the Habsburg dynasty at this time of change, as the old order gives way to the new. Discontent is simmering in the multi-ethnic empire, discontent that culminates towards the end of the book with the onset of The Great War.
The youngest Trotta, Carl Joseph, though known wherever he goes as the grandson of the hero of Solferino, is in reality something of a reluctant soldier. A romantic, pensive character, who eventually resigns from his military outpost, only to belatedly take up this mantle when war breaks out, meeting his demise in a heroic, yet pitiful manner; an early casualty of the fighting.
Nostalgia and melancholy, prevalent themes throughout The Radetzky March, are illustrated by the passage of time as well as through Carl Joseph’s romantic and platonic relationships, and his later memory of them. Roth, often considered to be something of a prophet of doom, predicts through the voices of his various characters the forthcoming war and the resulting demise of the empire.
Wistful and enchanting, the style is very much of the classical genre, in keeping with the fact that it marks the end of the old era. The Radetzky March is widely regarded as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth-century and there is no doubt that many further readers will add credence to this, now that the book is becoming more widely read in the English speaking world.