In a scene about three-quarters of the way through The Radetzky March , Joseph Roth shows us the old Emperor Franz Joseph reviewing troops in an eastern portion of the empire. The Emperor loves his troops, loves the noise, the pageantry, the horses, the polished brass — he regrets that on this day the men are all wearing “field gray uniforms,” an innovation that does not please him. Indeed, Roth has spent much of the novel until now lovingly describing the multi-colored gaiety created by the armed forces of the Austro-Hungarian empire. (Do listen to this: you actually know Strauss’s famous “Radetzky March” and having it in your head will make the novel all the more poignant.) He uses the showy external glory as a marker for social rank, as early as page 5. Young Joseph Trotta, having saved the life of the Emperor at the Battle of Solferino, has been elevated to the rank of Captain and the civil rank of Baron. As a new aristocrat he visits his father, a groundskeeper. The young man “stood… wearing a gleaming officer’s scarf, a lacquered helmet emanating virtually its own black sunshine, smooth fiery waxed riding boots with glittering spurs, two rows of lustrous, almost blazing buttons on his coat, and the blessing of the ethereal power of the Order of Maria Theresa.”
Over and over in The Radetzky March, clothes make the man. But Roth makes the baubles work hard, too; they not only rank and place each character but they actually hold them together, carapace-like. And when, toward the end of the novel, the third-generation Baron von Trotta leaves the army, the shedding of the uniform becomes a ceremony of its own.
But I’ve gotten beyond myself. The first Trotta is the Hero of Solferino, a career military man. His son becomes an imperial administrator, the district captain of a town in Silesia. The third Trotta, Carl Joseph, a young man of very moderate gifts, follows his grandfather’s example and joins the cavalry. The relationships between the generations of men (wives & mothers conveniently dead: women are nothing but trouble in this book) are governed by formality and shyness. Roth moves smoothly from the point of view of one character to another, even-handedly exposing the aching tenderness, the yearning, the nascent affection. Even the Emperor functions paternally, with a perpetual beneficence toward the Trotta family.
Only, of course, it’s the early twentieth century. Roth seeds the tale with clues: telephones, labor unrest, ethnic and national impulses. Poor Carl Joseph, the main protagonist, loses first his mistress then his only friend to early deaths. He’s not going to outrun that shadow. (And Roth makes it, literally, a shadow: watch for the way he uses color throughout the book.) The set-piece in which the news of Sarajevo reaches Trotta is magnificently cinematic, with a thunderstorm, darkening skies, blasts of lightning prefiguring you-know-what.
“The Radetzky March is the great poem of elegy to Habsburg Austria,” said J. M. Coetzee in a wonderful New York Review of Books article back in 2002. I’m not going to argue.