Tuesday, 18 February 2003

The Radetzky March

Listening to:

Shostakovich, symphony no. 10. (This is the symphony where the DSCH theme, D-Eflat-C-B, plays an important part of the final movement.)

Just read:

Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March.

This novel is set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with most of the events it describes happening shortly before the outbreak of World War I. It is essentially the story of the descendants (son and gradnson) of a war hero who saved the Emperor’s life at the battle of Solferino (where an Austrian army was defeated by combined French and Italian forces). Both main characters are quite flat. In the novel’s accompanying introduction, the translator of my edition describes the resulting effect as defining the characters by their clothes and uniforms. This puts it well, and is appropriate. The novel is all about the decline of institutions once thought pre-eminent, and the effects this has on the two characters. (The father is uncomprehending, almost unto the end, while the son is generally oblivious while clearly living a meaningless life.)

So, it is all just a big metaphor for the decline and fall of an empire, with main characters that aren’t particularly sympathetic. Why read it? The answer lies in the vivid picture it paints. This vividness extends both to the “scenery”, and also the characters’ interactions. There is a snap and a sparkle to both the dialogue and the descriptions of what the characters are thinking. Brief cameos by the Emperor himself are particularly entertaining. This is somehow a book that is simultaneously dry, cynical, sentimental and often quite beautiful.

To read next:

Mary S. Lovell, The Mitford girls: the biography of an extraordinary family.

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