I tried and tried to find the Michel Hoffman translation of this illustrious work, but found only the version translated by Joachim Neugroschel. Before reading, I had read enough about the superior quality of the former, and the wanting standards of latter. May be I do not have the ability to judge translations, but I was quite moved by the version I read. It was masterful story-telling, which was neither dense nor complicated, but a simple narration about an empire which suddenly found itself hung between changing times.
The novel is set in the Austro-Hungarian empire, where Roth had served in the army, and which he was quite nostalgic about for all his life. However, in stead of directly outlining the decline of this empire, in a creative stroke, Roth exchanged the empire with the Von Trotta family and described the empire’s fate only in so much as it affected the fate of this family. The novel moves through three generations of the family, and each von Trotta is in many ways a constrained man. The largest part of the story revolves around the youngest generation, Carl Joseph Von Trotta, who is a very weak man, forever caught between the lure of duty (as chracterized by the playing of the Radetzky March) and his lack of conviction towards any ideas. He often considers leaving the army, but does not have the motivation to look for a civilian job, and hangs around in anticipation.
In fact, the entire novel is about anticipation. The empire is on a verge of change, and therefore in the chaotic stage where the old order is not respected enough and a new order is not formed yet. This abatement is very beautifully played out by Roth, may be because he felt this abeyance throughout his life after his exile from Austria.
There is so much in the book that makes it a superior work. There is the experience of an empire felt through personal pain, there is a presence of many powerful characters (Dr. Demant the best of them, whose death makes the meaninglessness of times even more pronounced), there is the haunting and helpess presence of the Kaiser in every place, there is a conflict of generations and those of thoughts, there is love, and honour and most underlined – there is death. Mostly meaningless and unheroic, which is not a mean achievement in an epic novel. For isn’t every death in a novel about an empire supposed to be a death of honor and valor? And the fact there is no explanation for the decayence of the empire, except the expression of the widespread bias in minor incidents- against Jews, Slavs, Hungarians and everyone else.
Reading this novel, at many points I had a sense of deja-vu, for at those places it reminded me very closely of Zweig’s Beware of Pity. Both Zweig’s hero and Carl find themselves in the Austrian army, amidst similar kinsman who often dwell in rumours and squander hours in a pub. Both heroes find themselves implicated in matters of honor, which forces them to chose transfers. And both go to war without heroism. I wonder if the similar fate of the two is responsible for such a strong parallel, or if one’s text influenced the other in some way. But that is beside the point, for the emotions each expresses is so difficult that they can never be confused for the other.
I loved the book. It is after all individuals who experience wars, crumbling empires and changing times. The empire simply crumbles without experiencing any emotion. I wonder why such a simple idea occurred to only this relatively obscure writer?