Friday, April 12, 2019

The Radetsky March Part Two by Joseph Roth

Warning: Lots of spoilers here...
Decay, dissolution, and a pervasive sense of imminent death infused nearly every scene in Part Two. These are the things that struck me most powerfully in this week's portion of The Radetsky March.

Carl Joseph's face (sometimes appearing yellow, at other times, gray or sallow), his overall lassitude, his deeper descent into anesthetizing himself by consuming "ninety-proof" alcohol throughout the day,  and the increasing sense that although he is not dead, he is certainly not alive--all underscore this impression of decay.  His trip with a rapturous older woman, Frau Taussig, to Vienna provides a glorious, but brief respite. Upon their return to the borderlands of the Empire, he finds himself cast aside and he returns to feeling purposeless and empty.

Roth's description of the Empire's extravaganza in Vienna that Carl Joseph and Frau von Taussig attend, displays in full relief the glories of the Empire, and is a moving, colorful scene. One can imagine the spectators thinking, "How can this Empire ever die? Why, just look at how vital and how exuberant it is--all sectors of the military in full regalia, the martial music, the Lipizzaner horses, the sumptuous food!"  But, as mentioned previously, Carl Joseph returns to his regiment on the border of the Empire, where gambling has been established in the tavern.  More decay and desperation ensues, especially among Carl Joseph's fellow officers. Carl Joseph doesn't seem to gamble--largely because it seems he is past caring about entertainment. He thinks about getting out of the military, but he is paralyzed by inaction.

The section portraying the Emperor Franz Joseph depicts, in extraordinary detail, his decrepitude. Yes, he has brief snippet-reflections of his former glory, but now he is a man in his eighties who is trying very hard not to let anyone guess that his mind and his body have left him. 
In contrast, Roth could have chosen to show us glimpses of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Emperor's heir. He was indeed vital, an excellent marksman and hunter. However, Roth chose to focus on the decay of the Emperor--very telling.
(I found out the fact about the Archduke  by coincidence  yesterday, and it is totally unrelated to my reading of The Radetsky March. I picked up the novel Trieste by Dasa Drndic, a Croatian author, at the library. The first chapter or two has a bit of background information about the Archduke. Aside from what I read yesterday, I know nothing about him other than that he was assassinated in late June 2014, which sparked World War I. But until yesterday, I had never heard that his wife was also killed.)

The soldiers and officers are past hoping for real military action--there hasn't been any during most of their lifetimes. They do maneuvers, and march around, but generally morale, from a military readiness aspect, is low. They're purposeless, and they're in a state of decay. When the workers at the bristle factory go on strike and openly protest their grievances, Carl Joseph is ordered to lead a group of men to stand by, because of the fear of armed revolt by the workers.  He doesn't want this task but has no choice. A confrontation ensues when some of the workers start to attack the soldiers. Carl Joseph gets whacked on the head and shoulder, and other soldiers decide to fire, and the whole thing gets blamed on Carl Joseph. He develops a "brain fever" after his injury and is hospitalized for weeks.

Please do respond if you notice I've misstated fact, or if you have a different viewpoint, or if you want to comment in any way.


  1. Reading everyone’s commentary on this book, it sounds so good. The Australian Hungarian empire seems like it is very fertile ground for fiction. I may give this a read sometime in the future.

    1. Brian,
      I think you're right about this empire being ripe for fiction, but I'm not aware of people writing about the end of it, but aha!! Fiction about it may never have been translated into English, there's the rub.

  2. I loved your description of poor Carl-Joseph in this post, Judith: "the increasing sense that although he is not dead, he is certainly not alive..." That captures him perfectly!

    By the way, are you enjoying Trieste? I hadn't heard of the novel before, but I was just travelling in that part of the world and would like to read a book set there, especially one that gives me a better insight into its history.

    1. Hi Andrew,
      I started reading Trieste, and in leafing through the book, I discovered that this unusual novel has sections that read like nonfiction (and really are), and then sections that are interwoven with story. I am interested in the perspective of a Croatian writer, certainly. Yet the overall subject of the book involves the Hitler Regime and the plight of Northern Italian Jews, told partly through the viewpoint of one woman, and partly through historical documents.
      At this point, I am hesitating on going forward with the book, mostly for personal reasons. From 1968 (when I was 15) through the early 2000s I read many, many works of fiction and dozens of volumes of nonfiction dealing with various aspects of the Holocaust.
      What I'm finding now, of course, is that younger and younger people are writing the books, and for me, as far as the works of fiction are concerned, they no longer have the immediacy or the searing accuracy of works written by people who lived during those times, or who were victims themselves, or scholars who interviewed survivors and who have studied "the archives" of primary source documents.
      I am so glad, however, that younger people still find that era worth writing about. I applaud them for doing so.
      As you say, Andrew, I would like to read more about the history of the regions around Trieste--and the history of the Habsburg Empire, before and after WWI.
      I'm so interested that you're traveling around Europe. What an inspiring adventure!!