Every year the Viennese Philharmonic put on New Year’s Day concert. It’s televised around the world. They play the usual waltzes and popular classics and of course, Johann Strauss’s Radetsky March. Being a musician I tend to work late the night before so I watch this as a kind of annual ritual and I’m not sure why. I look at the audience who all look prosperous and over sixty – typical viennese citizens in fact and they nod their heads and they look so happy! It’s one of those tunes you learn as a kid and leave it at that but for this audience it obviously has a special significance and I couldn’t quite gather what it was.
Earlier this year I read The Radetsky March and The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth. The Radetsky March is about the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire seen through the eyes of one family. When I first first became aware of the book I expected it to be about an aristocratic family experiencing the collapse of an empire and the end of an era – a little like Gone With The Wind or Molly Keane’s Two Days of Aragon. But it was nothing like this and I have to say I felt a bit disappointed.
The story is about three generations of men called Trotta, the first is a reluctant hero of the Battle of Solferino (I had to look that up in Wikipedia), the second was a modest government official and the third a soldier who tries to relive his grandfather’s glory.
The trouble with much historic fiction is that we know what’s going to happen. In The Radetsky March we know World War One is looming but the characters don’t. They have a feeling things are not going well but they haven’t a clue how things will turn out. Roth maintains suspense by never mentioning dates or years.The reader only realises it’s 1914 when, during a summer party, the revelers get nervous as they see storm clouds gather in the sky and the news arrives of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. This event is one of those pub quiz facts we all know but Roth’s story leading up to this makes the reader acutely aware of how catastrophic the event is for the regime. Eventually, grandson Trotta is killed in a battle at the beginning of the war – once again, we don’t know the name of the battle because soldiers rarely know the name of the battle they’re fighting in.
The introduction to The Radetsky March mentioned The Emporer’s Tomb as a worthy sequel. But’s it is not a sequel. It switches to a first person and the narrator is a cousin of the Trottas and no characters inhabit both books. The story starts before 1914 but continues a few years after the war so we see the aftermath and its effect on genteel viennese life.
Roth’s style is gentle and readable and there are a few good philosophical and religious insights. These books paint a picture of the multi-cultural and tolerant Austro-Hungarian Empire which contrasted with the small-minded nation states that followed. I’ve found it hard to understand why continentals distrust the nation state so much. Roth explains why.
I read these books a few months ago. But I’ve been lazy with my blog posts and put off by the feeling no-one is reading them (oh reader you’ve got this far – thank you!). Then again it’s not a bad idea leave a while before writing so I can gauge a book’s memorability. The Radetsky March and The Emperor’s Tomb are already starting to fade which is not a good sign.