Tag Archives: Radetzky March

Joseph Roth: The Collapse of empire

I was reading Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March (1932). A great novel but also another view into this thing called Habsburg Empire. Or the death of it.

Roth writes a world of certainties. Even when fate picked a man up in Tolstoyan grasp to place him in just the right place to save the life of Franz Joseph I at the battle of Solferino (in a war I know nothing of I must confess), it simply lifted him out of the peasant rut and set him on a parallel track under the title and new routines of a Baron. A clean break. A new track. Yet uncomplainingly he continued on to be what his position demanded of him. His relationship with his old peasant father was one of distances greater than miles, silences punctuated by a ritual handful of sentences written in letters.

His son the District Captain is born to and lives on this new track, a life of settled privilege. Just as many silences, preferred by his own son. The Baron is self-contained, unchanging, moving through days of comfortable rituals. I love these descriptions so detailed you can see and smell the glowing gold of their soup.

So lunch was starting. Whenever the music paused, a soft clattering of dishes could be heard from the dining room. It lay three large rooms away from the balcony, at the exact midpoint of the second floor. During the meal, the music resounded, far but clear. Unfortunately, the band did not play every day. It was good and useful; it entwined the solemn ceremony of the luncheon, mild and conciliatory, allowing none of the terse, harsh, embarrassing conversations that the father so often loved to start. One could remain silent, listening and enjoying. The plates had narrow, fading, blue-and-gold stripes. Carl Joseph loved them. He often recalled them throughout the year. They and “The Radetzky March” and the wall portrait of his deceased mother (whom the boy no longer remembered) and the heavy silver ladle and the fish tureen and the scalloped fruit knives and the tiny demitasses and the wee frail spoons as thin as thin silver coins: all these things together meant summer, freedom, home.

A warm golden shimmer hovered in the plates; it was the soup, noodle soup: transparent, with thin, tender, entwined, golden-yellow noodles. Herr von Trotta und Sipolje ate very swiftly, sometimes fiercely. He virtually destroyed one course after another with a noiseless, aristocratic, and rapid malice; he was wiping them out. Fraulein Hirschwitz took small portions at the table, but after a meal she re-ate the entire sequence of food in her room. Carl Joseph fearfully and hastily swallowed hot spoonfuls and huge mouthfuls. In this way, they all finished in tandem. No word was spoken when Herr von Trotta und Sipolje held his tongue. After the soup the Tafelspitz was served, boiled fillet of beef with all the trimmings, the old man’s Sunday entrée for countless years. The delighted contemplation he devoted to this dish took more time than half the meal. The district captain’s eyes caressed first the delicate bacon that silhouetted the colossal chunk of meat, then each small individual plate on which the vegetables were bedded: the glowing violet beets, the lush-green earnest spinach, the bright cheery lettuce, the acrid white of the horseradish, the perfect oval of new potatoes swimming in melting butter and recalling delicate baubles. The baron had a bizarre relationship with food. He ate the most important morsels with his eyes, so to speak; his sense of beauty consumed above all the essence of the food—its soul, as it were; the vapid remainders that then reached mouth and palate were boring and had to be wolfed down without delay. The beauteous appearance of the victuals gave the old man as much pleasure as their simplicity. For he set store by good solid fare, a tribute he paid to both his taste and his conviction; the latter, you see, he called Spartan. With felicitous skill, he thus combined the sating of his desire with the demands of duty. He was a Spartan. But he was also an Austrian.

One of the best descriptions of lunch I have ever read.

I also love this description of language merged with face merged with empire. Only one generation from peasant mind you, even that peasant did save Franz Joseph.

He spoke the nasal Austrian German of higher officials and lesser nobles. It vaguely recalled distant guitars twanging in the night and also the last dainty vibrations of fading bells; it was a soft but also precise language, tender and spiteful at once. It suited the speaker’s thin, bony face, his curved, narrow nose, in which the sonorous, somewhat rueful consonants seemed to be lying. His nose and mouth, when the district captain spoke, were more like wind instruments than facial features. … from the lips, nothing moved in his face. The dark whiskers that Herr von Trotta wore as part of his uniform, as insignia demonstrating his fealty to Franz Joseph I, as proof of his dynastic conviction—these whiskers likewise remained immobile when Herr von Trotta and Sipolje spoke. He sat upright at the table, as if clutching reins in his hard hands. When sitting he appeared to be standing, and when rising he always surprised others with his full ramrod height. He always wore dark blue, summer and winter, Sundays and weekdays: a dark-blue jacket with gray striped trousers that lay snug on his long legs and were tautened by straps over the smooth boots. Between the second and third course, he would usually get up in order to “stretch my legs.” But it seemed more as if he wanted to show the rest of the household how to rise, stand, and walk without relinquishing immobility.

Immobility and silence. It seems to be all they have. That and barracks and symbols. They make Slavic highways move around them.

THE BARRACKS LAY in the northern part of town. It closed off the broad well-kept highway, which started a new life behind the red brick construction, where it led far into the blue countryside. The barracks looked as if it had been thrust into the Slavic province by the Imperial and Royal Army as an emblem of the Hapsburg might. The ancient highway itself, which had become so broad and roomy after centuries of migrating Slavic generations, was blocked by the barracks. The highway had to yield. It looped around the barracks. If on a clear day you stood at the extreme northern edge of town at the end of the highway, where the houses grew smaller and smaller, finally becoming peasant huts, you could spy, in the distance, the broad, arched, black-and-yellow entrance to the barracks, a gate brandished like a mighty Hapsburg shield against the town: a threat, a protection, and both at once. The regiment was stationed in Moravia. But its troops were not Czechs, as might be expected; they were Ukrainians and Rumanians.

So this is part, somehow, of what is holding this Habsburg empire together. These immobilities framed within wild frontiers. A strange, stilted, graceful and hierarchical isolation. Human beings moving like wind-up dolls through an endless procession of similar days. I have trouble imagining such a world, I wonder how visible it was even from where Joseph Roth was writing. Because of course, he was writing from a time when everything had changed. So much you could look back with some longing on this embalmed order of loved and loyal servants, distant poverty and sunday afternoons that in some ways is covered in the same shimmer of gold as Herr von Trotta and Sipolje’s soup.

BACK THEN, BEFORE the Great War, when the incidents reported on these pages took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a person lived or died. If a life was snuffed out from the host of the living, another life did not instantly replace it and make people forget the deceased. Instead, a gap remained where he had been, and both the near and distant witnesses of his demise fell silent whenever they saw this gap. If a fire devoured a house in a row of houses in a street, the charred site remained empty for a long time. For the bricklayers worked slowly and leisurely, and when the closest neighbors as well as casual passersby looked at the empty lot, they remembered the shape and the walls of the vanished house. That was how things were back then. Anything that grew took its time growing, and anything that perished took a long time to be forgotten. But everything that had once existed left its traces, and people lived on memories just as they now live on the ability to forget quickly and emphatically.

This perhaps, more than anything, explains nostalgia. What better way to revolt against mass murder and the speed of your own time.

Yet the empire could not hold. Carl Joseph, the grandson of the hero of Solferino cannot sit a horse much less live up to his name. He has unhappy affairs. He dreams of the peasants of Sipolje. He banishes himself to alcoholism along the borders, amongst those who know they are all already finished. The empire is crumbling, he is in himself proof. He finds his way to disgrace, and his father the District Captain moves all the mountains of bureaucracy to reach Franz Joseph and save their name. Yet the victory feels dreamlike, the ruin of the man, like the empire, remains stark in the face of it.

The district captain shifted closer to the table and asked, “And why—if you’ll forgive me—would it be just as superfluous serving the Fatherland as making gold?”

“Because the Fatherland no longer exists.”

“I don’t understand!” said Herr von Trotta.

“I assumed you wouldn’t understand,” said Chojnicki. “We are all no longer alive!”

It was very still. The final glint of twilight had long since vanished. Through the narrow gaps of the green blinds they could have seen a few stars in the sky. The broad and blaring chant of the frogs had been replaced by the quiet metallic chant of the nightly field crickets. From time to time they heard the harsh cry of the cuckoo. The district captain, put in an unfamiliar, almost enchanted state by the alcohol, the bizarre surroundings, and the count’s unusual words, stole a glance at his son, merely to see a close and familiar person. But Carl Joseph too seemed neither close nor familiar to him. Perhaps Chojnicki was correct and they all really no longer existed: not the Fatherland nor the district captain nor his son! Straining greatly, Herr von Trotta managed to ask, “I don’t understand. How can you say the monarchy no longer exists?”

“Naturally!” replied Chojnicki. “In literal terms, it still exists. We still have an army”—the count pointed at the lieutenant—”and officials”—the count pointed at the district captain—”but the monarchy is disintegrating while still alive; it is doomed! An old man, with one foot in the grave, endangered whenever his nose runs, keeps the old throne through the sheer miracle that he can still sit on it. How much longer, how much longer? This era no longer wants us! This era wants to create independent nation-states! People no longer believe in God. The new religion is nationalism. Nations no longer go to church. They go to national associations. Monarchy, our monarchy, is founded on piety, on the faith that God chose the Hapsburgs to rule over so and so many Christian nations. Our Kaiser is a secular brother of the Pope, he is His Imperial and Royal Apostolic Majesty; no other is as apostolic, no other majesty in Europe is as dependent on the grace of God and on the faith of the nations in the grace of God. The German Kaiser still rules even when God abandons him; perhaps by the grace of the nation. The Emperor of Austria-Hungary must not be abandoned by God. But God has abandoned him!”

This book is beguilingly beautiful. I can do no justice to it.

The sky was very close; a good familiar shell made of a familiar blue glass, it lay within reach, over the earth. Earthly hands had pinned the stars into the nearby sky like tiny flags into a map. At times the entire blue night whirled around the district captain, rocking softly and then standing still. The frogs croaked in the unending swamps. The air smelled of rain and grass. The horses were ghostly white in front of the black carriage, and over them loomed the coachman in a black overcoat. The horses whinnied, and as soft as cat paws their hoofs scratched the damp, sandy ground.

Yes indeed, the district captain had been cheerful and exuberant when he had ridden into an adventuresome region and to his dear son. Now he was returning home, alone, from a lonesome son and from this borderland, where the collapse of the world could already be seen as clearly as one sees a thunderstorm on the edge of a city, whose streets lie still unaware and blissful under a blue sky. The doorman’s cheery bell was already ringing. The locomotive was already whistling. The wet steam of the train was already banging against the restaurant windows in fine gray beads. The meal was already over, and they all stood up. The whole battalion escorted Herr von Trotta to the platform. Herr von Trotta wanted to say something special, but nothing suitable occurred to him. He glanced tenderly at his son. But then he instantly feared that someone would notice that glance, and he lowered his eyes. He shook Major Zoglauer’s hand. He thanked Chojnicki. He tipped his dignified gray silk hat, which he always wore when traveling. He held the hat in his left hand and threw his right arm around Carl Joseph’s back. He kissed his son on both cheeks. And always he wanted to say, Don’t cause me any grief, I love you, my son! All he said was, “Stay well!”

These are the deeper silences, the things that once could not be said.

This conversation sums it up perhaps, from the District Captain’s only friend, who can see further. Who knows old ways are done and the future being built though he doesn’t understand it.

“Things were different back then,” Skowronnek replied. “Now not even the Kaiser bears responsibility for his monarchy. Why, it even looks as if God Himself no longer wishes to bear responsibility for the world. It was easier in those days! Everything was so secure. Every stone lay in its place. The streets of life were well-paved. Secure roofs rested on the walls of the houses. But today, Herr District Captain, the stones on the street lie askew and confused and in dangerous heaps, and the roofs have holes, and the rain falls into the houses, and everyone has to know on his own which street he is taking and what kind of house he is moving into. When your late father said you would become a public official rather than a farmer, he was right. You have become a model official. But when you told your son he had to be a soldier, you were wrong. He is not a model soldier.”

“Yes, yes!” confirmed Herr von Trotta.

“And that’s why we should let everyone do as he wishes, each on his own path. When my children refuse to obey me, all I do is try not to lose my dignity. That is all one can do. I sometimes look at them when they’re asleep. Their faces then look very alien to me, almost unrecognizable, and I see that they are strangers, from a time that is yet to come and that I will not live to see.

Everything was changing, communication and old order broken down, generations split asunder to become strangers. This theme of love alongside utter incomprehension between old and new runs throughout.

Jelacich, a Slovene, hit the ceiling. He hated the Hungarians as much as he despised the Serbs. He loved the monarchy. He was a patriot. And there he stood, love of Fatherland in his helplessly outspread hands, like a flag you have to plant somewhere but can’t find a roof for…But he loved his sons…He shut his eyes when he saw them reading suspicious newspapers, and he closed his ears when he heard them making suspicious remarks. He was intelligent and he knew that he stood powerless between his forebears and his offspring, who were destined to become the ancestors of a brand-new race. They had his features, his hair color, and his eyes, but their hearts beat to a new rhythm, their heads gave birth to strange thoughts, their throats sang new and strange songs that he had never heard. And though he was only forty, the rittmaster felt like an old man, and his sons seemed liked incomprehensible great-grandchildren.

The war comes, and the old is washed away, though this scene of its coming seems quintessentially traditional:

Peasants in short odorous sheepskins, Jews in fluttering black-and-green gaberdines, Swabian farmers from the German colonies wearing green loden coats, Polish burghers, merchants, craftsmen, and government officials surrounded the customs officer’s booth. On each of the four bare walls a huge poster was pasted, each in a different tongue and starting with the Kaiser’s salutation: TO MY PEOPLES! Those who were literate read the text aloud. Their voices mingled with the booming chant of the bells. Some onlookers went from wall to wall, reading the text in each language. Whenever one bell died out, another instantly started booming. Throngs poured from the little town, surging into the broad street that led to the railroad station. Trotta walked toward them into town.

It is the end. Mass slaughter. The end of empires and the birth of new nations. nothing will be the same. The only possible, improbable way to life becomes an existential refusal of what one should be for what one is. This muted demand for personal integrity that Carl Joseph seems to find at the end. That alongside the bubbling up of ethnic identities, nationalisms, dreams of freedom. This is a novel of why things had to change, yet still such a novel of loss in a tangle of emotions almost entirely unspoken.

A timely thing to read, as we face another kind of collapse. Yet I feel perhaps this one will be reversed. Our always-accelerating lives slowed down if we survive at all, but likely lacking in grace. And Strauss.

A good thing to read in Vienna, where Roth lived some time. For a while in this building below.