The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth
translated by Michael Hofmann
He’s only slightly more suited to his second posting in the (lower status) infantry in a swampy garrison town on the eastern border of the Habsburg Empire. He manages the boredom of leading the troops in regular drills with ninety percent proof alcohol and, later, gambling. Embarking on an affair with an older Viennese woman leads him heavily into debt.
Carl Joseph has attained the rank of lieutenant not on account of his own merits, but from the legacy of his grandfather, the “hero of Solferino”, whose act of gallantry saved the Emperor’s life. In contrast to his illustrious ancestor, known to him only through stories and the painting that hangs in his father’s house, Carl Joseph perceives himself as responsible for too many meaningless deaths.
It took me a good hundred pages to appreciate this novel, originally published in German in 1932. A contemporary writer might have placed the backstory of Carl Joseph’s father and grandfather as flashback rather than relating events chronologically, to introduce the reader more quickly to the plot. Perhaps the plot was present from the outset, but I was slow to empathise with the miserable lives of the elite (p190):
They all had had a miserable institutional boyhoods, tough adolescent years in the military academy, grim years on duty at the frontier.
Both growing up motherless and with emotionally distant fathers, Carl Joseph and his father have perhaps had more miserable childhoods than even the norms of the period. Personality is sacrificed for position, desire for duty; as a reader who appreciates character-driven novels, this left me initially adrift. But I’m also interested in characters, like Carl Joseph, who don’t feel free to live their own lives, and claim their own identities; there are a few stories in my forthcoming anthology, Becoming Someone, about the confusion of self with role.
In The Radetzky March, this is beautifully illustrated in the putting on and taking off of the uniforms which, we discover when war finally comes, prove as unsuitable for the battlefield as they were for strutting around town (p351):
The mud smacked together over the boots of the soldiers, and spattered the spotless uniforms of the officers marching to their regulation deaths. Their long sabres got in their way; the magnificent, long-haired pompoms dangling from their black and yellow sashes were now tangled, wet and mired by thousands of little spots of mud.
Author and translator imbue the text with a deft balance of deadpan humour and compassion for characters embroiled in the death throes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Over a century on from these events, it might be comforting to look back on the ridiculous regime that prized honour above life, and accidents of birth above ability. Unfortunately, in the age of global warming, Trump and Brexit, we know first-hand how an entire civilisation can go crazy and sow the seeds of our own destruction in the things we treasure most of all.
I’m glad I persisted with this jewel of a novel. Thanks to Granta books for my review copy.
Like a Sword Wound by Ahmet Altan
translated by Yelda Türedi & Brendan Freely
Through a wide cast of characters, Ahmet Altan explores the politics of a dying Empire and the rise of the Turkish identity, while hinting at the parallels more than a century on. With themes of religion, nationalism, freedom of speech and the veiling of women, this historical novel is uncannily topical, especially as it seems that, even within a supposed democratic system, Turkey is returning to tyranny once more. Indeed, the author is one of several writers and journalists currently incarcerated on charges of sedition.
For this reason alone, I wish I’d enjoyed the novel more. But, despite touches of humour and some elegant turns of phrase, the writing felt flat, and I found myself switching off every time the author conveyed his characters from A to B (ie. the bits of continuity that emerging writers are taught to edit out). Unfortunately I wasn’t keen on the framing device either, in which Osman, a contemporary character, uncovers his family history through conversations with his deceased ancestors, partly because his personality seemed even more shadowy than theirs. I also found it a bit depressing that the female characters have agency only through their looks and lust.
First published in 1997, this English translation comes from Europa editions, who provided my review copy.
On the theme of rewriting history, the new challenge on the Flash Fiction Rodeo is memoir. Not my favourite genre, as I might have mentioned before, but I’m drawn to this particular prompt. Not that I’ve had any inspiration for a true story incorporating “she did it”, but I’ve almost a week to consider it. How about you?