I read this for the European Reading Challenge 2014.
The Radetzky March – Joseph Roth
This novel is set in the early 20th century, during the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Some critics have branded Roth’s purpose and tone as “romantic nostalgia.” But I think he was pretty clear about the decline of the empire. Adults seducing teenaged boys. Aristocrats exploiting the labor and bodies of the lower classes. Fathers spending to maintain the façade of gentleman, ensuring their sons will inherit nothing. Army officers on the frontiers, bereft of war to occupy themselves, gamble, duel, and chase women. Using third-person narration, Roth makes a similar argument to Ford Madox Ford in Parade’s End: moral and ethical deterioration starts at the top echelon of society.
People of all places in life know the empire will be history once the Emperor dies or a big war will shake everything down. Both, in fact, happened. Roth despises nationalism as a failure of different people to get along, though he sees as inevitable imperial domains breaking up in to smaller, squabbling states of Slovenes, Croatians, Hungarians, Czechs Germans, Russians, Ukrainians and Austrians. He also regrets that for some period of time people will feel lost, stripped of traditions and embarrassed by phrases such as “sacred honor” and “glorious sacrifice.” After the huge losses of the Great War, he asserts, people became modern and strong, in other words, callous "If a life was snuffed out from the host of the living," he writes, "another life did not instantly replace it and make people forget the deceased.... 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."
The Radetzky March is considered Roth’s masterpiece. I have read before only his shorter fiction and agree that this novel is worth reading for serious readers into novels about periods before wars. Roth (1894-1939) died of drinking, so his references to why and how heavy drinkers use alcohol feel true. Also he was born in a part of the Ukraine that was on the far borders of the empire, so he knows the region where he sends his characters. Readers who like novels about troubled relations between fathers and sons – and their inability to tell the truth to each other -- will find much of interest too. The sequel to this story, The Emperor’s Tomb, moves from the end of World War I to the Nazi ascension in Austria, which sounds like a novel any fan of Alan Furst – like me – would have to read.