Great books keep finding new things to say. That might even be the definition of greatness. I had this thought while reading The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth, written in the early 1930s but set in the period leading up to the First World War. It is one of two masterpieces to come out of Austria in this era, the other being Robert Musil’s A Man Without Qualities. Whereas Musil’s unfinished epic is a key Modernist text, Roth wrote in a more traditional form and style but to no lesser effect. Taken together they prove there is more than one way to skin the literary cat.
The Radetzky March observes the decline of two families, one great, the other with a smaller but no less burdensome dignity. Its main characters are the Trottas (no relation to Del and Rodney in Peckham). Their fortune is made when the Slovenian Joseph Trotta, an infantry lieutenant, saves the life of the Emperor Franz Josef at the Battle of Solferino. His son, both proud of and unequal to the father’s heroism, becomes a provincial official: lonely, self-important, disappointed. His son enlists in the army, with largely unhappy results. Thus the second and third generations struggle to uphold the glory of the first. Parallel with this story, and presiding over it, is the life of the Emperor himself. Prodigiously long-lived, virtually senile, he dithers as the empire slides towards disaster and disintegration.
The two dynasties are linked by this trajectory and by a simple but elegant device. When the Trottas are in need of help they appeal to the old man in the Schönbrunn Palace who, reminded of his debt to their founder, obligingly intercedes. It is this form of absolutism, unequal to the task of governing a vast, fractious dominion, that dies with Franz Josef’s heir at Sarajevo. History and the novel’s cohesion are neatly, fatefully served. Translated into English, Roth’s book makes this background accessible to British readers, poorly-informed (I include myself) about Austro-Hungary. It was landlocked, for a start, and therefore a different kind of empire to Britain’s, contiguous peoples in a forced embrace, with all the potential for mixing and conflict that implies. But it shared the dream common to all such polities, of transcending differences in some great project of union and shared identity. And it is this spirit which provoked the thoughts mentioned at the beginning of this review.
The idealism of empire generally masks the self-interest of the imperial power and groupings derived from conquest are unlikely to last, however benign they become. Still, as we learn from the book, this one had its guiding principles, honour high among them; a degree of even-handedness; a sleepy, ceremonial status quo. Peace was kept between peoples with ancient enmities. Trade was facilitated. Remind you of anything? Towards the end of the novel the entire edifice – overblown, grandiloquent, bureaucratic – is teetering. National sentiment makes ready to break its chains. Violence brews. The parallels should be clear by now. Attempts to unite part or all of Europe form a long procession from Charlemagne to Delors, with failure implicit in the exercise. And at this moment in our own turbulent times it is tempting to draw parallels between Roth’s Vienna and present-day Brussels as cases of centres that cannot hold. The Radetzky march even has its counterpart in Beethoven’s Ode to Joy: sooner or later, anthems tend to ring hollow. Brexiteers might well rub their hands, the centralising impulse in retreat once again, history favouring the border over the open road. But which lessons should we learn from that history? What breaks out at the end of the novel is World War with deaths counted in millions, the scion of the Trottas among the first. A second instalment followed, not to mention genocide in the Balkans. Roth and his wife were casualties of this descent into barbarism, whose momentum the EU was intended to reverse. Some law may be at work here, sentiment tilting one way then the other, the logic of events irresistible. And it is true, transnational groupings, even when voluntary, are cumbersome, temporising affairs. But read this wonderful book and ask yourself: is the alternative really better?