The Radetzky March

The Trottas were a young dynasty. Their progenitor had been knighted after the Battle of Solferino. He was a Slovene. Sipolje—the German name for his native village—became his title of nobility. Fate elected him for a special deed. But he then made sure that later times lost all memory of him.

The Radetzky March is very much a traditional novel. I often express some distaste for the traditional novel but in this case the quality of the prose (even in translation) and the skill in which the narrative structure is executed sent this novel right to the top of my best reads of the year.

The structure is generational:  the Trotta grandfather who saved the life of the Emperor Franz Joseph, his son who becomes a government official and is kept out of the military, and the official’s son who is raised to bring glory and honor to the family in the military. This idea of honor is a major theme in the novel:  when the grandfather recognizes that his exploits at the Battle of Solferino were being exaggerated in the school books, he goes to the Kaiser to insist on the truth being taught: the Kaiser suggests that the stories make them both look good: the Hero of Solferino replies: “Your Majesty, it’s a lie!”

The irony is that the son who is sent into the service of the Emperor is not a very good soldier and through a series of incidents is transferred and apparently forgotten on the edges of the Empire. Introduced to drinking, gambling, and women, the various crises in the young Lieutenant’s life seem unavoidable. His father still insists on the traditions of a rapidly disappearing world and when World War I breaks out, the son returns to the Austrian army ready to defend a now ancient Franz Joseph, the crumbling Empire, and a vanishing social order.

The theme of the passing of the old civilization in the face of a modern world is not uncommon:  Lampedusa’s  Il Gattopardo comes to mind. Roth, however, weaves a large number of themes throughout his novel: most are involving the ideas of honor and family. As you read the novel, there are little things related, observed, or remembered that make the events in the lives of the Trottas more poignant and more tragic. Read slowly and pay attention: this is not one you should practice your Evelyn Wood on: and please, don’t dishonor the book by listening to it on tape (it’s probably read by Milton Armitage anyway).

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