23 April 2013
This is wonderful. These chapters form roughly the first half of Part 1 and are all, somehow, introductory. I’m finding it extraordinarily composed, as Roth swiftly moves through four generations of what he slyly refers to as a dynasty. Most of this is achieved by the time we reach Chapter 2, as the headlong rush slows down and we are presented with an important summer in the life of the young Carl Joseph Trotta. It grinds to a standstill in Chapter 4, which mainly consists of a single excruciating visit on a wet afternoon. Carl Joseph, now a newly commissioned cavalry officer, is paying a duty call on the man, recently widowed, whose wife taught him all about sex that summer when he was still a schoolboy. As he arrives too early and is feeling uncomfortable about what to say – he muses on how military school taught him nothing about ‘this sort of situation’ – he has no idea of how embarrassing it will get.
This is a satire of an Austria rigidly constrained by rank, class and social etiquette. The founder of the ‘young dynasty’, Carl Joseph’s grandfather, is a capable-sounding lieutenant at the beginning of Chapter 1. His instinctive defensive action saves the life of the Kaiser and brings him a title he doesn’t know what to do with. It alienates him first from his father, who is of Slovenian peasant stock, and then his son, whom he educates to work in the civil service. He would have put him through military school, but for the experience he has when he tries to correct the re-writing of his own action in the crucial Battle of Solferino. His complaint about the standard school textbook containing the romanticised and falsified version of events goes up through the strata of Austrian society, right to the Kaiser, and then it comes back to him: the story is appropriate for children, and will stay.
What to do? He becomes embittered, withdrawing into gardening and small-game hunting, and will have nothing to do with any of them. He only relates to his own son on the most formal level – remember that for later – and only once seems to open up: his son’s friend surprises him with a portrait he has painted secretly, after memorising his features one by one over many weeks. By this time his wife is long dead. Like his own mother, and like his son’s wife later, she does not live long: so far, this is the story of a string of single sons and their relationships with fathers who have no idea how to talk to them. His wife is the only female family member alive for any part of the narrative: his mother is long dead at the start, and his son’s wife, whom we never meet, dies before Chapter 2 begins. The paterfamilias – far too grand a word for such a thinly-populated clan – grows old before his time and dies before his son reaches full adulthood.
None of this bodes well for the emotional development of the Trotta men. In Chapter 2 we encounter the man we’d met a few brief times in Chapter 1 as Franz, the son. Now he is Herr District Captain Franz, Baron von Trotta und Sipolje – referred to only once by this overblown title, and afterwards only ever as the district captain or simply the father. In this world it isn’t about names, it’s about position and rank. And his life is as rigidly hidebound as anything that’s come before: he loves hierarchies, both within the little town he’s in charge of and in his little household. He runs a tight ship, and we see it all during Carl Joseph’s summer vacation from school. The butler and housekeeper know their place, know the timings of every routine and meal-time down to the last minute. And so does the boy, who bolts his food in order to keep up with his father’s peremptory eating habits.
Even before we meet this ridiculous man, Roth has prepared the ground. Chapter 2 opens not with him, but with the bandmaster of Infantry Regiment No. 10. If you’re looking for rigid and unimaginative, he’s your man. Every week, as though rehearsing it for the first time, he makes his musicians succumb to his control while playing the tune with which they always begin. It’s the Radetzky March. Ah. And by having this little man conduct it, it comes to represent everything that is preposterously tradition-bound in early 20th Century Austria. After the weekly Sunday concert, his visit to the district captain’s house is the embarrassing ritual that first reintroduces us to the man who never learned how to relate to anyone.
I don’t think Roth is presenting the district captain to us as merely ridiculous. He is the inevitable product of his upbringing, so tightly buttoned-up he seems to have no inner life. But there are clues that something lurks beneath. The ritual of Sunday lunch is a set-piece scene, demonstrating the district captain’s unyielding control. He ‘ate very swiftly…. He virtually destroyed one course after another… wiping them out.’ This is what we would expect. But before beginning to eat, he spends as much time looking. He ‘ate… with his eyes, so to speak; his sense of beauty consumed above all the essence of the food – its soul, as it were.…’ There is a world of sensual delight he can never bring himself to indulge in. He has to act the part of the ‘Spartan’.
This is how he treats his son. Everything is done to a formula, from the ritual of the greeting at the beginning of the school holiday to the interrogation over the school year. Nothing is easy, nothing is natural, because it has to be done in what he thinks is the right way. It has made him almost a stranger to his son, whose stock response is always the same: ‘Yes sir, Papa.’
By this time everything is being presented from the boy’s point of view, and it continues to follow his story from now on. We get the afternoon walk to visit the police sergeant after lunch – anything to get out of the house – but he is out, and it’s the man’s wife who welcomes him in. She’s the woman he visits every other afternoon for the rest of the summer, having very quickly got over the embarrassment of her sexual advances. At first he feels ‘helplessly fettered’ – he’s his father’s son – but as his uniform falls ‘slackly to the floor piece by piece… from below, a new billow of warmth and coolness swept up to his chest.’ Peel off the veneer of these Trotta men and look what you’ve got.
Fast-forward not many years and he’s just received his commission as an officer. For the first time ever, he visits his father on a Wednesday… but everything else at home is the same. Chapter 3 is another extraordinary event: a visit to Vienna to add the finishing touches to his wardrobe. And – gasp! – his father buys him a present, an engraved cigarette-case. There’s an accidental meeting whose significance slowly becomes clear: the painter of the grandfather’s portrait all those years ago is now an out-of-work artist going round the tables outside a restaurant, practically begging. Carl Joseph’s father does what he always does: keeps it formal. The man is introduced as ‘my boyhood friend, Herr Professor Moser’ and, whatever potential embarrassment might derive from his shouting and drinking as he sits with them – he isn’t in a good way – the district captain is blandly polite.
But we get more clues to that inner life. Trotta senior gives the man money, and it’s clear that he regularly sends an allowance. Later, he tells his son that he was ‘his only friend at school’ and, after a long pause, ‘Among all the people I saw today he’s still my friend.’ His son’s response is as ground-breaking: ‘”Yes––Father.” This was the first time Carl Joseph had ever pronounced the word father. “Yes sir, Papa!” he quickly corrected himself.’
We’re beginning to understand the protocols now, so we’re ready for the meeting with the widower Carl Joseph has been cuckolding every summer for years. His father has already set things up: the woman has died, and it would be the correct thing for the son of the district captain to express his condolences… etc. In the sergeant’s house rank, class and the difference between their professions all get in the way. Carl Joseph’s uniform feels stiff and uncomfortable – his uneasy relationship with his different uniforms is becoming a feature – and he leaves as soon as he can. Everything he has been feeling throughout the visit has been kept carefully hidden… but does the widower suspect something? If so, he doesn’t say a word. Of course he doesn’t.
And then he does, calling to Carl Joseph as he walks down the garden path. ‘Herr Baron!’ Then, with downcast eyes, ‘Please excuse me. I have orders from the district captain.’ And this is when he presents Carl Joseph with a bundle of letters which, we realise, are the ones sent by him to the man’s wife over all those years. There’s no confrontation, no demand for some kind of redress, merely the sergeant’s abject reliance on form. He had taken them to the district captain, and the district captain had told him to return them himself. In doing so, he was following the orders of a superior.
It’s a wonderful moment. The man’s embarrassment, Carl Joseph’s mortification…. And Roth doesn’t need to say a word about it. It’s in plain sight beneath the social niceties, and Carl Joseph has a struggle, in his stiff uniform – he tries to loosen the collar despite the rain – to get himself to the nearest bar for two swift brandies. He sees his father, because he always spends the hours between 5.00 and 7.00 there and, essentially, is asked for a report. ‘He gave you your letters?’ ‘Yes sir, Papa!’ ‘Sit down, please.’ And… nothing. The rest of the conversation is the father’s complaint about the cheapness of the brandy served to his son. Before he leaves, he lets it be known that his family is only to be served Hennessy.
I’m speechless with admiration at the way that Roth has made us aware of the weight of – what? – lurking below the surface of these scenes. Emotional dysfunction? Unbreakable social imperatives? Whatever… outside, they see the sergeant, and the district captain greets him as he always does. ‘”Good day, my dear Slama! No news?” “No news,” the sergeant echoes.’ Of course he does.
Chapters 5-8 – to the end of Part 1
It gets worse. I’d written about how everything grinds to a halt in the scene with the widower. Roth spends the rest of Part 1 giving the impression that they never move on again. The district captain’s habits are spontaneous compared to life in the barracks, in and around which all these chapters take place. In Chapter 5 Roth does what he always does, crystallising months – they’re of mind-numbing routine – into a single day. But it turns into the evening when Carl Joseph realises that he isn’t the only outsider in the regiment. The ill-at-ease-looking Jewish doctor, back from months of sick-leave, is a man he immediately recognises as a soul-mate. At the end of the excruciatingly hilarious visit to the brothel, as routine and rule-bound as everything else, Carl Joseph and Dr Demant are alone in not finding themselves paired off. They are unsurprised at this, and perfectly at ease with it as they leave quietly.
There are echoes and threads running through these chapters. The phrase ‘my only friend’ crosses a generation as Carl Joseph realises it, too late. There’s the portrait of Carl Joseph’s grandfather ‘which hung blurring under the ceiling of the study.’ This phrase is repeated so often it becomes a kind of jingle, as insistently taunting as the memory that defines Carl Joseph’s sense of failure. And there’s another portrait. Out of respect, just before they leave the brothel, Carl Joseph takes a print of the Kaiser’s portrait out of its frame. This picture is ubiquitous: some chapters further on, as the doctor contemplates his imminent death in a pointless duel next morning, he finds himself counting the flies on the dress-coat the Kaiser wears in a copy of the portrait in a bar. The same night, he uses it to back up his own argument about how pointless everything has become: Carl Joseph’s grandfather rescued this man – a fact referred to several times each chapter – and Carl Joseph rescued him from the brothel. ‘Idiocy!’
To explain the ambiguity of this outburst I’ll need to back-track. Chapter 6 is all from the doctor’s point of view, and we discover that his life is as pointless and unfulfilling as Carl Joseph’s. There’s also a hint that his marriage is a failure – and when he goes home one day his father-in-law, staying for a while, tells him his wife has been visited by a certain lieutenant. We wonder where this is going. Is Carl Joseph so steeped in the collective anomie of the Habsburg Empire that he has no problem screwing his new friend’s wife? Or is something else happening? Whatever, we never find out for certain. Later, when the doctor asks him outright, he offers the only answer he can, described in the narrative, back again with his point of view, as ‘meaningless’. The question of guilt is irrelevant – which, I assume, is why Roth leaves it uncertain: the fact that the doctor has had to ask, and Carl Joseph has had to answer, will force an end to their friendship. That’s the form.
The problem, as Roth frequently makes clear, is that none of these people has enough to do. Their lives are as meaningless as their daily manoeuvres and exercises, trooping from the overstated Imperial grandeur of their regimental barracks and through the town to wherever it is that these take place. So petty things have the time to escalate into life-threatening matters of ‘honour’ – Roth doesn’t use the quote marks because he doesn’t need to – and soon, again through the inexorable workings of form, the doctor’s life is in danger. He’s had to challenge a drunken captain to a duel because he had made insinuating remarks about the doctor’s wife being taken home from the theatre by Carl Joseph. (There’s as much circumstantial evidence that this is innocent as that it isn’t. It doesn’t matter anyway.)
This all takes place in the long Chapter 7. The night before the duel, feeling dreadful, Carl Joseph eventually finds his only friend in a bar. Together they reach a pitch of existential despair about the pointlessness of everything. The doctor remarks on their more illustrious grandfathers – his own was famous as the king of publicans in his central European district – and they agree how far they have both declined from these great antecedents. If I’ve made it sound ludicrous I didn’t mean to: Roth wants us to accept that in the posturing, militaristic Austro-Hungarian Empire in peace-time the only certainty is the futility of everything. My goodness.
Mostly, as two o’clock strikes, then three – the duel is at 7.20, a time endlessly echoing through the chapter – they are as separate from one another as everyone else in Roth’s existential universe. But they come far closer than we’ve ever seen in this novel to sharing their emotional turmoil. Correct form is left behind as they are both utterly frank about their feelings, and muse on the tragic irony that this closeness is a prelude to the imminent death of one of them. The doctor is reconciled to his own death. Then he isn’t, and muses on the life he might have had, his recent realisation that his love for his wife had always been ‘childish’. For the first time, he isn’t in uniform – as before, uniforms are always a symbol of the rigidity of Imperial form in these chapters – and he is speaking from the heart. As for Carl Joseph… he is full of guilt over his ‘carelessness’: if he hadn’t let himself be seen with the doctor’s wife the doctor’s life wouldn’t be in danger. All this is his fault.
Are we absolutely certain that the doctor will die before the end of Chapter 7? Definitely. It’s impossible to imagine a Chapter 8 in which he’s alive and all is reconciled. In fact, everything is in pieces and Carl Joseph decides he will move to a different regiment. He has the idea of moving to the Slovenian village of his ancestors, the Sipolje of the family title. He has written to his father – always described, when he has anything meaningful to impart, as the most difficult writing he ever has to do – and has received a reply that is perfect in its well-rounded expressions of good form. And then he has to pay his respects to his friend’s widow.
It’s another excruciating scene, in which she seems to be dictating his behaviour. When she tells him to sit on the sofa, he sits, and she sits almost next to him. He is powerless to ignore her hand as it idly makes his way towards him, wishing he were in blinkers to block the sight of it. (I’m not going to speculate on what past behaviour is being repeated here. As I’ve said before, it doesn’t matter now.) This is Carl Joseph as we have come to know him, incapable of acting in his own right. ‘As always when he could see no way out of the countless agonising predicaments he found himself in, he imagined himself able to leave.’ But he can’t leave – and is only saved by the arrival of the woman’s father.
So Carl Joseph will be moving. His decision to go back to the region where his great-grandfather was a peasant is arbitrary and absurd, as though he is attempting to ascribe some significance to a meaningless detail of the family story that has become a millstone for him. He will join an infantry regiment if that’s all there is in the area – which would be seen as a demotion – and… and he doesn’t care.
Meanwhile, time passes. The lives of these people seem to have been lived in a kind of unending limbo, but Roth reminds us that history has been happening, albeit elsewhere. The lights used by the wealthy classes and in the officers’ quarters are electric, Bleriot has flown across the English Channel – and Chapter 8 has begun with a sentence that’s full of a kind of dread: ‘Back then, before the Great War… it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a person lived or died.’ Get that: ‘not yet.’ But, by the end of the same chapter, they are still in a state of blissful ignorance. The soldiers sing a patriotic song ending with the line, ‘She waits for the Emperor, our Empress.’ What they don’t know, as Roth reminds us in the final sentence of the chapter and of Book 1, is that ‘the Empress had died long ago.’
(A word about uniforms. The doctor’s father had always kept his own low-ranking military uniform in perfect order in the wardrobe, and after his death his widow kept his low-ranking post-master’s uniform in perfect order next to it. The doctor had always thought that they looked like two corpses. His father-in-law, when he first tells him of his wife’s probable infidelity and goes on to tell some unwelcome truths about the marriage in general, is fresh from his bath and almost naked, a white blob as the doctor takes of his thick glasses in the steamy atmosphere. Had he been dressed, it’s hard to imagine him saying any of it – and when we do see him dressed after the funeral, he speaks like everybody else. The doctor hates his own uniform, can’t wait to get out of it – and leaves his ceremonial sword to Carl Joseph in his will. He has scratched an inscription on the hilt: ‘Live well and free’. Carl Joseph puts it away and closes the door: ‘he shut a coffin.’)
Chapters 9-15 – Part 2
Death stalks the land. It haunts Carl Joseph, it haunts the Kaiser, and it haunts another personification of outdated aristocratic pretensions in the Empire, Count Chojnicki. He defiantly carries on his ancestors’ interest in alchemy into the 20th Century, knowing it’s a joke – but, to him, everything is a joke. He takes the surviving members of that other family, the Trottas, to his stately hunting lodge in the forest on the eastern edge of the Empire and alarms them with his doom-laden predictions. It isn’t the past that he looks to, but the future, and it isn’t gold that he is able to show them, but nitro-glycerine. ‘The Fatherland no longer exists,’ he tells them, and ‘We are no longer alive.’ They are all doomed because they are obsolete.
He’s right, obviously. If this were a naturalistic novel, he wouldn’t know for certain that the vultures he speaks of are waiting to pick off a generation of young men in the first industrialised war in Europe. But Roth left behind any pretence of naturalism when he transported Carl Joseph to this outpost at the end of the railway line and turned it into a microcosm of the Empire’s descent into pointlessness and decadence. The point of view becomes much more fluid than in Part 1, so that Roth can explore the unfulfilling lives of more people, and the ripples of political unrest that reach even this far. In a chapter that is more or less entirely dedicated to the gambling fever that sweeps through the regiment when the hotel owner opens a casino, we spend some pages inside the head of a certain Captain Wagner. It’s a virtuoso rendering of the gambler’s self-deceiving mind-set as he reaches imaginary deals with particular cards or discovers an infallible formula on his way to losing a small fortune.
His is not the only head we get inside. There’s Carl Joseph himself, obviously, and I’ll come back to him. But there’s his father too, so unsettled by the death of the old retainer who served his father that he decides to take the first holiday of his working life in order to visit his son. There’s the 40-something woman that Carl Joseph escorts to Vienna – it’s Chojnicki’s ruse to save him from lending Wagner any more money, and to give him a bit of a treat: he knows the woman will sleep with the lieutenant. Death haunts her too, in the form of the signs of ageing that she can only cope with by throwing herself into sex with whichever young men attract her.
And, perhaps most audaciously, we’re inside the mind of the Kaiser himself. He knows how old he is, calculating it by arithmetic made slightly complicated, admittedly, by his birth date in August. He might be in his eighties, but… but what? He is almost exactly as self-deceiving as Wagner about his powers, imagining that he is only pretending to be the doddery old fool his lackeys take him for. On the day during which we follow his thoughts there are army exercises which he soon tires of, putting an early end to them so he can perform an inspection his lackeys let him think is important. And so on. Death, with a capital D in all these chapters in this translation, is something he tries not to think about. But it’s there. All the time. We’ve seen him in the chapter in which Carl Joseph and his lady friend visit Vienna. It’s the day of the Corpus Christi Parade and there he is, a figurehead and, almost literally, nothing more. We see him after news of Carl Joseph’s name is mentioned in connection with an embarrassing incident. After being reminded why the name Trotta sounds familiar, he makes one of his arbitrary benevolent gestures, writing ‘Settle favourably,’ on the file.
This is what Part 2 is like. Existential angst, which in Part 1 had been confined to a single night in a bar, now pervades everything in the Empire. And through it all Carl Joseph, beginning to look older than his years, is looking for some meaning. His rifle regiment seems even more pointless to him than his old cavalry regiment had done, and conversations with various people convince him that there is no role for the army in peacetime. And things are just as bad in his emotional life. We found out during Dr Demant’s dark night of the soul in Part 1 that the affair with the police sergeant’s wife had not been merely a farcical episode his life: she was the only woman he had ever loved. In the train to Vienna, as he is seduced by an older woman with an entirely different agenda – or is it the same one? – he thinks he’s found love again. Hah. Later he discovers that her journey south from Vienna must be to meet Chojnicki.
What we are coming to realise, now and all through these chapters, is how isolated every character is from every other. It seems to be Roth’s main reason for offering their utterly separate points of view, one by one.
On his return from Vienna he is nominated as the man to lead a platoon given the task to keep the peace during a strike at the local factory. He is as clueless as his father about the political currents underlying this; Roth never presents the reader with the big picture because, I assume, he wants to give an impression of how Carl Joseph has no sense of anything beyond his own narrow horizons. He responds to what happens when the strikers confront his platoon exactly as you would expect: according to rules that have no basis in any kind of practical experience. His soldiers shoot, and he himself is wounded by a striker. This is the incident the Kaiser has to save him from. The reputation of the grandson of the Hero of Solferino must be kept from harm.
Part 2 ends at the army exercises watched by the Kaiser. Carl Joseph is there, and the Kaiser is introduced to him. But… nothing. In this chapter it is the Kaiser’s point of view we are following, and we perceive his embarrassment at his own mistake – for instance, when he is told that the lieutenant is not the son of the great hero, but the grandson. Time is playing tricks on him, and he does what he always does. ‘His eyes, as usual, peered into the distance, where the edges of eternity were already surfacing.’ Everyone is relieved when the drop that has appeared at the end of his nose finally falls into his moustache ‘and the march-past could begin.’. Joseph Roth, casting a cold eye on empires, ends it there.
Chapters 16-18 – first half of Part 3
I’ll pause for a while before discovering what horrors are to come in this concluding part. Things are falling to pieces, for both father and son, as they think they can remember better times in a past that is forever lost. Sometimes the fragmentation seems almost palpable. It’s certainly visual, as when the district captain examines his father’s portrait. ‘The painting splintered into a hundred tiny, oily dabs and highlights….’ This particular Trotta has just come to realise that a cord has been broken that had seemed sacred, the one tying father to son to grandson: he has no influence over what his son might decide to do with his life, and has just forced himself to write a letter admitting it.
For the younger Trotta the disintegration is even worse. Carl Joseph is drunk because his mistress has cancelled their fortnightly assignation in Vienna. The man who has loaned him a small fortune over recent months has come first to tell him that the most popular captain in the unit stands accused of spying, and then that he needs to be paid all his money in a week’s time. Carl Joseph is finding it hard to focus on the man – and we know that, somehow, this isn’t only a trick of his eyes. ‘For an instant he again dissolved into grey, hazy splotches. The lieutenant was overcome with a tremendous fear that the little man had the ghostly ability to crumble into bits and then piece himself back whole.’
The context of each of these experiences is as small-scale as most things in the Trotta men’s lives, but the vividness of the images clearly represents something much more fundamental. During these same long, unhurried chapters there’s the growing sense of the end of things. When Trotta Senior goes to Vienna seeking an audience with the Emperor – tell you later – even the bureaucrats with their ‘eternally ready wit’ are aware of something beyond their cosseted experience. ‘Perhaps they already felt the breath of Death, who was to grab them all a few months later––grab them by the throat!’ We’re in Chapter 18 by now, and we’ve had the first mention of the heir to the throne. By the time the novel was written, the name of Franz Joseph had a resonance far beyond Austria.
Both these men’s lives are meaningless. The district captain has a mind-set that binds him to procedures going back to the previous century, and he is bereft of any way of dealing with what life is throwing at him now. He seems to be on the verge of a breakdown when his son sends him a letter telling him that he is contemplating leaving the army, seems unable to comprehend a new acquaintance’s suggestion that Carl Joseph might seek a different profession. Meanwhile Carl Joseph’s life, that of an officer in peace-time, seems to be killing him from the inside. Only his assignations with the woman he met in Part 2 keep him from falling apart – but she has her own ways of denying the passage of time, and it’s through his thoughtless spending on her that he has got into such debt.
These parallel threads come together to create the bravura set-piece which is Chapter 18. Carl Joseph is shocked into immobility by what has happened to him. In a haze of drink he goes through the motions of threatening his creditor with his sabre, but stops. There is nothing he can do but – what? He asks his commanding officer, who suggests a letter to his father. The district captain, like his son, has always lived beyond his means, but eventually… certain that the old forms still count for something, he decides that the Emperor will not sit by and allow the grandson of the Hero of Solferino to be disgraced. Now galvanised into action, he spends two solid days in Vienna breaking through the bureaucracy surrounding the old man – and gets his audience.
Not for the first time, a uniform plays as big a part as the man inside it – or, in some cases, not inside it – contemplates some big step. Getting his five-piece dress uniform ready for the audience helps to stir the district captain into action, and it seems to mesmerise the officials when he wears it on the big day. ‘It would have been impossible to detect a flaw in Herr von Trotta.’ Things are different in an earlier chapter. Carl Joseph’s wearing of his uniform has come to represent the dead time between his visits to see his mistress in Vienna, which is when he can be truly alive. It’s a fantasy, but when the disappointing telegram from her arrives it’s what Roth focuses on. ‘He stood up to shut the closet door. There, a neatly pressed corpse, hung the free dark-grey civilian Trotta. The door shut upon him. A coffin. Buried! Buried!’ (This echoes a lot of what has gone before. I even saw fit to write a ‘note about uniforms’ at the end of Part 1.)
The audience is the real set piece. The district captain, old before his time and the Emperor, who has always been old, are like mirror-images. After all that disintegration in the previous chapters, something is reconstituted by these archetypes of the old world. ‘A stranger seeing them at this moment could have easily mistaken them for two brothers. Their white whiskers, their narrow, sloping shoulders, their equal physical size made each of them feel he was facing his own reflection.’ Each one almost seems to become the other – and the Emperor grants the district captain’s request. Except… by the time Trotta has left, the Emperor’s thoughts have been interrupted, as they always are these days, by the birdsong from outside. Will it be enough of a reminder that he has ‘quickly jotted Trotta Affair on the file’? Let’s hope so.
Chapters 19-21 and Epilogue
Roth has been signalling the dying fall of these final chapters for a long time now, so there are no surprises here. Carl Joseph is killed in the early days of a War that Roth characterises as pointless and riven by ethnic rivalries, and the final lines of Chapter 21 confirm his father’s sense of devastation. ‘His son was dead. His office was terminated, His world was ended.’
The point is, of course, that nothing in the constitution or bureaucracy of the Empire could hold it together. In the microcosm that is Carl Joseph’s border garrison a telegram containing a ‘rumour’ of Franz Joseph’s assassination immediately divides the generals and minor aristocracy assembled for a special party in Chapter 19. Some are keen to note that Serbia, where the killing might or might not have taken place, is a long way away. Others say they care little about it anyway – ‘there are other heirs to the throne’ – and some withdraw into their own nationalistic talk. The Hungarians, speaking their own language, become so loud and clearly insulting that Trotta, the de facto representative of Austria, drunkenly draws his sword to put a stop to it.
Roth isn’t attempting to make his points subtly by now. (Does he ever? They’re usually hard to miss.) The outdoor party, nominally a rehearsal for the regiment’s centenary celebrations the following year, is presented as the last gasp of the Empire. There are even gathering storm clouds, ignored by everybody until, finally, thunder and lightning sends them all indoors to witness the destruction of trees outside.
And Roth isn’t going to leave aside the running metaphor of these men and their uniforms. The news of the assassination only serves to confirm Carl Joseph’s decision to leave the army, and the ceremonial relinquishing of the uniform and sword constitute a big proportion of Chapter 20. But by the end of it, of course, when war is declared, he’s putting it on again. And guess what? It’s a useless bit of kit, soon ruined by the mud on roads as they advance and retreat according to ‘innumerable and conflicting directives.’ We’re into Chapter 21 now, and all is chaos. ‘The Austrian army’s war had begun with court-martials. For days on end genuine and supposed traitors hung from trees to terrify the living.’
Carl Joseph’s death typifies the existential absurdity of his life in the army. All through these last chapters he has been reminding himself that however pointless it was, it was all he’d ever known from the age of six. But it isn’t his training that kills him, but one of his unthinking acts of humanity. (We’ve recently seen him bury three of the hanging corpses, simply because nobody else was going to.) We already know that ‘no one had prepared for the retreat,’ so there are no supplies and, crucially, no water. The only supply they find that is uncontaminated by rotting corpses is guarded by Cossack riflemen, and twelve of Carl Joseph’s men have already been shot while trying to reach it. He calls for two pails and climbs up the slope to the well. And what has he been taught by something like twenty years of army training? ‘He was not afraid. It never occurred to him that he could be hit like the others.’
‘It never occurred to him’? In his head, he is on his father’s balcony as the band begins to play the Radetzky March. (At this point in the novel it’s unthinkable that it could be anything else.) As the cymbals crash he takes one step, carrying the full pails, then another. ‘Now his head just barely showed over the edge of the slope. Now a bullet hit his skull.’ Soon his tongue is slowly turning blue, he feels his body growing cold… and that’s it. So it goes.
There’s little remaining now except for Roth to tie up the loose ends which are his two white-whiskered mirror-images from Chapter 18. Trotta Senior is simply broken. From the moment he receives the letter telling him of his son’s death his head never stops shaking, and he performs his duties as if by rote. In the Epilogue Roth describes how this goes on into the following year, until news begins to circulate that the Emperor is dying. For the district captain there has always been an almost tangible link between them. ‘I spoke to him once,’ he tells a bystander as he stands outside the palace gates in a kind of vigil. The Emperor dies. And, within three days, so does the district captain.
The doctor who had been his only friend in his old age sits opposite the empty chair in the bar, listening to the rain, and we realise that Roth couldn’t have ended this novel with the death of the son. This is the story of how a generation of young men died because of what their fathers inculcated into them. This particular son is stunted by it, his life-force channelled into illicit affairs that mean the world to him because, aside from a single short-lived friendship, there is nothing else for him. Early on I commented on the absence of women in these men’s lives. Together with their inability to think outside their own sequestered experiences, it leaves them literally defenceless.