Joseph Roth: The Emperor’s Tomb

January 24, 2020

81eTWKHEvvL._AC_UY218_ML3_   Time and again literature reminds us of the end of an era which took place in the Western world in 1914, with the coming of the Great War: nothing was ever to be the same again. Joseph Roth is one of the writers who, for me, has captured the essence of this most effectively and powerfully, perhaps because the earthquake that swept away the Austro-Hungarian Empire was so cataclysmic. He succeeds in creating both a sense of ending and also one of nostalgia in the reader for what has been lost, a time of relative innocence compared with what came next, and what was clearly eventually to lead to even worse…

The Emperor’s Tomb (the title refers to the vault in Vienna where the Habsburg monarchs are buried) is written from the point of view of a member of a poor branch of a titled family. We see the effect of the coming of war against Russia and what it does to the hero, his family and a small group of friends. The narrator throws in his army lot with a poorer cousin who is an itinerant chestnut-seller, and a Jewish cab-driver, who he realises are more real, of more significance to him than his so-called city friends.

We see the chaos of the early days of war: he marries a woman because he should, not because he loves her, and their wedding night is ruined because of the death of a family servant. There is the sudden awareness of the incredible fragility and ephemeral nature of existence, which forces the hero to consider what really matters to him, what is really of value. At the front there is the chaos of battle and retreat and suddenly being taken prisoner with his friends; all three of them end up in Siberia, so escaping the horrors of war, but not its consequences or aftermath.

There is an almost hallucinatory quality to the hero’s return home at the end of 1918, to a world of uncertainty, poverty and spivs with vacuous get-rich-quick schemes. It is all very disorienting, as he realises that he is part of a generation which ought to have died, but didn’t, a generation for whom there is no longer a place… The ending, with its foreshadowing of the advent of Nazism, is devastatingly powerful. I was shocked to be reminded just how good this short novel I last read many years ago was.

One Response to “Joseph Roth: The Emperor’s Tomb”


  1. […] book than I remember it and much more powerful, certainly Roth’s greatest, and one to follow with The Emperor’s Tomb if you have the time or the inclination. But you really should read […]

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