Posts Tagged ‘Austro-Hungarian Empire’

Jaroslav Hašek: The Good Soldier Švejk

December 18, 2022

     When I’m under the weather – it’s the long-lasting cold from hell at the moment – I usually choose an old favourite to re-enjoy as I rest in bed, something not too demanding which I know I’ll enjoy. My annotations inform me that this is at least the sixth, if not the seventh time I’ve read Švejk’s astonishing adventures in the Great War.

I’m familiar with a good deal of fiction from several countries set during this conflict, and this Czech masterpiece is the only humorous treatment of the subject I know. It’s completely crazy, laugh-out-loud hilarious in places, easily readable and unputdownable. The hero is a garrulous, incredibly knowledgeable utter idiot who survives by his wits and drives his officers crazy; the scrapes an utter simpleton can get himself into have to be read to be believed, and in a way the fact that the novel originates from what was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the Great War seems to explain why that empire was destined to disintegrate.

How can one possibly write a funny novel about the war? This is years before the Absurdists came along, but throughout the book, the insanity of war, warfare and the military’s inflated sense of itself is repeatedly and constantly made evident. This time, I was also struck by the fact that it’s probably not actually a novel at all, there being no real plot and its actually ending unfinished as Hašek died before he could complete it (and after 800 pages!). It’s more of a picaresque adventure in the manner of Gargantua and Pantagruel, or Don Quixote: we follow the hero’s adventures wherever he goes.

In and among the many cretinous idiocies of army life and organisation there are, nevertheless, frequent glimpses of the real horrors of that war, especially its effects on civilians. Hašek was an anarchist and he develops and interlards his political, social and religious views throughout the text. In particular, there is merciless mockery of the hypocrisy of organised religion which sanctifies war and killing. It’s anti-war, anti-military and anti-monarchist; I love it.

As a picaresque tale it does feel rambling and shapeless at times, but in some ways this serves to emphasise the long-suffering of the ordinary soldiers, and the chaos and confusion the army and its officers bring in their wake. The final sections become more and more surreal as the troops march aimlessly around the remains of battlefields, corpses, casualties and desperate surviving civilians. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it remains a masterpiece. I hope I shall have the time to read it one more time, one day…

Joseph Roth: The Radetzky March

March 29, 2020

81GdGXjSUiL._AC_UY218_ML3_    A man’s life is changed irrevocably by a single action of a split second: he saves the Emperor’s life in battle and is ennobled as a reward; forever he is separated from his humble peasant past and takes on a new existence. He is raised far above where he naturally belongs, and his strong sense of honour and of what is right and wrong leads him to object to the adulation of his deed in a children’s story-book and to quit the army. He half-reverts to his lower origins, but what probably shocks most is the harsh and loveless upbringing of his son…

There is a delicious, sensuous sense of timelessness to Roth’s novel, set in the mid-nineteenth century in the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which co-exists with a painful sense of the inevitable passage of time, ageing and the feeling of loss as the generations pass by. And always lurking in the background is the inevitability of the approaching storm.

The vacuousness, the tedium of military life in the closing years of the century shocks: the men are nonentities – drinkers, gamblers, whoremongers – living in the past, fortunate to be enjoying that century of peace between the Congress of Vienna and Sarajevo, yet Roth manages to create in the reader a sense of nostalgia, affection even, for this empire which was to destroy itself so utterly in a few years’ time.

There is an outline of a story, through the three generations of the von Trotta family, military hero, civil administrator son and wastrel military grandson, living off their name and past glory of one deed. There are a number of powerful tableaux dotted through the novel, where the focus narrows and slows: a riveting chapter narrates an idiotic and utterly pointless duel in powerful slow-motion, with the Great War hovering in the background, and another recounts the lingering death of a faithful family servant. Then there is the introduction of the Polish count, Chojnicki, his estate on the very boundary of the empire with that of the Tsar, and his shockingly clear understanding that everything is about to fall apart… and finally a touching and pathetic portrait of the dotard, senile emperor himself, utterly unable to grasp what is happening and surrounded by men who cannot do anything about it.

Roth’s astonishingly powerful and moving picture of a world on the edge, losing control and going mad, reminded me very strongly of our world now, in a way it hadn’t on previous readings (there have been several). We get the sense that times were much more fixed and secure in the past when everyone knew their place, and at the same time the feeling that change, revolution – of several kinds – is inevitable: huge upheaval is coming, disconcerting the older generations and strangely welcomed by the younger.

The third generation of the family ends up returning full circle: is Roth suggesting a man cannot be taken away from where he really belongs? And the novel inevitably ends with the outbreak of war in 1914. Roth doesn’t need to go any further.

Whenever I’ve read this novel, it’s moved me greatly, and obviously this is why I’ve come back to it again. And I’ve re-evaluated; it is a much greater 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 it.

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.

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