Posts Tagged ‘The Emperor’s Tomb’

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.

Jozef Wittlin: The Salt of the Earth

January 18, 2020

71dXN6lPj0L._AC_UY218_ML3_   Yet another novel about the First World War that I didn’t know about, by a Polish author who wrote it in the mid-1930s. It was the first part of a trilogy the other two books of which were lost during the Second World War; only a fragment of the second book survives and is printed at the end of this novel.

Wittlin is as effective as Joseph Roth at conveying the send of the end of an era; there is a similar feeling to that evoked by Roth’s novels, The Radetzky March and The Emperor’s Tomb. Hindsight tells us the Austro-Hungarian empire and monarchy will not survive the coming years’ mayhem, and the overall atmosphere of the novel is dreamlike, trance-like, almost hypnotic as the immense wheels of war gradually grind into motion and begin to transform everyone’s world. It’s unnerving, because the overwhelming sense is of a world in mass movement, where individuals are completely swamped, overwhelmed by what is happening: it is completely beyond their comprehension.

There is a deliberate, calculated naivete in the narrative style, which reinforces the silliness, the stupidity of the war itself, and also the participants’ incomprehension of it all.

In and among the mass, individuals emerge: the hero is Piotr, an illiterate Hutsul peasant, not very bright. We grow to like this simpleton in just the same way as we grow to love Jaroslav Hašek’s idiot hero Švejk, and yet the two could not be more different in the presentation, with Švejk’s effectiveness coming through the comedy of the chaos which he sows everywhere he goes, and Piotr’s coming from his innocence and genuine love of life, his simplicity and earthiness. Other characters are the Jewish doctor with the inferiority complex at the draft board, and later on the regimental Sergeant Major who lives his life for drilling new recruits. Both of these might also have made very good comic characters in the hands of a Hašek; here instead Wittlin poignantly brings out their humanity, and we feel pity for them.

The unnaturalness of war in the way it uproots people from their lives comes across very effectively in the lengthy train journey from the end of nowhere, the very edge of the empire, to the training camp deep inside Hungary; a babel of different languages adds to the chaotic effect, and there is also the irony that the regiment Piotr is to join is in fact owned by the king of Serbia, who is now, of course, the enemy of the Austro-Hungarian empire…

Out of the mass emerge individuals, then, to help us identify with how war affect people; a good man is uprooted and dragged away from his people and home; another does a job – training men to die for the Emperor – that is consummate in its absurdity and yet everyone recognises how good he is at it. The first novel ends with the formal swearing of the loyalty oath as the new intake is put into uniform and readied for initial training. It is autumn 1914…

The short remnant that is all that survives of the rest of the trilogy is very powerful, focusing on the death of another recruit who emerges as an individual from the mass, as whose death is not caused by warfare, but by cruel regimental punishment…

I had no idea what to expect when I began this novel; it was very different from all the others I’ve read about that period, and in its own way just as powerful as any of them. It’s a great pity we do not have the rest of Wittlin’s work.

On vicarious experience

April 11, 2017

When my father used to get infuriated by my referring to books I’d read when I was arguing with him, he would point out that you can’t learn everything from books, and nor can you believe everything you read in books. What he was referring to was the importance and the value of lived experience, and the lessons that you learned from it, and I belatedly have to admit that he was right. His outlook on life was irrevocably shaped by very harsh experiences in his younger years, and yet, at the same time, he sowed the seeds in me at a very early age of the desire to study and learn, and to go off to university eventually: he very much wanted me to have the education he’d never been allowed to have.

And recently I came across a quotation which I know I’d have thrown back at my father in those younger days, had I known it then – the idea that if you don’t read, you only live one life, but if you are a reader, then you live thousands of lives. Yes, I know that’s vicariously, but it’s still a very powerful notion. Of course, I’ve forgotten where I came across the quotation and who said it…

This got me thinking. Of course, there are history and geography books, and films, television and documentaries that can teach us about other times and other places, but they are not the same as living through a character in a novel set in another country or century, where you can get inside the mind, thoughts and feelings of a person – admittedly fictional, but carefully and consciously created to be convincing – and the point is that, until time travel is invented, that’s the closest any of us is going to get to living in another age. Yes, we could move to another country rather more easily, but would we want to, and could we experience and understand life as, for instance, a Russian, having been born and brought up as English? A skilful writer can take us as close as it’s possible to get to that experience; perhaps we might enhance it with a visit to that country.

Then, of course, we might think about emotional experiences: how many different kinds of love, relationships and affairs, happy and tragic, have we encountered? And do we, can we learn anything from reading about such things, does our reading make us any the wiser in terms of managing our own lives? Can I, as a man, really learn and understand anything about the life and experience of being a woman, from reading? I’d argue that I can and have, even though it is inevitably rather limited, and obviously cannot be the real thing. Does reading about madness help us know or understand anything about different mental states?

A few years ago I calculated that I’d probably read upwards of three thousand books so far; that seemed both rather a lot and not very many. Where have I lived, and when? Some books that I feel have given me some profound insights: what day-to-day life in Nazi Germany was like: Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin; living in the time of Stalin’s purges: Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy; a utopia I think I’d quite like to live in: Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed; some understanding of life in a totally different culture: Naguib MahfouzCairo Trilogy; an insight into the mind of a committed Nazi intellectual: Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones; what if the Soviet Union had succeeded: Ivan Yefremov’s Andromeda; an insight into the meaning and power of patriotism and loyalty: Joseph Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb and The Radetzky March; a vivid impression of the Deep South: Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman…

I could find more examples with a bit more searching, I’m sure, and there will surely be people who can tell me, “But it was nothing like that!” But I maintain that literature – reading – has broadened my horizons immensely, and given me insights into people, places and times I would otherwise never have begun to understand.

Joseph Roth: Croquis de Voyage

November 6, 2016

downloadJoseph Roth wrote two of my favourite novels, The Emperor’s Tomb and The Radetzky March, to which I shall be returning shortly, prompted by my reading of this collection of travel pieces. I find the nineteen-twenties fascinating, as a world trying to recover from the trauma of the Great War, and unaware of the morass it is slowly sinking into.

As a traveller and journalist – nearly all of the pieces in this collection were written for various German newspapers and magazines – he is very observant, missing nothing, and also unintrusive: I have the feeling of being with a very intelligent observer and recorder who does not seek to over-interpret.

There is a wide range of pieces in the book; perhaps the most powerful for me was his visit to the Somme region in 1926, so only eight years after the end of the war, and his descriptions of how towns are still struggling to recover their previous ‘normality’ are quite shocking, in a low-key way. I also liked his descriptions of Deauville, and Provence, both places I’m familiar with.

There are a good number of pieces from travels around the Soviet Union in the same years, so before Stalin’s purges and terror: these are fascinating because he shows us the hope and optimism of those early years before the aims and direction of the Revolution were permanently perverted. And yet, with hindsight, it’s also evident how much he doesn’t see, or know to look for…

His picture of Poland in the years of the Second Republic, a nation reborn after more than a century of extinction, is also very enlightening: it’s a naive country in which Roth can quite clearly see the problems inherent in a state with so many national minorities, and which Hitler and Stalin would both take advantage of…

Italy is already Mussolini’s fascist state in embryo and quite scary when he visits; there is no hint of the horrors to come in Germany, however.

I’ve written before about how accounts written at a particular time are capable of being illuminating in ways totally different from history books, and this is a very good example; I fear, however, that it’s too much to hope that this collection will appear in an English translation.

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