Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth


Writes 25 Busterdog in a post on a you tube version of the Radetzky March

Emperor Franz Joseph was appointed Colonel in Chief of the British King's Dragoon Guards (KDG) by Queen Victoria in 1896. The Emperor authorised the KDG to wear the double headed eagle as their cap badge and presented the regiment with the Radetzky March which they adopted as their regimental march. As far as I'm aware the successor regiment to the KDG, who were amalgamated with the Queen's Bays in 1959, the Queen's Dragoon Guards, continue to wear the double headed eagle and march to Radetzky.

I will take his word for it and add the Irish observation on the relation between Queen Victoria and Emperor Franz Joseph: Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile (one earwig recognises another)

The novel of the same name as the sprightly march with the intro drum rolls like those of a shako capped windup monkey begins at the battle of Solferino. It is a perfect tune to go round the U bend of history with. It is notable that this battle was the last in which actual commanders fought or were present, Emperor Napoleon III, King Victor Emmannuel II against Emperor Franz Joseph I. The slaughter was severe and Henri Dunant who wanted to see Napoleon on business arrived after the battle to see many thousands of dead and wounded abandoned on the battlefield. This was the original impetus to the setting up of the Red Cross.

The Austrian Emperor was defeated, his inexperience as a general leading to tremendous loss of life. He should have taken Granny’s advice: Is fearr rith maith ná droch-sheasamh. - Good running is better than bad standing. Joseph Roth’s novel The Radetzky March begins and ends in war. Infantry Lieutenant Trotta in the heat of the battle being near to the Emperor and seeing him raise a field glass to view the position of the enemy and realising that this made him a worthy target for a marksman pulls him down and takes the bullet meant for the young fool. His collarbone is shattered:

Four weeks later, Trotta was much better. By the time he returned to his regimental headquarters in southern Hungary, he had been promoted to the rank of captain, awarded the highest military decoration, the Order of Maria Theresa, and ennobled. Henceforthhis name was: Captain Joseph Trotta of Sipolje.

That plain language is one of the few islands of it that are in the book which reflects what one might term the abnegation of Michael Hoffman its translator who exceeds his brief with a rich, textured prose which may of course reflect the author’s original . Generally though in the matter of translation we have to be content to 'see through a glass darkly’.

Though Joseph Roth was Jewish we are not asked to come to terms with that fateful condition until page 79 to be precise and then in the character of Dr. Max Demant the regimental medico where the grandson of the ‘Hero of Solferino’ is serving. It is a cavalry regiment but Carl Joseph Trotta and Dr.Demant are both poor horsemen. They are thus both misfits preferring to walk upon the earth rather than ride upon it like their betters. One of the few extant pictures of Roth show him riding with his wife in full riding fig. He seems quite a caballero and contrary to the dictum that Jews are for the infantry that the book mentions. Young Carl becomes friendly with the unhappily married Doctor, whose wife is a flighty ambitious woman who despises him. One night at the theatre she flounces out and leaves him on his own. Carl going by finds himself in the unenviable position of having to escort her home knowing that if one of the officers sees him they will spread scabrous rumours. The mocking drunken Count Tattinger forces the Doctor into a duel by screaming ‘yid’ thrice. That it would turn into an affair of honour is perhaps an indication of the open nature of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So it happens that a career with snags turns into a life with snags.

The doctor is short sighted, a fog descends when he takes off his glasses so that taking them off at the signal to ready himself seems to indicate that he is willing to die and have all snags freed at last but the curious thing is that the fog does not descend, without his glasses he can still see clearly. He resolves to look into this phenomenon.

The regimental doctor raised his pistol. He felt brave and free, yes, for the first time in his life, even a little exuberant. He aimed as he had done once as a one-year volunteer at target practice(even then he’d been a wretched shot). I’m not short-sighted at all, he thought, I’ll never need my glasses again. In medical terms it was a mystery. The regimental doctor promised to look into ophthalmology.

Through all the book the Emperor Franz Joseph lives on becoming a remote yet powerful; ectoplasmic yet potent, figure; acting through his channels. In the end heeding the pleas of Carl’s father on the boy’s behalf, the karmic circle being complete he dies. The Archduke has been assassinated and the stage is set for the Great War any of whose major battle make Solferino look like cucumber sandwiches on the lawn of the rectory and the hazard of Tombola.

The characterisation of the relation between the generation of the Trottas is very finely and movingly delineated, reticence being more than effusion as in life. Nobody shares. Don’t let me put anybody off it by excessive praise. It’s just a masterpiece.


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