Some novels creep up quietly on you from behind, while others grasp you firmly by the collar and sweep you briskly into their firmament, barely giving you time to catch your breath. The Radetzky March is certainly among the latter, and I duly succumbed within pages, when I discovered it gently simmering with potential on a holiday bookshelf (other people’s bookshelves always simmer with more potential than one’s own). Holidays are, by definition, an attempt to embrace the unfamiliar, and this novel’s very title, so redolent of Mitteleuropa, promises immersion in a different world, the doomed Austro-Hungarian Empire on the fringes of which its author, Joseph Roth, led his own doomed and self-destructive life.
It is impossible not to be seduced by the vital, ironic voice of this writer, translated with such élan by Michael Hofmann, who has made it part of his life’s work to render all Roth’s works into English. And as the novel unwinds, its elegiac yet laconic tone engenders a fascination with the man who wrote it, a marvellously subtle observer of the conflicts and contradictions of a vanishing world. Joseph Roth pictured empire as a melancholy farce, and chronicled it from the margins with a mixture of affection and exasperation as he moved restlessly from his birthplace in Galicia through a gradually fragmenting Europe to his final resting place in Paris. It was there that in 1939 he died of drink and despair at the age of 44.
The Radetzky March, universally agreed to be his masterpiece, opens on the chaos of the Battle of Solferino in 1859, where a humble Slovenian infantry lieutenant called Trotta inadvertently transforms his family’s fortunes at a stroke. Spotting the young Emperor Franz Joseph raising a field glass to his eye, and thus making himself a target for the enemy, Trotta wrests the monarch from his horse and takes the sniper’s bullet squarely through the shoulder. This spontaneous act of heroism confers et
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