Thursday, September 22, 2011

Serious historical fiction

After heaps of very light material, each book selected for the very profound reason that it was the next in the series, I got a little cocky and decided to take on something more literary, at the urging of my old friend Amazon. Behold: The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth.

And let's all take a moment and the proximate excuse to listen to the Radetzky March, shall we? I came to this book by a typically circuitous route. I had been reading the Frank Tallis mysteries set in Vienna, and realizing that I was reaching the end of the series, looked them up on Amazon to see whether there were another one coming soon or if there were something similar the Big A could recommend.

I realize that every time I use Amazon for recommendations librarians and indie book store clerks around the country experience stabbing pains, but such are the lazy, degenerate times we live in.

Anyhow, A-dog suggested Roth, which rang a bell; I'm reasonably sure I've had this book recommended to me before. And then the library had it, and the back of the book described it as a "classic saga". In spite of my demonstrable love of unchallenging fiction, I, like most academics, prefer to think of myself as a reader of Important Books, so this was calling my name. "A masterpiece"! "One of the most readable, poignant, and superb novels in twentieth century German"! "A universal story for our times"! Just like me!

Plus, I have a fondness for the name "Radetzky" ever since hearing it pronounced by a Dutch professor in the resoundingly awesome way that only a Dutch professor on an impassioned tangent can.

As a book about the whimpering end of the Austro-Hungarian empire, this is a Serious book and really a very sad one. Emptiness and aimlessness seem unavoidable; real human contact and love are non-existent. It's a sad, dying world, in which the exterior and interior, never terribly closely allied, are moving unavoidably apart.

It's not all doom and gloom, of course; there are some very sweet moments and although it's hard to judge the style of a book in translation the writing is excellent too. Here's a lovely little sentence that was practically made for excerpting:
Lieutenant Trotta wasn't experienced enough to know that uncouth peasant boys with noble hearts exist in real life and that a lot of truths about the living world are recorded in bad books; they are just badly written.
Although there's also a bad-weather storm that kicks up as they receive the news that the Archduke has been assassinated, so.

It's a very "male" novel; the emotional trials and inhibitions (mostly inhibitions) of men are the core of the book. In a way, the book doesn't portray a culture or a society so much as a creaking mechanism, in which there is only one way to act, one direction to take, and little or no choice about anything. In this way, although it ostensibly follows various individuals' lives, the book is directly "about" the empire rather than the people.

All of this is unsurprising, I suppose, but especially unsurprising given that Roth wrote the book in the early 1930s (first published 1932). That, in itself, is fascinating.

The Radetzky March is very good (and I'm sure Harold Bloom and the New York Review of Books et al. are relieved to have my confirmation of their judgment). It does not make for the best commuter reading -- although carrying it almost certainly makes you look smart in a non-trendy way, so if that's your goal, bypass the so-last-year thick plastic frames and give Joseph Roth a try.

In all seriousness, if you have an interest in European history leading up to the First World War, this would make a good choice. Austria-Hungary tends to get overlooked in survey courses, not without good cause, but it's a fascinating and central (also literally central) part of understanding the long-19th century, and indeed the 20th.

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