Category Archives: Roth, Joseph

The Radetzky March Readalong: Part One


When Caroline, at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, and Lizzy, at Lizzy’s Literary Life, announced that they were hosting a ‘Radetzy March Readalong’ I knew I’d have to join in. The Radetzky March is comprised of three parts and Caroline and Lizzy have asked those of us taking part to consider questions related to each part. Here are my answers to the questions on Part One.

What enticed you to readalong with us?
I have read a few books by Joseph Roth and have enjoyed them all but I hadn’t read his most famous novel, The Radetzky March, which is the only book by Roth to be included in Boxall’s list 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. The books by Roth that I have read are Hotel Savoy, The String of Pearls, The Hundred Days and, one of my favourite books, The Legend of the Holy Drinker. I’ll admit that The Radetzky March had never really appealed to me as much as Roth’s other books but when Caroline & Lizzy first made public their intentions I was reading Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson which was about the First World War from Germany’s and Austria-Hungary’s perspective and so I thought that it would be a good time to read a novel about the Austria-Hungaria military set prior to WWI.

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading?
I am reading a Kindle version of the Granta edition translated by Michael Hofmann. I bought it back in 2014 from Amazon when they were selling it off cheap. I have no issues with the translation.

Is the novel living up to your expectations?
Well, yes and no. It hadn’t appealed to me before as I’m usually reluctant to read military books; though in the past I have ended up enjoying some books, or sections of books, that have a military setting. The first chapter I really enjoyed but I felt that it read more like a self-contained short story than the opening chapter of a novel. I felt the next few chapters were a bit confusing as Roth jumps a generation to concentrate on Carl Joseph. I have now re-read parts of the book including the whole of chapters seven and eight and I’m enjoying it a lot more now. I’m now looking forward to Parts Two and Three a lot more than I was.

How would you comment on the first few sentences? Is this an effective opening? “The Trottas were not an old family. Their founder had been enobled following the battle of Solferino. He was a Slovene. The name of his village – Sipolje – was taken into his title. Fate had singled him out for a particular deed. He subsequently did everything he could to return himself to obscurity.” (Translation: Michael Hofmann)
The opening lines almost summarise the whole of the first chapter but hides enough to make the reader intrigued to find out more. I always like opening lines that draw the reader in. I thought they were effective.

Roth subscribed to Chekhov’s view that a writer “should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness”. That doesn’t mean that we as readers need to be the same! How do you feel about the hero of Solferino’s crusade to return to obscurity? What are the ramifications of this for his descendants?
When the elder von Trotta discovers that the story of him saving the Emperor’s life has been used for propaganda purposes he feels as if he has been cheated of the truth. No-one he talks to can understand his level of indignation over this but it is enough for him to leave the military and move away. When he objects to this mythologising of this part of his life he just receives more honours. His faith in Emperor and Empire appears to be broken. His descendants, however, appear to accept their place amongst the aristocracy without question but this places a burden on them, and especially on Carl Joseph as he embarks on a military career, to constantly live up to the example set by the Hero of Solferino.

Carl Josef von Trotta follows his grandfather into the military. Is his life there honourable and meaningful? Is his fateful relationship with Dr Demant’s wife innocent?
Carl Joseph doesn’t seem to know quite how to behave. He doesn’t know how to talk to his servant, as he suspects his grandfather would have. He doesn’t feel comfortable with the other officers as he doesn’t share their enjoyment of drinking, womanising and playing cards. The military life in peacetime seems meaningless as he is denied the possibility of matching his grandfather’s achievement.

It is not clear whether Carl Joseph was romantically involved with Frau Demant: Demant’s father-in-law tells Demant that Carl Joseph was with his wife but Demant wants to believe that nothing is going on— Demant does not want to know the truth, whereas Baron von Trotta insists the truth should be told. Early on in the narrative everything suggests that Carl Joseph and Frau Demant’s relationship is not platonic. But once the duel has been declared Carl Joseph states that he was just escorting Frau Demant home on the night in question. This could be true but that does not mean that there was nothing going on between them before, or Carl Joseph could be dissembling. It is not clear why Demant left his wife at the theatre during the Second Act.

Strauss’s Radetzky March is heard almost as a refrain throughout this section. What is the significance of that?
As Strauss’s Radetzky March is jubilant and triumphant I can only assume that its appearance throughout the novel is ironic. As it has a military history it is relevant to Roth’s story.

Roth may not judge his characters, but his sights are aimed at other targets: the social order and the military code of honour, for instance. How does Roth critique these?
None of the Trotta men seem to be in control of their lives. When the Lt Trotta is enobled his old life is extinguished and he feels separated from his father whom he respects and loves. He forces his son, Franz, into a bureaucratic career whilst Franz forces his son, Carl Joseph, into a military career. Sons obey their fathers and subjects obey their Emperor. As aristocrats they have certain rights or privileges such as Carl Joseph’s apparent right to sleep with Sergeant Slama’s wife but they also have certain duties such as fighting duels to defend their honour—there is an excellent passage at the beginning of chapter eight which highlights this tension between rights and duties:

The officers went about like the baffling followers of some remote and cruel godhead, which simultaneously cast them as its colourfully disguised and magnificently decked sacrificial animals. People looked at them and shook their heads. They even felt sorry for them. They have many advantages, so people said. They can walk around with swords, women fall in love with them, and the Emperor looks after them in person, as if they were his own sons. But then, in a trice, before you’ve noticed anything, one of them has managed to offend another, and the offence needs to be washed away with red blood!…

Set in what was very much a man’s world, what do you think of the way Roth portrays the female characters?
Female characters are noticeable by their absence. A novel about the military is going to be mostly about men but the wives and mothers of the three von Trotta men are barely mentioned at all and there is no mention of sisters, aunts etc. I don’t think Carl Joseph’s mother is even mentioned; it’s as if male begets male. Carl falls in love with Frau Slama at an early love and doesn’t seem to get over her but one wonders if that is because she is the only female he has any contact with. Frau Demant is probably the most prominent female character in the first part.

Do you have any further comments on this section?
I initially struggled a little with my reading of The Radetzky March but I’m coming round to suspect that the trouble is with me. I sometimes find it difficult jumping from one author to another especially when their styles differ which is what happened here as I went straight from reading L. P. Hartley to Joseph Roth. I was also expecting the novel to progress slowly through the generations but instead it jumped from grandfather to grandson which was unexpected. I have sometimes found the narrative to be deliberately misleading but I’m getting used to Roth’s style—I don’t recall his other books being difficult in this way.

In writing this post I have re-read several sections and the whole of chapters seven and eight and realise there was a lot that I missed which I put down to reading large portions of the book under ‘hostile reading conditions’, i.e. noisy and disjointed. I’m looking forward to advancing to Part Two. I loved the beginning of Chapter Eight where Roth compares the years before and after WWI—Vishy quotes the whole section in his post.

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‘The String of Pearls’ by Joseph Roth

In the spring of the year 18——, the Shah-in-Shah, the great, exalted and holy monarch, the absolute ruler and overlord of all the lands of Persia, began to feel a sense of malaise of a kind he had never experienced before.

And so begins Joseph Roth’s novel, The String of Pearls. If it seems like the beginning of a fairy tale, or folk tale, then its original title, Die Geschichte von der 1002en Nacht (The Tale of the 1002nd Night) would probably support that. For me the beginning of this novel felt so much like a Maupassant story that I wondered how Roth was roth_string-of-pearls-fcx-700pxgoing to spin it out for the whole length of a novel. But Roth is playing a different game here; what it is I’m not quite sure, but he’s certainly playing around with our expectations of how the story is going to proceed.

So, the story begins around 1870-ish, with the Shah of Persia deciding to visit Vienna as a means to improve his physical and psychological health. After some amusing delays (you will have to read it to discover these) he arrives in Vienna and is treated with respect by the authorities and great interest by the populace. We are introduced to Baron Taittinger, Captain of the Ninth Dragoons, who has been seconded to assist with the running of the Shah’s visit. The Baron is a bit of a loveable idiot who likes to split human beings into three categories: ‘charmers’, ‘so-so’s’ and ‘bores’; there are too many bores around for the Baron’s liking. Meanwhile the Shah is treated to all sorts of entertainments, and it is whilst attending a ball that he is smitten by the Countess W. Bored with his harem of 365 wives he wants to fall in love with a Western woman.

He had come to Europe to enjoy the singular, to forget the plural, to trespass on individual property, to break the law, just once, to experience the pleasure of unlawful possession and taste the particular, sophisticated pleasures of the European, the Christian, the Westerner.

Used to geting what he wants the Shah demands that the countess is brought to him that evening. So what can the Austrian courtiers do? The Countess can’t be treated like a common prostitute and the Shah will feel snubbed if they refuse him his wish. It turns out that the Baron, who had been involved briefly with the countess before her marriage, had also had a brief fling with a girl, Mizzi Schinagl, daughter of a shopkeeper, who looks as if she could be the twin sister of the countess; it’s decided that she should ‘stand-in’ for the countess and be presented to the Shah. Mizzi, who is currently working in a brothel, is persuaded to do this and everything goes to plan. As a gift, the Shah gives Mizzi a string of pearls.

It is here that the focus of the story becomes more fluid as we now follow Mizzi Schinagl and her relationship with the Baron and the brothel owner Frau Matzner. We have already been told how Mizzi had given birth to a son by the Baron; the Baron however had no interest in the boy and it was left to Mizzi to bring him up. Frau Matzner advises Mizzi to marry Xandl, her longstanding fiancé and to put money into the haberdashery that had been bought for her by the Baron. But Mizzi is in love with the Baron—her love for the Baron persists throughout the novel, despite the Baron’s apparent indifference. Mizzi sells the pearls and ends up losing the money and going to prison over a scam. The String of Pearls has an enormous number of characters for such a small book and it is from this point in the novel that it became a bit disorienting for me as I was no longer sure who was the main focus of the book; we switch from Mizzi to Matzner to the Baron to a writer called Lazik and back to the Baron. In the end the book is about the Baron’s and Mizzi’s relationship, but being rather an unconventional one, we are taken on a circuitous journey. Roth’s description of the Baron is rather entertaining:

He took the Captain as he was, and was fond of him, with his cheery heartlessness, his incapacity to think beyond a couple of thoughts, for which his skull was far too roomy, his insignificant love affairs and childish infatuations, and the pointless and unconnected remarks that came out of his mouth, seemingly at random. He was a mediocre officer, who didn’t care about his comrades, his men, his career.

The Baron is a bit of a blockhead who just breezes through life but as his money runs out and he is forced to resign from the army, due to a scandal over some dodgy literature, he has to depend on others. But it’s too late for any drastic changes to be made to his life. In telling this story Roth avoids giving us what we want, instead he veers away at the last minute from doing so. For example, near the end of the book it looks like the Baron realises that he loves, or at least cares for, Mizzi and contemplates making an honest woman of her…but then he doesn’t do anything about it; he appears to just forget about it. We expect the Baron to realise the errors of his way of life but he does no such thing, instead he misses the army life where he was happiest and tries to turn the clock back.

This crazy book is the kind of book that only begins to make a bit more sense once we’ve finished it. What seemed quite random at the time makes a bit more sense now that I’ve completed it. But it was a fun read full of strangely compelling characters and bizarre scenes. In his introduction the translator, Michael Hofmann, sums the book up brilliantly:

The String of Pearls is a strange book: frothy, highly decorated, full of money and costumes and ambience and light, a pitiless morality with the cruelty of fable. The novelist keeps skipping ahead of the reader, into ever more distressing and constricting settings and situations—but he never stops skipping. Its scenes and images live in the memory: in this short book there is enough for many books.

It’s certainly packed with a multitude of characters and memorable scenes that it will be difficult to forget. The novel comes full circle with another visit by the Shah but this time the Baron is in disgrace. The last paragraph contains a comment by a writer that could easily be Roth’s justification for writing the novel.

I might be capable of making figures that have heart, conscience, passion, emotion and decency. But there’s no call for that at all in the world. People are only interested in monsters and freaks, so I give them their monsters. Monsters are what they want!

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‘Hotel Savoy’ by Joseph Roth

GLM-V 2015I started to read Joseph Roth’s Hotel Savoy for the 1924 Club but ran out of time to post a review. The book really appealed to me as it was set in a hotel and there’s an endless parade of quirky, sometimes grotesque, characters, and yet I found that I didn’t really enjoy it; it seemed a bit of a trivial book. And then I looked at it the other day, which is only a week or so after I had finished it, started reading it again and enjoyed it the second time through. I think the main problem was that I was rushing through it and as it’s a book with a fast-paced narrative most of it just wasn’t sinking in. Note to self: to enjoy reading I have to take it slow.

Published in 1924 it’s an early work by Roth. The main character is Gabriel Dan, a soldier returning home from a Russian concentration camp after World War I. He’s ended up at the Hotel Savoy in an unnamed Roth - Hotel Savoy fccity in Eastern Europe (Wikipedia states that it’s Łódź, Poland), his ultimate aims are unclear but he’s currently just looking forward to some running water, a clean bed and soap.

I am thankful once again to strip off an old life, as I so often have during these years. I look back upon a soldier, a murderer, a man almost murdered, a man resurrected, a prisoner, a wanderer.

He has one of the cheap rooms on the sixth floor. The hotel is quite luxurious but the occupants of the hotel are a mix of the wealthy and the poor – Gabriel mixes mostly with the poor. There is a strike going on at one of the factories and there is talk of revolution in the air, especially with the influx of soldiers returning from Russia. Gabriel is scarred by his experiences of the war and finds it difficult to reconnect with humanity.

I am alone. My heart beats only for myself. The strikers mean nothing to me. I have nothing in common with the mob, nor with individuals. I am a cold person. In the war I did not feel I was part of my company. We all lay in the same mud and waited for the same death. But I could think only about my own life and death. I would step over corpses and it oftened saddened me that I could feel no pain.

Gabriel quickly settles into the rhythm of the hotel even if he constantly feels like he should be moving on. We’re introduced to a whole load of characters in the first half of the book, there’s the girl, Stasia, in the room above who paces about during the night, there’s Gabriel’s rich uncle Phöbus who’s reluctant to part with any money, there’s Phöbus’s son Alexander who is attracted to Stasia, as is Gabriel. There is also Santschin, an elderly clown, whose act involves a donkey, Hirsch Fisch who dreams of winning lottery numbers and sells them to customers, and there’s Ignatz the elderly lift-boy who always seems to be watching what people are getting up to. There are rumours about the Greek owner, Kaleguropulos, turning up for an inspection though no-one ever actually sees him and there are rumours that a child of the town, Bloomfield – a millionaire who now lives in the U.S., will be visiting soon. And there are many more characters that we get to know via short pencil-sketches of their more entertaining traits.

Gabriel can’t decide whether to stay on at the hotel or to leave. He sometimes dreams of a life with Stasia, but at other times he just wants to move on. When Alexander offers to pay a significant amount for Gabriel’s room he at first accepts and then changes his mind. In Part Two an old war buddy, Zwonimir, turns up and stays with Gabriel. Zwonimir is a revolutionary, he’s a lot more talkative than Gabriel and believes that the future is with America. The novel becomes a bit more focused with the arrival of Zwonimir as he gets to know all the inhabitants of the hotel and when he’s bored with that he finds some work for himself and Gabriel. Gabriel sums up Zwonimir thus:

    He is a healthy person. I envy him. In our part of the world, in the Leopoldstadt, there were no such healthy fellows. He enjoys the vulgar things of life. He has no respect for women. He knows no books, reads no newspaper. He does not know what goes on in the world. But he is my loyal friend. He shares his money with me and would share his life with me.
    And I would do as much for him.

So, with Zwonimir things pick up. Bloomfield arrives and both Zwonimir and Gabriel ingratiate themselves into his life for a while.

It’s certainly strange that I didn’t like this book on my first read as it’s just the type of book that I find entertaining. The book is quite bleak, in a way, but has plenty of humour, loads of weirdly interesting characters and a climactic ending. If I wanted to be critical then I would say that the narrative style clips along a little too quickly and the book may have been better if Roth had expanded certain bits and slowed down. But it is what it is, and in the end I thoroughly enjoyed it. I may read it again in another week’s time.

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‘The Hundred Days’ by Joseph Roth

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The Hundred Days was originally published in 1935 as Die Hundert Tage and the title refers to the famous period when Napoleon Bonaparte returned to Paris from his exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba to once again rule as Emperor of France. He arrived in Paris on 20th March 1815, whilst the Congress of Vienna was in full swing, and reigned as Emperor until he surrendered a little while after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

Roth_Hundred-Days_fcX-700pxThe novel is split into four parts: the first and third parts are close-ups of Napoleon when he’s arriving in Paris in March and following his defeat at Waterloo respectively. The second and fourth parts concern the life of a laundress who is employed within the Emperor’s household and who idolises him.

At first this seems like a strange structure for a short novel about this period and I was a little dubious of whether it was going to work but by the end of the novel I was convinced – it’s just that it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

Book One opens in Paris – the King has fled and the Emperor has arrived to a rapturous reception. Roth explains why the populace loved him:

They loved him because he seemed to be one of them – and because he was none the less greater than them. He was an encouraging example to them.

Roth also gives us a quick summary of Napoleon’s character:

He promised the people liberty and dignity – but whoever entered into his service surrendered their freedom and gave themselves completely to him. He held the people and the nations in low regard, yet none the less he courted their favour. He despised those who were born kings but desired their friendship and recognition. He believed in God yet did not fear Him. He was familiar with death but did not want to die. He placed little value upon life yet wished to enjoy it. He had no use for love but wanted to have women. He did not believe in loyalty and friendship yet searched tirelessly for friends. He scorned the world but wanted to conquer it anyway.

Back in his imperial palace Napoleon sets about forming a new cabinet, he sees his family, especially his mother, sees a fortune teller, he inspects his army and prepares for war against the expected Allied attack.

He envied his enemy, the lethargic old King who had fled with his arrival. The King had ruled in God’s name and through the strength of his ancestors alone had kept the peace. He, however, the Emperor, had to make war. He was only the general of his soldiers.

We get to see the Emperor, quite often, when he is alone and so one time, whilst walking in a park he hears someone nearby and becomes fearful of an assassination. But it is only a laundress, who can barely answer his questions; we do discover that her name is Angelina Pietri and that she is originally from Corsica, as is the Emperor, and he takes a note of her name. In the following days he studies maps, reviews his troops and prepares for war. When he’s reviewing his troops he notices a drummer boy, calls him over and discovers that the boy is called Pascal Pietri. He remembers Angelina’s surname and confirms that she is Pascal’s mother. Pascal corrects Napoleon when he assumes that Pascal’s father has the surname Pietri, instead it is Levadour. We see the human side of Napoleon here.

He remembered Angelina Pietri, the little housemaid whom he had seen in the darkness of the park. The memory cheered him, and the name Angelina, her little son who beat the drum in his army, and the brave freshness with which the boy had corrected him about his father’s name nearly moved him. Yes, these were his people, these were his soldiers!

Book One ends with Napoleon going off to battle.

Book Two is titled ‘The Life of Angelina Pietri’ and so we learn how Angelina moved to Paris, how she got a position as a servant in the Imperial household through her aunt, Véronique Casimir. As she cleans, the Emperor is often present, though always in another room. There’s one curious passage where Angelina is asked to a room, given a drink and asked to wait. She waits, drinks some wine, inspects some paintings, waits and then falls asleep. She’s woken in the morning when the Emperor enters the room brusquely and she is dismissed. The reason for her being there is not explained though we can probably guess. Anyway it’s a mix up as the Emperor calls his servant an ‘idiot’.

In Book Two we also learn about Angelina’s relationship with the Sergeant-Major Sosthène Levadour. Angelina discovers that she is pregnant but wants nothing to do with the father, she certainly doesn’t want to marry him. Angelina doesn’t love Levadour, she loves the Emperor.

All across the land and the world, women loved the Emperor. But to Angelina it seemed that to love the Emperor was a special and mysterious art; she felt betrothed to him, the most exalted lord of all time.

Her son is, of course, Pascal. From this point on the tale of Angelina becomes more interesting, at least it did for me, as Book Two covers the period up to Napoleon’s abdication and the reinstatement of the monarchy under Louis XVIII.

I’ve probably revealed more of the plot than I’d originally intended so I’ll just say that we’re also introduced to one of the more loveable characters in the novel, Jan Wokurka. Books One and Two cover about two thirds of the novel. In Book Three we see the events following Waterloo from Napoleon’s perspective. There’s a wonderful scene in this section that takes place on the battlefield but I won’t reveal any more. Napoleon appears weaker, less sure of himself, and often just wants to give up – he’s truly defeated. With the final book we’re back with Angelina and we follow her fate during Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. Be warned there’s an unexpected ending.

hundred_days_cover_300_430I read the translation by Richard Panchyk, published by ‘Peter Owen’ in 2011 and pictured at the head of this post. This was the first English translation for seventy years. This translation has recently been published in the U.S. by ‘New Directions’. I prefer the New Directions cover as it demonstrates that the focus of the novel is more on Angelina than on Napoleon directly but the Peter Owen cover makes a bit more sense when you’ve read the book.

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