Mary's Library

Thursday, March 23, 2006


Joseph Roth is not as well known as Robert Musil or Stephan Zweig, but his work is considered by some to be of equal merit. THE RADETZKY MARCH (1932) is a fictional description of the decline of the Habsburg Empire during the decades before World War I, and I think it ranks with A MAN WITHOUT QUALITIES (1930, 1933.)

Captain Trotta is ennobled by Emperor Franz Joseph after saving the emperor’s life during the Battle of Solferino in 1859. The Trotta family’s pessimism and self-destruction mirrors the decline of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The lives of the Trotta men become a meaningless round of duty and empty honor. The son of the captain lives out his life in useless bureaucratic desiccation and his son, also an officer in the Austrian army, lives a life of dissipation and dies early in the First World War.

But Roth’s characters are not merely symbols; they are well defined people and the scenes of the bureaucrat and his son listening to the Radetzky March together are very touching. You can almost see the scenes and hear the music of this novel. Roth is a master.

(Bit of interesting trivia: Jean-Henri Dunant, having witnessed the atrocities of The Battle of Solferino, began the campaign that led to the Geneva Conventions and the establishment of the International Red Cross. The Red Cross, of course, takes it’s name from its flag, which Dunant created by reversing the colors of his native Swiss flag.)

You can hear a bit of the famous Radetzky March by searching on Radetzky-Marsch at

Vienna in this period of dazzling elegance and corrupt despair is endlessly fascinating. This is the Vienna of Klimt (and the Vienna Succession), Kokoschka, Schnitzler, Herzl, Wittgenstein, Loos, von Hoffmannsthal, Kraus, Schonberg, Mahler, Bruckner, Freud, Jung, and of course, Musil and Roth. Stalin, Trotsky, and Lenin were in Vienna just before WW I, and so was Hitler. You can read about it in these histories, which I own but have not yet read in their entirety:

A NERVOUS SPENDOR: Vienna 1888-1889 (1979) and THUNDER AT TWILIGHT: Vienna 1913/1914 (1989) by Frederic Morton

FIN-DE-SIECLE VIENNA: Politics and Culture (1981), by Carl E Schorske

WITTGENSTEIN’S VIENNA (1973), by Alan Janik and Stephen Toulmin

VIENNA’S GOLDEN AUTUMN: 1866-1938 (1987), by Hilde Spiel


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