The Radetzky March Readalong: Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of the readalong of Joseph Roth’s novel The Radetzky March, kindly organised by Caroline and Lizzy. For Part 1, click here. To avoid spoilers, don’t read anything at all. But who cares about spoilers, right?

Radetzky March readalong

Are there characters you like or dislike particularly so far?

Roth has a great knack for making characters feel real, without making them particularly likeable or dislikeable. I feel sorry for most of them, locked as they are into quite horrible lives and seemingly unable to escape from them.

I find myself drawn to the characters who seem more free, and perhaps more modern, like Frau von Taussig and Wojciech Chojnicki. In some ways, of course, it’s their wealth and privilege that sets them free. But other characters in the book are also wealthy and privileged and yet still seem completely bound by convention and rules.

There are no villains in the book, for me at least. Even those who do very dislikeable things seem to have so many extenuating circumstances that I just end up feeling sorry for them rather than disliking them.

What does the old servant Jacques and his death stand for?

Jacques is the epitome of the old era that is dying in this book. To me, he’s not very believable as a character: he’s like every faithful, loyal old servant in every book you’ve ever read, multiplied by about a hundred. He never questions why he lives his life in squalid servant’s quarters while serving a wealthy man, never misses a day of work, is as solid and dependable as the sun rising in the east. So when he dies, it is a huge shock to his master, and it foreshadows much bigger shocks to come.

Also, in a book in which so many things seem to be linked to the fate of the dying Austrian Empire, the slow death of Jacques, ailing for so long, then seeming to recover, then suddenly dying, seems like a perfect allegory.

In many ways Chojnicki is the opposite of Jacques. What did you think of him?

As I mentioned before, I felt drawn to him as the most modern character in the book. He is irreverent, lightly cynical, he punctures long-held taboos, and above all he thinks for himself and doesn’t seem to care what people think of him.

So, yes, he is the opposite of Jacques, and the opposite of most other characters in the book. Whereas the others seem to be puppets on the strings of fate, he seems to be controlling his own destiny. Even in modern life, of course, we are still subject to much larger forces over which we have no control. But at least in the way he lives from day to day, Chojnicki is free of a lot of the fetters that seem to bind the other characters.

What do you make of this quote?

“I haven’t forgotten him,” said the lieutenant, “I always thought of that painting. I’m not strong enough for this painting. The dead! I can’t forget the dead! Father, I can’t forget anything. Father!”

Carl Joseph is hopelessly drunk when he says this, which is perhaps why there’s more honesty in this quote than in any other words exchanged between father and son.

It captures the two shadows cast over his life: the death that seems to trail him wherever he goes, and the grandfather whose heroic life so overshadows his own.

What do you think of Roth’s style so far?

It’s plainer than I expected. My only experience of Roth before this was reading his newspaper feuilletons in a collection called The Hotel Years. In that book, some of the prose was quite beautiful, with meticulously observed scenes and really telling details.

In The Radetzky March, I find the prose to be more functional. There are some quite poignant descriptions of the characters and their dilemmas, but the physical description of place and action is quite straightforward and not particularly beautiful. That said, there are some beautifully worded insights into the broader world of Roth’s creation.

Radetzky March

Were you surprised to find the last chapter of part 2 told from the point of view of Kaiser Franz Josef? How effective did you find it?

I was surprised, after being in the company of the Trottas for the whole book, to jump into Franz Josef’s head, but I did find that passage very effective. It showed quite a complex character, a vulnerable old man losing his memory but also an intelligent man who can see more than his subordinates realise and yet is wise enough to know he doesn’t always have to reveal it.

Do you have favorite quotes? Please share them and tell us why you like them.

With some books, I highlight so many passages that I don’t know which one to choose at the end. With this book, I’m not highlighting much. It’s not because I’m not enjoying the book—it’s because the joy of the book is more in the overall effect than in the individual details. As I mentioned, the style is plainer than I expected, and most of the beauty comes in the more abstract descriptions.

Nevertheless, there were some quotes that stood out for me. This is a great way of introducing a new character and making us immediately see who he is, while also saying something important about the time and place:

“On the frontiers of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy there were at that time many men of Kapturak’s sort. All round the old Empire they started to circle like those cowardly black birds that can see someone dying from an enormous distance. With black and impatient wing-flaps, they wait for his life to end. With pointed beaks they jab at their prey. No one knows where they come from, or where they’re bound. They are the feathered brothers of mysterious Death, his heralds, his companions, and his camp-followers.”

When he meets Frau von Taussig, Carl Josef feels like he’s happy for the first time. Do you think that’s true? How do you think of her and their relationship?

He does seem happy, but the relationship seems odd. At 42, Frau von Taussig is significantly older than Carl Joseph but not exactly ancient, and yet Roth seems to take every opportunity to make her seem older than she is.

He always refers to her as Frau von Taussig, for example, instead of by her first name, and even in their early passion in the train, there are multiple mother/son references: “The Lieutenant lay across her breast like a baby”, “Maternal love coursed into her arms”, “He was a satisfied child”, etc.

So it seems like the kind of relationship a psychoanalyst would have a field day with, and although I’m hoping it works out, I really don’t think it will.

How do you feel about the descriptions of alcoholism in this section?

They were chillingly real. One of the saddest scenes, for me, is when Carl Joseph’s father visits and sees his son collapsing drunk on the floor, and he wants to help him but can’t say anything except a feeble line about being careful about the schnapps.

Roth captures really accurately the seductive way in which the local “ninety-proof” takes away the boredom of frontier army life and smooths away the awkwardness of social interactions and makes life easier and more bearable in the moment, while in the long term eating away at Carl Joseph’s ability to live a normal life.

Where will the novel go from here? What do you think will happen next?

It’s been on a downward trajectory so far, and I expect that to continue, although I’m not sure in what form. The war is coming soon, of course, and with it defeat and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Since the Trotta family’s fate seems to be linked to that of the empire, and since his prospects are quite dire in any case, things aren’t looking very good for Carl Joseph.

But I’m still very intrigued to see exactly what form the downfall will take. Disgrace? Bankruptcy? Alcoholic despair? Death? All options are open at this point.

Update: I have now published my thoughts on Part 3 of The Radetzky March.

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There are 8 comments

  1. The book sounds so good. It is striking how in general, so many people were so less free in older stories. The world has indeed changed.

    Amoung many good things that I have heard about this book, many say that the depiction of alcoholism is frighteningly real.

    1. Yes, that’s true! I think that in every age there’s a conflict or tension between individualism and cultural norms, but those ties seemed much stronger in the past. Hope you get to read this book one day!

  2. Andrew,
    I found myself nodding and nodding while reading your thoughts in this post. I enjoy your sensitive reading of the novel. Because Carl Joseph’s mother died when he was so young, and he didn’t appear to have a maternal figure growing up, he seems to be drawn to women who can provide the affection and intimacy of a mother figure (and sex, of course.)
    I read the Emperor Franz Joseph character differently, and too one-dimensionally. I prefer your more balanced view.

    1. Hi Judith, Thanks for visiting! Yes, there is definitely that feeling of trying to fill the maternal void, isn’t there? I enjoyed reading your post too. I’m enjoying the readalong because it’s always fascinating to see how different people respond to the same book. And it’s good to discover new blogs too:)

  3. We really felt very much the same about this part.
    I would agree, there’s no real villain other than society. The people are not free enough to be truly bad.
    I liked that quote. It’s very expressive. there are a few passages like that throughout the book. I’m surprised that his journalistic writing is better stylistically speaking.

    1. Yes, that’s a good way of putting it, Caroline – society is the villain here. It’s the social rules that cause so much death and destruction, and they seem like rules dictated by Fate, over which none of the characters can exercise control.

  4. Hi Andrew, I was interested in your assessment of Chojnicki- you saw him in a more positive light than I did. I saw him as a free spirit by virtue of his wealth and privilege. I liked your quotation too, which evokes the amorality of Kapturak and his role in Carl Joseph’s decline, but also more generally the atmosphere of the inevitable end of something. Thanks for making me think about aspects of the book in a different way!

    1. I’ve enjoyed that about this readalong too, Mandy – it’s great to see how different people react differently to the same book and characters. I remember from your blog that you detested Chojnicki, and I can see why. Thanks to you too for making me think about him in a new light!

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