There is a lot said about the gifted but unappreciated, the genius who dies without recognition, or the capable man who never fulfils his potential. Are these tragedies? Perhaps. But I’ve often thought the greater sadness, the bigger tragedy, is the simple man or, more specifically, the mediocre man, elevated, despite his lack of abilities, beyond his appropriate station. How does the unimaginative man, the middling man, who has little of worth to offer, approach a world that expects something worthwhile from him? You might argue that Thomas Mann touched on this somewhat in his great novel The Magic Mountain, but Hans Castorp doesn’t confront the world, and by extension his own lack of ability, but rather he avoids it, he hides from it in a Swiss sanatorium, and in an illusion of ill-health.
Joseph Roth’s masterpiece, The Radetzky March, deals with three generations of the ordinary, but suddenly favoured, Trotta family. The first, Captain Joseph, saves the life of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Franz Joseph I [you’ll have some trouble keeping all the Franz’s and Joseph’s straight in your head!], at the battle of Solferino.
[The Battle of Solferino by Carlo Bossoli]
As a reward, the Emperor awards him the medal of Maria Theresa, promotes him, and ultimately ennobles him. However, far from pleasing Trotta, these gifts appear to burden him; as does his standing as a hero. With his promotion, and new status, comes certain expectations; expectations from which he shrinks. In a key scene, Trotta one day spies a propagandistic story in his son’s school book, which exaggerates his bravery in the battle of Solferino. To everyone’s surprise, he is livid and wants the story to be removed. On the surface his behaviour may seem to be about honour and truth, but, for me, it is about hiding, about wanting to avoid the spotlight, and about not being able to accept an image that is the opposite of how you see yourself. In the same situation a brilliant man would have made the most of the opportunities afforded him – his promotion and status as a hero etc – but Trotta is an average man, the simple son of a Slovenian peasant.
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is how Trotta’s actions during the battle of Solferino, and his subsequent ascension, do not only profoundly alter his own situation. In a kind of butterfly effect, Roth shows how one incident can have far-reaching consequences, can influence the lives of numerous people, across generations. Even his relationship with his own father is changed by it, is, in fact, made impossible. Not long after his promotion, he goes to visit the old man, who, in turn, does not really know how to approach his now-famous son. Trotta wishes that he would speak Slovenian to him, as he used to, even though he – the son – barely understands the language, but, alas, he does not oblige. At the end of the visit, Trotta reflects that this will be the last time he will see his father; an unbridgeable gap has opened up between them. There is a lot of this sort of thing in the book, episodes involving this emotionally-stunted family fumbling through their interactions with each other, wary of intimacy, unable or unwilling to say what ought to be said or do what ought to be done. I found it incredibly moving.
To my mind, much of The Radetzky March is about identity, about what defines you as a person. This is particularly true in relation to Carl Joseph, the hero’s grandson, who dominates the greater part of the novel. While the grandfather is, in a sense, trying to avoid an identity that is being thrust upon him, Carl Joseph is trying to find one. Joseph Trotta is the hero; Carl Joseph is merely the relative. This title, the grandson of the hero of Solferino, weighs heavily upon him [he is almost haunted by a painting of the old man], and, he feels, he can’t live up to it. As expected, he joins the military, but he isn’t suited to the army at all; he doesn’t look good on horseback, is awkward when put in positions of responsibility, and fails miserably the one time he is called to lead his men in a confrontation.
Due to his awkwardness, Carl Joseph struggles to make friends, and it is significant that the one that he does make, Dr Demant, is also an outsider. Demant is a Jew, and, like Carl Joseph, feels out of place; he has, other officers say, the most unmilitary bearing. As his story progresses young Trotta is plunged more and more into crisis, a professional crisis, a literal crisis, involving a duel and large debts, but more so a crisis of the soul. At one stage he gets himself a mistress, Frau Von Taussig, and, for a brief time, while wearing his civilian clothes, he feels like a free man, like someone. It is worth noting that one of the central principles of the army is a lack of individuality; rules, procedures, orders dominate; the self is negated; not only that but, as noted, in the army he is the grandson of the hero of Solferino; it is only in civvies that he feels comfortable, or happy. Yet this brief period of happiness does not last; Carl Joseph is a tragic figure; he will not win the day. He cannot, for he lacks the mental wherewithal to save himself. He is, unfortunately, a poor dumb schmo.
‘There were a lot of things he didn’t understand, Lieutenant Trotta.’
It ought to be pretty clear by now that The Radetzky March is not a particularly lighthearted, joyous book. Beautiful? Yes, very, but there’s very little happiness. It may, therefore, not surprise you to learn that a lot of people perish throughout the 350 or so pages. [Indeed, it is very clever that a book so concerned with death begins with a man’s life being saved.] The high body count serves, I think, two purposes. Dealing with death in a healthy way is, of course, difficult for most of us; but for the Trottas, for unimaginative men who do not know how to live themselves, and certainly do not know how to grieve, it is impossible. So you could see Roth’s use of death as simply one more thing to throw at his emotionally crippled central characters; it brings into even sharper focus their sad inability to deal with the vagaries of existence. Furthermore, the novel is set in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, and so the preoccupation with death also serves to foreshadow the impending Great War, by which I mean, of course, World War One, where hundreds of thousands of people will die, when such issues as what it means to be an individual, Carl Joseph’s chief concern, will become meaningless. That is, perhaps, the most heartbreaking thing of all about The Radetzky March; that, throughout most of it, one is aware that very soon none of this will matter, all of this agonising about identity, honour, duty, family, etc, will be washed away in chaos and blood.