Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Radetsky March

I got back from Papau a few days ago, but have had a medical problem that has knocked me back a little, and I am still finding my bearings. This is just to note the worth of a good piece of serious fiction: Joseph Roth's still relevant meditation on decaying empire, The Radestzky March.

I was very young when I first read Tolstoy, Chekov and Thomas Mann, so missed a lot. Now, many years later, I have come to Roth for the first time, and probably appreciate this remarkable (if not quite as “great”) writer more fully.

Radetzky has luminous passages that bear comparison with the very greats. There is, for example the description at the beginning of chapter 9 of the swampy district on the Russian frontier and the people who live there. (Regarding the traders of the district who deal in everything including slaves, it looks like not much has changed since the book was written). And there is the account of the death of the servant Jacques, which is Tolstoyan in its realism.

I understand Roth has been criticised for creating characters who behave like martinets or automatons, and who are often not very bright. But I think that is part of the point of his vision. It is a profound and disquieting truth that human behaviour can be shallow and predictable as well as nasty (Roth was after all a contemporary of Kraus and Kafka as well as Freud and Mann), and it’s not as if we won’t see evidence of this in contemporary life.

It is the true that Radetzky March pays little attention to women. And some passages stretched credulity, at least for me – the Hungarian officers skipping gleefully to a speeded up funeral march on the news of the Sarajevo assassination, for example.

Is the novel excessively portentous? The ravens coming south with advent of war, for example. But to me this seems very real. Like the grandson’s dismissal of his manservant’s selfless generosity as something out of a bad fiction, the point, says Roth, is that we have been fooled by bad copies into thinking that such things don’t really happen.

“Sympathy” is not the right word for Roth’s attitude to conservatism, which he understands so well (the obvious pigeonhole for Roth himself would be “progressive”); but his historical, moral and psychological vision is more complex and enriching than can be described by any label I can think of.

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