What a treasure!
This is a masterpiece to be savored, celebrated, and shared. Straddling the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, The Radetzky March uniquely combines the color, pomp, pageantry, and military maneuvering of the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with the more modern political and psychological insights of the twentieth century, giving this short book a panoramic geographical and historical scope with fully rounded characters you can truly feel for.
Following the fortunes of three generations of the Trotta family, the novel opens with the story of the grandfather, whose battlefield actions in the mid-nineteenth century save the life of the man who becomes Emperor Franz Josef. He is well rewarded by the emperor, and his son and grandson remain connected with the leaders of the country and benefit from this relationship. Fifty years later, however, the values of the monarchy and of the people it serves have changed, and the monarchy is no longer the dominating force it once was. As a world war looms on the horizon, other states look greedily at the old empire.
Atmospheric effects are so rich and details are so carefully selected that you can hear the clopping of hooves, rattling of carriage wheels, clang of sabers, and percussion of rifles. Parallels between the actions of man and actions of Nature, along with seasonal cycles, bird imagery, and farm activity, permeate the book, grounding it and connecting the author’s view of empire to the reality of the land. Loyalty, patriotism, and family honor are guiding principles here, even when these values impel the characters to extreme and sometimes senseless actions, as seen in a duel.
Significantly, there are no birth scenes here, only extremely touching scenes of aging and death, adding further poignancy to the decline and fall of the empire itself. And just as Trotta, in the end, has the little canary brought in to him, commenting that “it will outlive us all,” perhaps this novel, too, will someday emerge from its obscurity and live as the classic it deserves to be.
Notes: The author’s photo, taken in 1918, appears on his LibraryThing page: http://www.librarything.com
ALSO by Roth: THE LEVIATHAN