"A word, a word so easily spoken; it is not spoken."
I am developing a minor obsession with the literature of the 19th and early 20th century Hapsburg Empire, and I can't quite put my finger on why, or how it started, unless it was when I read about Robert Musil in Philip Ball's amazing Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another. Ball's interest was in Musil's unfinished two-volume novel, The Man Without Qualities, and its depiction of a mathematician's dispassion for the world, which doesn't sound terribly promising on the face of it, does it? But it's quite an engaging read nonetheless, and one that I look forward to re-reading again soon; I'm a Robert Musil fan (see also my look last year at Musil's first novel, The Confusions of Young Torless, from last year), loving his way of examining moral and social paralysis and its consequences, as well as how his German prose becomes English.
The (delightfully!) occasionally ornithological Radetzky March* both does and not partake these qualities (or, I guess, lack of qualities) as it details the misadventures of three generations of the Trotta family: a grandfather ennobled as a reward for sort of blunderingly saving Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph's life in battle, a son whom the new Baron forces into a civil service instead of a military career**, and a grandson who takes up the family's military mantle again, only to very nearly disgrace it.
But this makes it sound like The Radetzky March is a book in which things happen, and really, it's not. It's more a book in which things are felt and perceived, and what is perceived is mostly that the Empire is in a period of stasis and stagnation, a period in which the gloss of civilization is polished to a blinding brightness, the better to conceal the turmoil it hides, the turmoil of an empire that purports to bind a staggering variety of cultures, religions and ethnicities into one people*** but really hasn't, except in that all those different peoples are temporarily too busy buffing and polishing (under some duress) to get on with the business of being themselves and hating each other. But don't worry, they'll get around to it. Boy, will they get around to it.
But even that makes it sound like stuff is happening. Which is erroneous. I mean, these people don't even eat:
"The baron had a bizarre relationship with food. He ate the most important morsels with his eyes, so to speak; his sense of beauty consumed above all the essence of the food -- its soul, as it were; the vapid remainders that then reached mouth and palate were boring and had to be wolfed down without delay."And:
"He was sorry that Trotta had missed the schnitzel. He would have gladly chewed a second one for the lieutenant -- or at least watched it being eaten with gusto."Nor do they ever really seem to talk to each other, especially not the Trottas. Especially not the youngest Trotta, who is constantly struggling over whether or not to utter even the most banal pleasantry: "Carl Joseph almost replied reverently 'Good evening, Herr Doctor!' But all he said was 'May I?' and sat down."
And things get worse when young Lieutenant Carl Joseph Trotta (the grandson), posted to a border village whose chief employer is a bristle factory, suddenly faces his duty as a soldier to put down an insurrection at said factory. He insists to a colleague that he "simply won't order the men to shoot!" because he now realizes that the factory workers are "poor devils" but another tells him "You'll do what you have to, you know you will." And what he has to do right away is get drunk... And do things improve from there?
"Immense files swelled around the Trotta case, and the files grew, and every department in every agency splattered a little more ink on them, the way one waters flowers, to make them grow."So, uh, not so much, then.
And then there's the dreary love affair and whatnot (in general, women are not well-regarded in Radetzky March, but what are you gonna do? This is a story about a young man raised motherless by, apparently, a motherless son of a military hero, said son spending most of the novel either in military school or in the military. Sausage fests everywhere). Sigh.
But so then why bother to read this stuff at all, you might ask? Because it's good. As a masterful evocation of the spiritual paralysis of an entire society, as a look at the consequences of too much civilization as something that does not require robot butlers and flying cars to happen, as a vivid portrait of the twilight years of Emperor Franz Joseph (who had "lived long enough to know that it is foolish to tell the truth.") and the Hapsburg Empire just before the outbreak of World War I****, and, yes, as an exquisite piece of writing for its own sake -- as all of these things, The Radetzky March is a very, very good book.
*The book's title comes from a piece of music by Johann Strauss, Sr., which a military band plays outside of the grandfather's house every Sunday to salute their local hero. It's a nifty, stirring tune if you care to enjoy:
As for my characterization of Radetzky March as occasionally ornithological, dude, it is loaded with references to birds, from a servant's caged canary to the different birds singing outdoors in every season in Austria and the empire -- a very charming touch. Seriously. More birds than anything I've read this year that wasn't by Michael Chabon. Birds signal changes in scene and setting and sometimes provide the strongest of dramatic counterpoints (hello, wild geese and Russian ravens!). This is wonderful!
**The grandfather's insistence that the son have any career but military stems from a misunderstanding regarding a children's history book that presents a tarted up version of how the grandfather saved the Emperor's life, to which the grandfather takes great but ultimately ineffectual umbrage in one of the more bitterly humorous sections of the novel.
***All in the service of allowing the Hapsburgs, once Holy Roman Emperors and lords over most of Europe in one form or another, to feel like they still had an Empire and were still a relevant power in world affairs, big terrifying inbred jaws and all (though yes, I'll admit to having been a little sad when they finally had to cut down the Sisipalm in 2008).
Oh, and check out the people, as seen through the eyes of a somewhat minor character, Count Chojnicki:
"The German Austrians were waltzers and boozy crooners, the Hungarians stank, the Czechs were born bootlickers, the Ruthenians were treacherous Russians in disguise, the Croats and Slovenes, whom he called Cravats and Slobbers, were brushmakers and chestnut roasters, and the Poles, of whom he himself was one after all, were skirt chasers, hairdressers and fashion photographers."So, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was basically the Golgafrincham B Ark, then?
****Weirdly, it was only when the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was communicated (very dramatically) that it hit home for me that the events of this novel were taking place in the 20th century. The book otherwise feels so timeless, so universal, that a particular historical event's depiction, even second-hand as happens here, is really jarring, but not in a bad way. Just a wow way.