Reading in Tongues: The Radetzky March

Posted on | March 6, 2011 | 6 Comments

It is a sad fact of studying languages that they are subject to rust.  Without active effort, it’s really only possible to get worse.  If I think about this too hard, or at all, I’m prone to get either sad or overzealous.  It’s the latter reaction, thankfully, that has produced this post.  “Reading in Tongues” will be a (very sporadic, ambition-contingent) feature about the pleasures and perils of reading in a foreign language.  I’ve tackled this subject before, but each book brings with it a new set of linguistics quandaries and revelations.  My latest undertaking, Radetzkymarsch, Joseph Roth’s classic saga of Habsburg decline, was my first real German-language venture into pre-WWII terrain.

The Radetzky March is a masterpiece.  It’s that simple.  I think I can best summarize the novel by quoting a single scene.  The emperor Franz Joseph stands before his court, dutifully going through the motions of a familiar ritual:

He no longer felt like inspecting the ranks, but he probably had to, lest people notice how much his own age shocked him.  His eyes were once more fixed on the distance, as they generally were, where the edges of infinity had come a little closer.  He failed to notice, therefore, that a crystalline drop had appeared on the end of his nose, and that everyone was staring in helpless fascination at this drop, which finally, finally, fell into the thick, silver moustache and there disappeared from view.
And then everyone felt relieved.  And the march past could begin.*

Among The Radetzky March’s many ingenuities, what I found most striking is Roth’s ability to juggle the macro- and micro-scale of the world he has created.  In the course of one short passage, we get the expanse of infinity, but also the mundane: an entire court rapt at the emperor’s runny nose.  Roth has mastered the use of his characters as metonyms—conceptual stand-ins for the Empire itself—without compromising their personhood.  In telling the tale of the Trotta family—three generations who raise themselves from Slovenian peasantry to Austrian nobility but fail to keep their past glories alive—Roth sketches the parabolic trajectory of the Habsburg empire, writ small.  It’s a delicate act, and one I suspect a writer anything less than brilliant would have botched.

For the most part, the Trottas inhabit their insular lives.  But the most powerful moments are the ones where the characters break into momentary awareness of their own symbolic status, grasping, however fleetingly, the fact that they represent a dying world order.  In one particularly memorable scene, the cynical Count Chojnicki—an aristocrat whom the youngest Trotta, Carl Joseph, has befriended during his appointment to a desolate military outpost on the Galician border—announces the death of the monarchy.  Ethnic factionalism has triumphed, nationalism is the new religion, the future holds a pointless war.  Carl Joseph’s father, a bureaucrat of the old order, lacks the frame-of-reference to even fathom what Chojnicki might mean: “The District Commissioner, put in a strange, almost charmed state by the alcohol, by the striking surroundings, and the unusual speeches of his host [Chojnicki], sneaked glances at his son, merely in order to glimpse someone who was dear and familiar to him.  But even Carl Joseph no longer seemed that.  Maybe Chojnicki had been right, and they had all gone on: the Fatherland, the District Commissioner and his son!”

And what of the language?  Even on the sentence level, Roth suspends us between the comic and the tragic, the specific and the symbolic.  The passage I quoted earlier about the Emperor’s nose again makes a perfect example, with its running multi-clausal sentence and word repetition (“finally, finally”) giving way to curt relief.  The language accumulates an internal pressure, which Roth punctures without so much as a pop.

The issue of the characters’ metonymic stature also bears itself out on the sentence level.  German has a great pronoun, “man,” which is closest to “one,” but much more common and without the stilted formality of the English.  Roth uses “man” often.  In an early scene, Carl Joseph and his father are finishing their heavily ritualized lunch, and Roth writes of the boy: “Er faltete, im gleichen Rhythmus wie der Alte, seine Serviette.  Man erhob sich.”  There’s no good way to render this in English.  Roughly, it’s: “He folded his napkin, in the same rhythm as the Elder.  One got up.”+ But this makes no sense.  In German, the use of “man” allows Roth to counterbalance to describe Carl Joseph’s very precise movements—his touching effort to imitate his father’s manners—with a sense that he is fulfilling a kind of preordained commandment.  One rises because that is what one does.  The details are particular to Carl Joseph, but the pronoun provides the hint of a suggestion that really, he could be anyone.

Joan Acocella, in a terrific New Yorker essay on Roth included in her collection Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, aptly diagnoses his “tragic evenhandedness.” “You marry a beautiful woman, and she hates you; you kill a scoundrel, and he kills you back; life is sweet, and you can’t have it,” Acocella writes.  Even as Roth documents a universe of the brink of fracture, he has given it the perfect tribute: a novel that is fully whole.

*Rather than attempt what would inevitably be a hideous translation, I’ve quoted from Michael Hoffmann’s excellent 2002 version for the English.
+ This translation is mine. Hofmann renders “Man erhob sich” more organically as “They rose.”


6 Responses to “Reading in Tongues: The Radetzky March

  1. Morgan
    March 7th, 2011 @ 10:25 am

    Insightful reading of the novel. I, too, loved it. I can imagine easily that the German is stunning, and agree that Hofmann’s translation is excellent. One more victory for the Neue Galerie’s bookstore.
    How foreign did the older German feel to you? I assume some of that is the period, but I also wonder how much was Roth’s device, which you describe so well in its many appearances.

  2. atlas
    March 10th, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

    Actually, it didn’t feel that different — I think I’d overestimated how alien 1932 German would be. More problematic was all the military vocabulary, which it took some time to get the hang of.

  3. Michael
    March 31st, 2011 @ 4:43 pm

    Great article. I think you’re probably right that “a writer anything less than brilliant would have botched” but I’m reading Shadow Without a Name by the Mexican novelist Ignacio Padilla and though it’s not (and couldn’t be) Roth he does an amazing job of achieving a lot of the same effects – and is obviously trying to. It’s practically a Joseph Roth tribute novel, though without seeming stylistically old-fashioned. Worth looking at. Again, thanks for the interesting read.

  4. Waimea Williams
    August 7th, 2011 @ 2:45 pm

    This novel has become one that I return to every few years. I’ve also read your article several times simply to be reminded of the insight that a reader/critic like yourself can bring to a masterpiece, and how such a work can be mined over and over. Thank you for your effort. safe online casino slots

  5. The [Insert Superlative Here] Books of 2011: A Year in Reading : Apostrophe :
    December 20th, 2011 @ 10:32 am

    [...] Old Novel: The Radetzky March. Of all the books I read this year, Joseph Roth’s chronicle of European decay is the only one that contends for the [...] play roullette

  6. Jeff
    January 15th, 2013 @ 9:50 pm

    The German language version is available as a free download on Amazon if you have a Kindle. There was also a miniseries made out of this in the mid 1990s. It is only available in German though, can stream it on, just search for It.