A book filled with melancholy not only for the characters but the world in which they live, The Radetzky March is a carefully constructed memorial to a lost age. Roth depicts three male generations of loyal subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to World War I, focussing on the last, young Carl Joseph. Along the way, we get a picture of an empire in decline, of traditions slowly tottering, and of a society entirely unaware of the cracks appearing around them.
Time and again while reading this, I was reminded of The Bridge on the Drina. Both novels chronicle the history of empires and both end with WW1. But whereas Drina remains fixed on one locus in space, March roves far more widely. The writing has similarities, too. Both depict solid characters who fail in their attempts to stand against the tides of time, and both are written in prose which is very carefully constructed.
Again, like Drina, March is not always a page-turner, but it is an important read nonetheless. We receive insight into the remarkable folly of us all to believe that the societies we have constructed are somehow superior to those who have gone before and will remain impregnable. In Drina, Andrić shows masterfully that, for all our pride, a collection of stone as simple as a bridge can outlast us all. In March, Roth shows us that, with a few small holes rendered by equally small pieces of ammunition, the whole house of cards can come tumbling down.
It’s a sad novel, not least because Carl Joseph is a melancholy individual whose life seems meaningless and something out of his control all the way to the very end of the book. The writing too is shot through with pathos, and it’s this that gives the whole the air of an afternoon of incessant drizzle despite the best finery one of Europe’s greatest empires can muster.