The Radetzky March Readalong – Part 1


SPOILER WARNING – The answers and questions give away important plot points


Welcome to the #germanlitmonth spring readalong of Joseph Roth’s more famous novel, The Radetzky March.  What enticed you to readalong with us?

I’ve read the book ages ago, in school, however, because we started it towards the end of a semester, we never finished it and because we were moving on to other books, I also never finished it for myself. Although more than one book has been spoilt because I read it in the class room, this one wasn’t. I really loved it, just never found the time to get back to it. The longer I waited, the clearer it became, that I couldn’t just read the final chapters but had to start from the beginning.

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading?

I’m reading it in the German original. A paperback edition. Unfortunately it is one of those without any introduction or notes. This is decidedly one of those books where notes would have come in handy.

Is the novel living up to your expectations?

It’s in many ways much better than I remembered it. I don’t think I caught how intertwined the themes of death, dying, and the end of an era were. I also didn’t remember how much it focussed on one person and how male-dominated it was.

How would you comment on the first few sentences? Is this an effective opening? “The Trottas were not an old family.  Their founder had been ennobled following the battle of Solferino.  He was a Slovene. The name of his village – Sipolje – was taken into his title.  Fate had singled him out for a particular deed. He subsequently did everything he could to return himself to obscurity.” (Translation: Michael Hofmann)

I found this very typical for its time, but a bit clunky for a contemporary reader. It’s vital information, of course. It also works as foreshadowing of many of the themes, especially the last sentence. It’s just not the kind of beginning that invites you with open arms, so to speak.

Roth subscribed to Chekhov’s view that a writer “should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness”.  That doesn’t mean that we as readers need to be the same! How do you feel about the hero of Solferino’s crusade to return to obscurity? What are the ramifications of this for his descendants?

I got where he was coming from. I didn’t think he ever saw himself as particularly heroic and the way what he did was described in the school book made him seem even more heroic. On the other hand, his behaviour is typical of the older Trotta’s. They are such a strict, pedantic, joyless lot. And it seemed like he didn’t feel he was deserving of his title.

Carl Josef von Trotta follows his grandfather into the military.  Is his life there honourable and meaningful? Is his fateful relationship with Dr Demant’s wife innocent?

I was wondering while reading these chapters and came to the conclusion that the relationship possibly was innocent. Roth mentions physical contact when it happens but he doesn’t mention it here. I could be wrong, of course, but it would make Demant’s death even more tragic.

Roth may not judge his characters, but his sights are aimed at other targets: the social order and the military code of honour, for instance.  How does Roth critique these?

I think the duel and subsequent death of two officers shows very well how Roth felt about the code of honour. The whole story is absurd and so is the outcome. It doesn’t even matter, whether or not Trotta and Demant’s wife were having an affair. One has also the feeling Demant doesn’t even do it because of his pride, but because he thinks he has to. I’ve come across other duels in novels and they are always used as a means to show how cruel the code of honour was. But I don’t think I’ve ever come across one with quite that outcome. The double death makes it even more cruel and absurd.

Do you have any further comments on this section?

What struck me the most in this section was Carl Joseph’s reaction to Mme Slama’s death. It’s almost as if it hit his core and he wasn’t the same from then on. He immediately associated her death with the decay of her body. I suspect, although I have no proof whatsoever, that this is rather how Roth felt about death. The images of worms eating decaying bodies is recurring. Obviously, it also echoes the death of the monarchy. As a reaction of such a young man, it seemed extreme, but her death could also have triggered an underlying depression, which became aparent in these morbid thoughts.


25 thoughts on “The Radetzky March Readalong – Part 1

  1. Pingback: The Radetzky March Readalong: Part One – Lizzy's Literary Life

  2. Fascinating post. Writers who do not judge their characters often write great character studies. Their creations are commonly very complex. I actually think this is a rare thing as most writers do judge their characters to some extent.

    Overall the book sounds very good.

  3. What a multi-faceted question–Might Carl Joseph’s relationship with Dr. Demant’s wife innocent? In my view, it’s possible that Carl Joseph visited her with what he was convinced was innocent intent. But, he was so vulnerable because of his deep need for a warm, loving, intimate connection with a woman, a vulnerability that stems from his lack of a mother growing up, (or as far as we know), the lack of a warm, affectionate woman in his childhood. What Roth chooses to show us of his childhood is quite stark and barren as far as an emotional world is concerned.
    So I don’t believe he was entirely innocent. He was looking for something (I say intimacy and affection) from his best friend’s wife and, I might add, he felt guilty later, even if “nothing” happened, because he wanted closeness with her. It just seems to me that he is not a person who pays purely social calls on his friends’ wives when the friends are not home.
    But what a good discussion question! I hope that you, Caroline, will jump back in or other readers. I’d love to know more of what you and others think about this.

    • That’s a very astute interpretation, Judith. You’re so right. He was lacking a mother. I suppose we all thought of a sexual relationship but, in a way, any kind of strong bond might have been perceived as not innocent at the time. I’m not surprised Carl Joseph turned out the way he did, given his upbringing.

  4. Just to let you know that I’ve mentioned this to a friend who has read The Radetsky March – it was quite a while back, but still…I know the book made quite an impression on her at the time, so she may well be interested in the reviews.

    • Oh great. I hope she’ll like the posts. I had to be brief because of my health problem. Grrr. Got something really painful but thinking of what you went through . . . Any way – it’s some pain syndrome that affects my shoulders/neck/arms/jaw/head and that means I can’t type for long or even hold a book for long. That’s the worst. Yeah well.

  5. Pingback: Book Readalong – The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth – Part 1 | Vishy's Blog

  6. Beautiful post, Caroline! I loved reading your thoughts on how the book was very different from what you had expected based on your earlier reading. I also liked your description of Mme Slama’s death and Carl Josef’s reaction to it and how it was a metaphor for the end of an era. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Thanks so much for hosting this readalong with Lizzy! Loving it so far!

  7. Hi Caroline,
    I’m wishing and hoping that your head misery is improving. Nothing is nastier than that!
    Caroline, I posted a comment here on Thursday, April 4th, in the early afternoon here, and probably early evening for you. It seemed to go through without a hitch that I know of. Just wondering if it came through by any chance. Thanks.

    • Hi Judith, Thanks, yes, it’s very tough. At least it’s not because of something serious. Seriously painful but nor life threatening. Your comment was in the spam folder. Thanks for telling me. I unearthed it.

  8. I like your observation about the duel, Caroline: “One has also the feeling Demant doesn’t even do it because of his pride, but because he thinks he has to.” I hadn’t quite thought of it in those terms, but you hit on it perfectly. He seems to be going through the motions, locked into a fate he can’t escape from, and the same goes for the other characters. They can see what will happen, but they can’t do anything to change the outcome, even though it’s clearly absurd and wasteful. Another allusion, perhaps, to the unavoidable decline of the empire itself (double death – dual monarchy)?

    • It could be an allusion, I agree. Or the reason why it had to go. Clearly, these people were only half alive, not free choice. Old habits like crusts. Stagnation. Probabaly all sign that soemthing needs to go.

    • My pleasure, Carole. My headache is not gone. I’ve had it for almost three months now. Some days are Ok, some are really bad. I’m seeing a specialize dphysical therapist today. Let’s hope she can help.

  9. Late to the party here, so I will just post a little on chapter one. I especially want to comment on what you said about the opening sentences. Yes, they are bald ad unadorned, but not clunky, I’d say. They establish early on the sardonic tone that will be the keynote of the chapter. We read of major events – births, deaths, marriages, upheavals – but all treated with the same air of faint amusement by our omniscient narrator.

    • That’s true. Another commenter called him a great ironist and that’s a trait that is very present in this opening. It’s not breezy and we’re used to other openings but it is effective.

Thanks for commenting, I love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.