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Dr Peter Fifield on Joseph Roth, The Radetzy March

Dr Peter Fifield on Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March. Trans. Michael Hofmann. London: Granta, 2002.

Alongside that of Stefan Zweig, the English publication of Joseph Roth’s writings during the past couple of decades has marked the belated arrival in Britain of two distinctive, Jewish voices speaking of the rich, varied culture of Austria-Hungary. The Radetzky March is Roth’s most well-known novel and relates the story of the military Trotta family, whose own decline matches that of their nation, which finally dissolved in the conflagration of the First World War. Published in German in 1932 and in English in 1995, like the translators I am rather late in getting around to this novel, despite its belonging to the period that I research and teach.

I have repeatedly been struck by the poignancy of the inter-generational story, which features four generations of men. Each is dominated by the legacies and the memories of the generations that preceded them, especially by that of the second generation Trotta, an infantry man whose quick thinking during the battle of Solferino, a famous defeat by Napoleon III in 1859, saves the life of the young emperor Franz Joseph I. Trotta, whose deeds appear in the state’s school books, is known throughout the book as “The hero of Solferino” and his portrait hangs over, in both senses, his son and grandson throughout their lives.

One section of the novel has particularly struck me. Following the deaths of two members of the regiment in a duel, the narrator bemoans a decline in the quality of memory.

In the years before the Great War, at the time the events chronicled in these pages took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a man lived or died. When someone was expunged from the lists of the living, someone else did not immediately step up to take his place, but a gap was left to show where he had been, and those who knew the man who had died or disappeared, well or even less well, fell silent whenever they saw a gap […] Everything that existed behind traces of itself, and people then lived by their memories, just as we nowadays live by our capacity to forget, quickly and comprehensively (p. 120).

This lament is an affecting pause in the story, reflecting, from the period of the novel’s publication in 1932, on the values of a lost era and its culture. But in doing so it repeats and entrenches a troubling valorisation of the past. Roth’s complaint about the decay of memory is of a piece with the fourth generation Trotta’s worry about his compelling but incoherent calling to some great heroic act, passed down from his grandfather. Not too remote from the “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be” joke, the narrator communicates not only the power of the past and the importance of remembering, but also the danger of such a retrospect. Perhaps, it implies, remembering is best forgotten.

Roth’s novel is especially engaging when read in the approach to our own annual festival of Remembrance on and around 11 November. The remembrance of those killed during the First World War has taken on a formal, institutionalised air that its conventions have taken the place of the precise moral stipulation of behaviour and dress have occupied the ground left by the large-scale withdrawal of military and religious practices from the public sphere. The infamous case of Michael Foot’s wearing a so-called donkey jacket when laying a wreath at the Cenotaph in London—an action deemed so inappropriate that it ensured his political failure—is only the most well-known demonstration of the enforcement of moral standards of dress and behaviour which were once regularly embodied by the public visibility of the uniforms of soldiers and priests. In reading Roth, the reader is placed in a period and culture where the monarch always appeared in military dress, is referred to as the “Commander in Chief”, and the military, always visible in highly decorative dress, dominate the culture of the nation. An anxiety about memory foreshadows the decline of these institutions.

The institutional practices of remembrance speak eloquently to Roth’s concern. The creation of the Lutyens Cenotaph as a permanent memorial to replace an unexpectedly successful temporary monument, speaks to a broader anxiety about the fate of remembering in 1919-20. But it also manifests precisely the problem that Roth notes. National remembrance challenges the value of personal, individual and private memory with the superlative visibility of corporate memory: the leaders of political parties remembering the fatalities of a regiment, religion, class, region, or even a whole country or empire. This has become especially acute with the death of the last veterans of the very war that the Cenotaph was established to commemorate. This has been a widely-observed phenomenon as first-hand accounts of the war exist now only in recorded forms. But it also points to what I think is an even more significant moment: when those who can remember someone who died are themselves dead. That is, not when we lose the last of the first-hand combatants, but when we lose the last of the first-hand “rememberers.” We must be nearly at this point in 2016, as the children able to remember their lost parents would now be around a hundred years old. When this moment arrives it will make universal a transformation of remembrance into one of impersonal, distant action. At this point commemoration will be had entirely in the absence, and at the expense of memory. We will perhaps, like Roth, be left to remember what remembering felt like.

by Dr Peter Fifield, October 2016

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