The Radetzky March, Opus 288 is an exuberant march written by Johann Strauss Sr. in 1848. If you think you've never heard it, you're probably wrong – listen to this rendition and I bet you'll recognize it. Note also that the audience automatically begins to clap in unison – it's a tradition that dates back to the march's origins when Austrian soldiers spontaneously clapped and stomped when it was played (thank you, Wikipedia).
Joseph Roth wrote The Radetzky March in 1932, as the fascist movement was gaining strength in Europe. His novel looks backward somewhat nostalgically at the decline of the Hapsburg Empire and the parallel decline of the von Trotta family. The entire story hinges on a single incident in 1859, when the young Slovenian infantry lieutenant Joseph Trotta saves the life of the equally young Kaiser Franz Josef of Austria at the Battle of Solferino in Italy. His heroism is rewarded with a barony and a promotion; he becomes Captain Joseph Trotta von Sipolje.
Now a member of the aristocracy, the captain is distanced from his peasant father (“his father was separated from him by a heavy mountain of military ranks”). Embittered by the misrepresentation of his heroic act in a patriotic children's book, he directs his son Franz away from a military career into a civil service position as a district captain. But Franz, seduced by the strains of the Radetzky March and the legend of his war hero father, sends his son Carl Joseph to a lieutenant's life in a prestigious cavalry regiment.
All this happens in the first fifty pages. The remainder of the book traces the paths of Franz, Carl Joseph, the emperor and the empire itself. The individual incidents in Carl Joseph's life seem mundane in themselves, and yet a sense of foreboding and inevitability hangs over his story. Even the minor characters, who seem three dimensional in their ordinariness, each add a layer to sense of disintegration that Roth builds. The respect and admiration that the father feels for the aging emperor, wonderfully portrayed as a doddering but sympathetic old man, is not shared by the son, who begins to see only vacant eyes in the emperor's portraits. The morale and cohesiveness of the army itself seems to be disintegrating in parallel to Carl Joseph. Even as the soldiers anticipate the upcoming war they sense their doom.
Lieutenant Trotta's betrayal of the kindly Jewish Doctor Demant haunts him as his military career falters. Did Roth foresee his own and Austria's future in this incident? Less than a year after his book was published, Joseph Roth fled Germany for Paris, and his works were burnt by the Nazis. If you had known that in advance, would it have changed the way you experienced this book? What is Roth saying about fathers and sons? There are so many, including a number of father figures. In a book almost devoid of female characters, what role do you think the episode with Frau Slama played?
As a footnote, I'd be really interested to learn which translation you read. Mine was by Joachim Neugroschel, and I've seen references to ones by Michael Hofmann and Geoffrey Dunlop. In general it was a clear but formal style with a few odd exceptions. In Chapter 19, in the scene where news of the assassination in Sarajevo is delivered to the regiment party (wasn't that a great scene, with the storm rumbling in the distance and the military bands playing?), there's this description of the footman: “Although a sensible and enlightened middle-aged man, he suddenly got the creeps in this vestibule”. Got the creeps? I'd love to hear about other translations of that line.