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BOOK REVIEWS

THE RADETZKY MARCH

BY JOSEPH ROTH

The Collected Stories of Joseph Roth 9780393043204

I can see why it’s considered a classic. It’s an academic’s paradise. And yes, it does reflect the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And yes, there are some beautifully written passages but I can also see why it’s not so widely known or read. It didn’t grab me and I didn’t engage with the characters. I found it immensely depressing and at one point had to leave it aside to experience real life and real people before I could face it again.
Initially I enjoyed the slow pace which seemed to reflect the times in which it was set and I thought it worked well especially in the scenes leading up to the point where the military code of honour demands that the Doctor challenge another officer to a duel because somebody saw his friend accompany his wife from the theatre!    After that the lugubrious pace began to pall and I thought that much of the description was there merely for the sake of description. No doubt the academics love the idea of how Roth plays with time. Yeah… that’s what the sci-fi fans love playing with time as well  but  there’s only so much time-warping I can put up with.
For me the best sequence in the book was Carl Joseph’s first affair. Hhe’d lost his mother as a child and lived a life devoid of women so the relationship was a sort of mother and son. Then he discovers that his lover  died in childbirth…was it his child? And that his father knew all about it and so did her the husband. But nobody says anything.  They all suffer from advanced stiff-upper-lippery!  There were moments of vivid description but most of the time I felt at a remove from the scenes, as though a sepia veil hung over them.  I thought the writer  obfuscated his scenes with too many details.
And how depressing was army life?   Depressing in the extreme. No wonder they all drank and gambled.    While I believed the code of honour, the snobbishness, the casual racism, the drinking and the gambling I found it impossible to believe  that all these young men lived without sex or even a reference to it.
None of the characters  came alive for me. The military characters seemed like toy soldiers. Even the main characters, Carl Joseph and his father, were more  a collection of attitudes rather than real living people. The only thing that rang true was Carl Joseph’s two affairs. Both were strictly sex only yet, each time he believed that he was in love. (Which of us hasn’t been there?) And as for the women …they were mere plot devices. Roth clearly could not write women.
There was a moment at the end where the father mourns his son’s death which was bordering on being touching but mostly I was relieved when everyone died and the First World War came like a breath of fresh air! I know… what a bizarre conclusion!

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