In Joseph Roth's short life - 1894 to 1939 - he published 14 novels as well as numerous non-fiction pieces as a journalist in Berlin. Though Roth was fluent in a number of languages, most notably Polish, Russian and Yiddish, the language he spoke at home was German, and he wrote virtually all of his work in that language.
His masterwork was The Radetzky March, published in 1932. The novel records both the achievements and decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The story begins in 1859, with an act of heroism. Emperor Franz Joseph had the habit of wading into battle with his troops, a foolish act because, more than anyone else, he attracted bullets. Here, at the Battle of Solferino in northern Italy, he draws enemy fire and one of his soldiers, Lieutenant Trotta, leaps to take a bullet in the clavicle for his Kaiser. When Trotta recovers, Franz Joseph knights the son of peasants and sets a series of events in motion that turns the Kaiser's act of gratitude from a blessing into a curse.
The wise Roth, in the opening paragraph, foretells the novel's shape: "Fate had elected for him a special deed. But he then made sure that later times lost all memory of him." (From the translation by Joachim Neugroschel; there's another by Michael Hofmann.) A children's book, exaggerating Trotta's heroic act, becomes mandatory reading in schools, and Trotta writes to the ministry to have the book pulled. The Kaiser likes the "lie" and suggests to Trotta that he might like it too. It is a moment of disillusionment for the "Hero of Solferino." He wonders how many of the empire's historic moments are fabricated in the same way. It is this epiphany that turns the novel into a modern one, in the best sense.
Here is a state in which kings and queens, sanctioned by God, rule and are revered; in which wars determine outcomes until subsequent wars undo them; in which differences among nations are emphasized and similarities forgotten; in which the individual is a helpless pawn in a game in which the players are remote, unseen and all-powerful. In his 1926 novel The Silent Prophet, Roth reminds us of "the old and eternal truth that the individual is always defeated in the end."
The individual in this case is the grandson of the Hero of Solferino. The novel centres on Lieutenant Carl Joseph Trotta, the classic anti-hero we have come to know so well, Saul Bellow's "dangling man," the 20th century's answer to Hamlet. Carl Joseph cannot act because most action is unsatisfactory or even absurd. He is described as the "wavering grandson." Until the outbreak of the First World War, District Captain von Trotta, Carl Joseph's father, awaits a "glorious destiny" for his son, but the son feels trapped by a life in the army, for which he is not suited.
Yet he is smart enough to know that "war is the soldier's freedom": freedom from the discipline of the military, from the expectation to prevail, from the hierarchy, from the playing at war that goes on. He wants nothing more than to escape the twin portraits that have loomed over his life, that of the Kaiser and that of his grandfather, the man who saved the Kaiser's life.
Carl Joseph is a failure at love and a failure at friendship. He has an affair with the wife of a sergeant (she seduces him), falls foolishly in love with her, only to have her die in childbirth. Carl Joseph is transferred to a remote garrison when his father hands him the letters the young man has written to the woman. They have been returned to the Trottas by the woman's cuckolded widower, the sergeant. In the new location, Carl Joseph becomes friends with a physician named Demant. When he is seen walking with Demant's wife, someone tells Demant that his friend is at it again. Since honour supersedes all other calls to action, the men arrange a duel. Carl Joseph begs his friend to be reasonable, but there is no way to avert the confrontation. Demant and the man who taunts him both take fatal bullets.
Even when Carl Joseph thinks he has found the right woman, in Frau von Taussig, the relationship is not equal, not one adult to another. Here they are on a train together, heading for Vienna: "The white lights of stations dashed by the window, illuminating the compartment, brightening up her white face, and appearing to bare her shoulders once again. The lieutenant lay with his head at her breast like a child. She felt a blissful, beneficial, motherly pain. A motherly love poured into her arms, filling her with new strength. She wanted to do something good for her lover as if for her own child: as if her womb had birthed him, the same womb that now received him."
Carl Joseph is desperate to leave his life, leave the army, get out from under the shadow of his grandfather, the "Hero of Solferino." When he does march, finally, into battle in the Great War, his own heroic act is an ironic one. He has set down his rifle and is carrying pails of water to his parched troops.
Nations continue and Nature continues, Roth tells us, indifferent to the plight of their citizens and creatures, and the honour that moves us to action often seems egotistical and absurd. Have things changed much since Joseph Roth?
Joe Kertes is dean of the School of Creative and Performing Arts at Humber College. His most recent novel is Gratitude.