Every Sunday the strains of the Radetsky March are heard outside the residence of Baron von Trotta, son of the lieutenant who saved Emperor Franz Joseph's life at Solferino and father of Lieutenant Carl Joseph who saves the Emperor's portrait from a whorehouse. (Thus have times changed!) As this book narrates the saga of four generations of the von Trotta family and the parallel decline of Franz Joseph's Austro-Hungarian Empire, the strains of this march dwindle until it, too, is finally obliterated.
Roth's masterpiece touches us as he deftly depicts the disillusionment that inevitably replaces the once-elevated code of honor of an outdated Empire. The book's style, that of an omniscient author reminiscent of nineteenth-century aesthetics, complements its subject. Here is a glimpse of a world where military and social rank dictate behavior, where women are seductresses regardless of social pretenses, where servants are endowed with unquestioning loyalty, where Jews live on the fringes of society yet must also subscribe to its rigorous decorum. Yet, as the exploits of the youngest von Trotta illustrate, this world has become decadent in its rigidity.
For the von Trottas, as for the Hapsburgs themselves, this discovery comes at a time when one cannot escape its consequences. For it is the rhythms of the Radetsky March, along with the portrait of the Hero of Solferino (whose heroism is not all that it was made out to be) that shaped even the youngest von Trotta and remain forever in the background, preventing a return to the family's peasant heritage and the romanticism of a more idyllic existence.
Roth's book is well worth the read. It is especially endowed with a gentle irony that bespeaks compassion without indulging in sentimentality. For those of us still trying to understand what formed the Western world of the twentieth century, it abounds with all the poignant music, imagery, and people of pre-World War I conditions in Eastern Europe.