Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March

July 18, 2012

I have enjoyed several novels set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire back when it was a going concern — especially The Good Soldier Svejk and The Road into the Open. Roth’s classic account of three generations who preserve and serve the Emporer Franz Joseph seems flat in comparison with the others.

In The Good Solider Svejk, Jaroslav Hasek showed us how the Czechs felt about the Empire and its military: unimpressed, mocking of its pretentions, slightly sour overall. In The Road into the Open, Arthur Schnitzler gave us the reactions of the Viennese Jews to their newly-enjoyed freedoms: pleased but suspicious, uneasy, and also slightly sour.

In contrast, the Trottas have diluted their ethnic identity. Once they were Slovenian peasants, but one of their number saved the life of the young Emporer Franz Joseph and thus became “the Hero of Solferino.” The hero is ennobled, given money, and enabled to make a prosperous marriage. His son, in turn, is an official, a bureaucrat wholly devoted to the cause of the emperor, a cause which is in essence the Austrian cause. This matters within the huge, multi-ethnic empire in which the various groups aspire to separate national identities. We sense a looming disaster. When the emperor dies it will be the end of the empire and the end of the Trottas.

The central figure of the story, Carl Joseph Trotta, is the grandson of the Hero of Solferino. As a boy, he hears the playing of the Radetzky March as a call to serve Franz Joseph, to die for him, gloriously if at all possible. Yet, Carl Joseph is weak and unsatisfactory in his own life. He is in the cavalry, but doesn’t like to ride his horse. He drinks to get through each day. He makes love opportunistically but understands nothing about women, young or old. He serves, dutifully according to his lights, but he is the prototypical man who just doesn’t get it. What doesn’t he get? That the entire thing is a sham. When the Hero saw how falsely his deeds were portrayed in a school primer, he protested.

“All historic events,” said the lawyer, “are rewritten for school use. And to my mind this is proper. Children need examples that they can grasp, that sink in. They can find out the real truth later on.”

The Hero was there, and so he knows. The grandson has only heard the story, not the real truth.


The Journals of John Cheever

March 5, 2012

John Updike says it well in his review of John Cheever’s book in The New Republic:

To speak personally, this old acquaintance and longtime admirer of Cheever’s had to battle, while reading these Journals, with the impulse to close his eyes…. His confessions posthumously administer a Christian lesson in the dark gulf between outward appearance and inward condition; they present, with an almost unbearable fullness, a post-Adamic man, an unreconciled bundle of cravings and complaints, whose consolations — the glory of the sky, the company of his young sons — have the ring of hollow cheer in the vastness of his dissatisfaction.

A few years ago, I greatly enjoyed the 1978 collection of Cheever short stories. Those were just snippets of the dissatisfaction Updike observed. Taken through year after year of loneliness and discontent in the published journals, the vastness and repetition of the unhappiness moves out of art and into pathology. Constantly involved with reporting his own thoughts and surveying his own skin, Cheever shows little sense of a similar set of concerns within other human beings. After years of conflict, John and Mary consult a psychiatrist:

The gaze of his golden eye is vast and steady. His face might be described as soft. The picture, as I saw it, was that I, an innocent and fortunate creature, had married a woman who suffered from deep psychic disturbances. The picture, as it was presented to me, was of a neurotic man, narcissistic, egocentric, friendless and so deeply involved in my own defensive illusions that I had invented a manic-depressive wife.

Cheever rejects this analysis and the psychiatric consultations are discontinued.

Cheever came to understand and to acknowledge that he was bi-sexual. He was attracted to men, but he he also dreams of beautiful and loving young women. If a woman is not up to his standards of beauty, he questions why would anyone reward her with sex. In MacDonald’s:

There is a couple–a mother and son, I think. She is one of those women of such exhaustive plainness that you wonder about the moment of conception. What could have compelled anyone to penetrate her?

Women must be unmistakably female, or as he says elsewhere “wifely”:

There was a genre of imperious women in the twenties whose hell-for -leather manner made them seem slightly mannish. They were sometimes beautiful, but their airs were predatory and their voices were sometimes quite guttural.

But no real wife can be wifely enough. The marriage fluctuates between good, bad and merely tolerable. Even during a good period, Cheever is confused about cause and effect.

So on my knees in church I am grateful for the present turn of events in my marriage, and I pray it may continue, although I do see that some of the difficulties seem to be part of my immortal soul and that these difficulties were at times made tolerable by my drunkenness.

Tolerable? For whom?


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