THE AUSTRIAN EMPIRE was the least modern-minded power in western Europe, the last openly multi-national state before the Soviet Union began to try to hold peoples together with new ways and hopes. Austria's ways and hopes were long past their prime in 1914, when the war that finished them began with a nationalist Serb's assasination of the heir to the Austrian throne. The empire's decline was slow and gradual, and so was the rise of new ideas incompatible with it, like the right to national self-determination. But the war that made these changes official was sudden, bloody, traumatic. It gave people who had some sympathy with the old dispensation a special senstivity to the painfulness and inexorability of change.
A Berlin journalist named Joseph Roth put this sensitivity into a fine novel, which Eva Tucker has translated beautifully. The novel tells about three generations of the Trotta family, beginning with the grandfather, a Slovene peasant named Joseph who accidentally saves his emperor's life at the Battle of Solferino. Afterwards everyone calls the peasant the hero of Solferino--even the schoolbooks retell the lies about him--and he becomes a baron.
Joseph's son, the district commissioner, Franz, leads the life of a model imperial civil servant, correct if a little stupid, and his son Carl Joseph becomes a moderately well-meaning lieutenant in an imperial army without much coherence or purpose. He causes the death of his only friend, the regimental surgeon whose memories of his own grandfather--a silver-bearded Jewish innkeeper--remind the lieutenant of the hero of Solferino. Carl Joseph makes love to an older woman, with "the heart of a girl of sixteen...a beautiful secret in a crumbling castle," he runs into debt, leaves the army, is killed in the war, all of it without much coherence or purpose. Not even the emperor can remember any longer just what the lieutenant's relation to the hero of Solferino is, since the emperor is a kindly but forgetful old man, confused because the schoolbooks tell lies about him, too.
There are lots of books and movies about similar declines and falls, but a lot of them--Gone with the Wind or Graham Greene's The Quiet American--don't convey the reality of the underside of the world they're nostalgic for, and so they end up in cheap sentimentality or cheap cynicism. Roth takes neither of these easy paths. When Lieutenant Trotta has his men shoot some striking factory workers, he does it with no ill will or satisfaction--but he still kills people for wanting work that doesn't mean getting tuberculosis. All Roth's jokes, even the quietest, have a hard, tired edge to them. When Carl Joseph realizes that there are countries which haven't heard of the hero of Solferino, Roth says he's as confused as if he had realized
that countless suns shimmer in the Milky Way, each with planets of its own. So that one is, oneself, a paltry individual, if not, to speak quite bluntly, nothing but a little heap of dust.
Roth likes his characters anyway because they don't realize this yet: the crumbling castle still conceals a beautiful secret. Even the paltriest character is at least a little more than a little heap of dust. And each can count on having this recognized, if not entirely by his social superiors, at least by the members of his own class.
FRANZ TROTTA thinks of eastern Austria as a wilderness where bears and uncivilized peasants run untamed. But the peasant who serves as his son's body-servant can still desert and go back home. If the army catches him it will hang him, but the rest of his village won't given him away, and no bombardier will reduce them both to dust without ever seeing either. "In those days before the Great War when the events narrated in this book took place, it had not yet become a matter of indifference whether a man lived or died," Roth begins a long paragraph, one of the best in the translation.
That was how things were then. Everything that grew took its time in growing and everything that was destroyed took a long time to be forgotten. And everything that once existed left its traces so that in those days people lived on memories, just as now they live by the capacity to forget quickly and completely.
Roth found that those who lived on memories of beautiful secrets ran into problems with those whose interests demanded quick and complete forgetting. In 1933, just a year after he published The Radestzky March, he left Germany--he was a Catholic son of Jewish parents, and known as an anti-Nazi. He moved to Paris, and never went back to either Germany or Austria. These countries' rulers--the fascists who succeeded the old imperial barons--learned from their predecessors' decline how hard it is to hold change back, and how much strength there was in new ideas like national self-determination and workers' rights. But they decided to modernize their countries' technologies while shoring up their crumbling social systems--a decision like the one the United States would make later on, when it decided to help developing countries' governments modernize their economies and suppress their people's revolts. In the long run, the fascists' effort proved as fruitless as the Trottas' family pride. But that didn't help Roth--who died in 1939--or people destroyed by the attempt.