The end of Ruritania
As Simon Schama points out in an article in the Financial Times The Radetzky March seems to inspire an evangelical fervour in its admirers, and I must say when I first started reading it I was a little disappointed. The novel starts at the Battle of Solferino when a humble soldier accidentally saves Emperor Franz Josef's life. From that point on the men of the von Trotta und Sipolje family become inextricably entangled in the life of the dying Austro-Hungarian empire. Concentrating principally on the life of the grandson of the hero of Solferino, the novel focuses on the years leading up to the First World War as Carl Joseph von Trotta und Sipolje becomes ensnared in a decadent life in pre-war Vienna, and in a remote army barracks on the Russian border, where the signs of the decay of the Empire are rather clearer than in the refined birdcage of the Austrian capital.
The novel started pretty slowly. In fact as Simon Schama points out the whole novel doesn't do very much at all. But as it progressed I became completely caught up in the life of this bizarre period. At one point I found myself thinking "This is just like The Prisoner of Zenda", only to realise that this was only too real, and all these cavalrymen in their gaily coloured uniforms would soon be melted into the mud of the battlefields of World War One, along with their bizarre ideas of honour.
Not knowing a great deal about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, I was amazed that such a disparate Empire covering a broad swathe of Europe managed to survive for as long as it did. It stretched from Austria to Bosnia and even the Ukraine (I finally found the Ukraine's long connections with the German speaking nations explicable). Perhaps it's not surprising that its death throes should have sucked in most of Europe.
I found myself becoming completely gripped by the beauty of Roth's writing. This is Ruritanian romance but of a completely different order, this is the real Ruritania. The land that Anthony Hope had glimpsed in all its splendour in the Victorian period, but now about to enter a rapid twilight. Immensely moving and wonderfully written, I'm not surprised that this novel grabbed me so forcefully. It's a Austrian version of one of my other favourite novels The shooting party, which I'm sure was heavily influenced by Roth. But it's all the more powerful for being written closer to the period (published 1932), and by an author who had lived through the decline. Indeed parts of the novel are set in areas that Roth knew only too well. It's a brilliant book, and quite worthy of the evangelical fervour it inspires.