Review: ‘The Emperor’s Tomb’ by Joseph Roth

The fate of the Austro-Hungarian Empire has much to tell us about modern politics, and Joseph Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb has much to say to people at our stage in life. It is the perfect quick read in a busy exam term.
Joseph Roth – successful journalist, novelistic zeitgeist capturer, Jewish exile from Hitler’s Germany, alcoholic – is best known for the Radetzky March, published in 1932, a sweeping chronicle of the last decades of the old Habsburg realm, a multi-ethnic state hopelessly unable to cope with rising nationalism and its own aristocratic sclerosis, and finally destroyed by the catastrophe of World War One. Trying desperately to reprise the success of this work as he approached his own premature end, Roth scribbled furiously to create a sequel. The result was The Emperor’s Tomba novel short, unpolished, and raw, now available in a new translation by Michael Hoffman.
It chronicles the life of a member of the Trotta clan, a relative of the central characters in the Radetzky March, as he is dragged from the aristocratic ease of his life just before the Great War. Less dedicated students will be able to sympathise with his style of life at the novel’s opening: “to calm my anxious mother, I was enrolled as a student of laws. I did no studying”; “I lived into the night; the days were for sleeping.” His dissolute friends adopt a modish cynicism, despising religion, and affecting disdain for every form of earnestness, especially love. They treat the women with whom they indulge in casual liaisons like “something you accidentally forgot, like umbrellas, or on purpose, like boring parcels you didn’t go back for.”
In just 183 pages we follow him through both the war and twenty years of post-war disillusionment right up until the 1938 Anschluss with Germany, his finances and relationships floundering desperately, his beloved homeland vanished. Hoffman is an insanely good translator, steering clear of the literal flatness of so much translated work, and peppering his account with words like ‘whippersnapper’ and ‘geezer’. Here, however, he doesn’t have such opportunity to create beautiful English renderings of the sort of gorgeously overflowing, near prose-poetry found in the Radetzky March. This is a novel written in a hurry. There is a jungle guerilla disdain for all slow expositions and 19th Century languor. Where one chapter ends: “In another week he would be with us…” the opening of the next jump cuts straight to, “And in another week, he arrived.”
The directness of the approach, and Roth’s use of the first person, is not always successful. For every passage of striking psychological insight, there is another which seems like a flat description of emotions to which the reader does not have ready access, made all the more problematic by the riotous speed with which a carnival of characters, events and emotional states flit across the page. Where in the Radetzky March Roth expertly builds up the potency of select images and ideas (not least the march music itself) throughout the work, here one feels as if Joan Miró had grabbed the authorial brush and daubed crude images all over the novel, as when one reads that death is “crossing his bony hands” over a scene for the umpteenth time.
An imperfect novel then, certainly, but the economy of means is more often than not simply breathtaking. Roth, ever the journalistic sketcher, can create a character reveling in memorable idiosyncrasy via a few choice observations, as with Trotta’s father-in-law, an initially prosperous hat manufacturer, his handshake like “paddling around in some hopeless pastry dough”. When Trotta mourns the death of Jacques, an elderly servant (a name given added resonance by the highly symbolic demise of another servant Jacques in the Radetzky March), he cries “he’s dying” to his new wife; “he’s old” she replies entirely unflustered. No smaller fragment could hint at so great a breach between two people. And there is much dry, desperate humour in these vignettes as well, not least in the final chapter when a jackbooted fascist enters a café to announce the Anschluss which spells the final death of Trotta’s world. Trotta’s first impression is that this apostle of Nazi triumph looks like he has come up out of the toilets.
In a Europe unsure if it can live together, and a United Kingdom asking whether its usefulness has expired, the death of Europe’s greatest modern multi-national state is especially compelling ground to re-visit. The empire was “something, greater, wider, more spacious and all-encompassing than just a fatherland”, brought to an end by a war that was a world war not because “the whole world was involved in it, but rather because as a result of it we lost a whole world, our world.” The country Trotta returns to after the war is something smaller and meaner than the old Habsburg land. His relatives cannot now easily travel as they used to across central Europe, the Empire fragmented into different states. The ruin is not only abstractly political, but vigorously present in everyday life, as (presciently) horses are minced for meat in the ruined economy, Trotta’s wealth disintegrates, and his mother slowly dies. As a dominant Germany demolishes the final vestiges of old Austria, the only place for Trotta in this bewildering new world is to pay his respects at the Emperor’s Tomb. Readers looking for historical precedents for our modern dilemmas would be well served by doing likewise.


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