The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth (1932), trans. Michael Hofmann [Granta 2003]. 8.5/10. A wonderful and profound elegy for the passing of a world (in the form of the Austro-Hungarian empire). A finely balanced delicacy of description is present throughout (for which much praise must go to Hofmann as well as Roth) which lends the story that combination of immediacy and distance present in an old, but perfectly preserved, photograph.
He took out the doctor’s watch. To his eye, the frail second hand was going round the tiny circle faster than any he had ever seen, and it ticking was noisier than he had ever heard a watch tick. The hands were going nowhere, their ticking was meaningless. Before long, I’ll be able to hear the ticking of Papa’s fob watch, when he leaves it to me. My room will have the portrait of the hero of Solferino hanging on the wall, and Max Denant’s sabre, and some memento of Papa’s. And it will be buried with me. I’m the last of the Trotta’s! He was sufficiently young to derive a bittersweet feeling of delight from his sadness, and a kind of painful dignity from his conviction that he would be the last.
Upon receiving a letter from his son stating that he is considering leaving the army (p. 260):
Everything, everything in the whole world had lost its meaning. The end of the world was at hand! And when the District Commissioner decided, nevertheless, to read the official correspondence, he felt as if he were fulfilling some futile, anonymous and heroic duty, like a telephonist, as it were, on a sinking ship.
The ending of a world (p. 268):
‘My father was responsible for me,’ said the District Commissioner, ‘and my grandfather was for my father.’
‘Things were different then,’ replied Skovronnek. ‘Today not even the Emperor can be responsible for the Monarchy. Yes, it even looks as though God doesn’t want to be responsible for the world any more. It was easier then! Every stone was in its place. The roads of life were properly paved. There were stout roofs on the walls of the houses. Whereas today, District Commissioner, today the stones are lying all over the roads, and in dangerous heaps some of them, and the roofs are full of holes, and the rain falls into the houses, and it’s up to the individual what road he walks, and what house he lives in. When your late father told you you wouldn’t be a farmer but a civil servant, he was right. And you were an exemplary civil servant. But when you told your son he was to be a soldier, you were wrong. And he’s not an exemplary soldier!’
‘I suppose not!’ agreed Herr von Trotta.
‘And that’s why you should let things go, let everything please itself! If my children disobey me, I just try to keep a modicum of dignity. It’s all you can do. I look at them sometimes when they’re asleep. Their faces look strange to me, almost unrecognizable, and I see that they are strangers, from a time that’s yet to come and that I won’t live to see. They’re still so young, my children! One of them is eight, the other ten, and when they’re asleep, they have round rosy faces. And yet there’s cruelty in those sleeping faces. Sometimes I think it’s cruelty of their time, the future, that comes over them. I don’t want to live to see that time.