It took a couple of attempts to get into this novel. It was the same with Roth’s others that I have read (The Radetzky March in particular); although I am familiar in theory with the period and the Zeitgeist, I still find the attitudes and the codes foreign (because they are!) and somewhat alienating. Appropriate enough, since the novel is narrated by someone who is alienated from his times.
It starts on the eve of the First World War and ends with the Anschluss. The narrator is thoroughly rooted in the Habsburg Empire: he is proud of his family’s history in the service of the emperor and is the quintessential Viennese man about town. He has his code of honour and his loyalty to the empire as the mantle that protects its myriad people: he swaps regiments to fight beside his Slovenian cousin and his friend, Manes Reisiger, the Jewish coachman. After the war he acquiesces listlessly to his repatriation to the new nation state and drifts through the remaining years. His last action is a descent into the Kapuzinergruft to visit the emperor’s tomb as the Nazis roll in.
Once I got into it, I was pretty much gripped, although it does seem rather hastily written at times (it was Roth’s last novel). It touches on those histories that you don’t hear much about: the German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers who spent years as Soviet PoWs and then returned home to a foreign land; the sense of uprootedness at the break-up of the empire; the social upheaval; post-war inflation. It was interesting to read the post-war despair of Joseph Branco, who requires a passport – “with a picture” – to sell his roast chestnuts in the lands – Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Galicia – where he had once roamed freely. The narrator’s wife is obsessed with the latest trends – Bauhaus-style decoration and American films – and is practical or ruthless or deluded enough to try to exploit the new opportunities. The whole novel is imbued with a sense of regret, nostalgia and dislocation, and it has lingered in my mind.