Endings of Things
Several years ago the New Yorker increased the number of my life’s burdens by running an article about the Austrian writer Joseph Roth (1894–1939) and his novel The Radetzky March; sighing, I added the novel to the great, swaying tower of books I wanted to read.
I finally got to it recently and am glad I did. The novel — a tale of the waning years of the Austro-Hungarian empire, an elegy for a lost way of life — is no page-turner, which is fitting; page-turners build something (suspense), while The Radetzky March, about three generations of the Trotta family men, is about a decline, an unwinding. For me the calming effect of its leisurely tone is part of its appeal, as a relentless plot might divert the attention needed to appreciate passages as beautiful as these:
“He spoke the nasal Austrian German of higher officials and lesser nobles. It vaguely recalled distant guitars twanging in the night and also the last dainty vibrations of fading bells; it was a soft but also precise language, tender and spiteful at once . . .”
“They walked across the courtyard, back through the corridor, into the night. The doctor looked up at the sky. The silent stars offered no counsel; they were colder than the snow all around. The houses were dark, the streets deaf and dumb, the night wind blasted the snow into powder, Trotta’s spurs jingled softly, the doctor’s boot soles crunched next to them. They hurried as if toward a specific goal. Shreds of ideas, of thoughts, of images raced through their minds. Their hearts pounded like swift, heavy hammers . . .”
“All around him Death was circling, circling and mowing. The entire field was already cleared, and only the Kaiser, like a forgotten silver stalk, was still standing and waiting. For many years his bright hard eyes had been peering, lost, into a lost distance. His skull was bare like a vaulted wasteland. His whiskers were white like a pair of wings made of snow. The wrinkles in his face were a tangled thicket dwelt in by the decades.”
* * *
Speaking of declines, I also recently read the first volume (of three) of Edward Gibbon’s mammoth The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It’s almost obligatory, when talking about this subject, to draw parallels between the fall of Rome and the decline of America, but the comparison seems to me more obligatory than accurate. Yes, the Roman empire was (like the U.S.) beset by internal divisions while fighting wars abroad; yes, the resulting drain on the nation’s treasure caused education to suffer. BUT whereas Gibbon refers to “the burden of the public imposition, and particularly the land-tax and capitation,” part of our current difficulty is too many tax breaks for the rich! And yes, I am a Democrat and an Obama supporter.