Elegy for a lost empire
FICTION:Joseph Roth’s final novel reads as a sad, loving farewell to a disappearing world
The Emperor's Tomb, By Joseph Roth, translated by Michael Hofmann, Granta, 185pp, £12.99
Endings are the themes of Joseph Roth’s final work, an urgent and deceptively moving lamentation of stark emotion; the endings of families, of friendships, of loves, of life and, most importantly, of hope itself. The Emperor’s Tomb, with its tone of regret and episodic rhythms, is closer to a long prose poem than to a novel and it is also, significantly for the canny, astute Roth, an inspired variation on the traditional coming-of-age narrative. The narrator, an initially halfhearted individual, a thinker though not quite a dreamer yet certainly no man of action, does not so much come of age as arrive at a series of tragic realisations.
The novel begins with a statement: “We are the Trottas.” In this opening sentence Roth appears to be setting the scene, alerting the reader that this book will continue the story of the Trotta family begun six years earlier in his masterwork, The Radetzky March (1932). Yet The Emperor’s Tomb is not a conventional sequel; it is more a companion work. Both novels are concerned with the death throes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, yet whereas The Radetzky March has an opulence, cohesion and operatic choreography, this last book is cryptic and sombre, and is randomly sustained by a series of epiphanies that guide the narrator towards an understanding of the upheaval through which he is stumbling.
Stylistically, Roth’s swansong is far closer, as translator Michael Hofmann points out in an insightful introduction, to Flight Without End (1927). There is a blunt, rather conversational quality to what would be the last book he saw into print.
Roth, who always wrote at frenetic speed, was running out of time, and he knew it. “My people’s roots are in Sipolje, in Slovenia. I say ‘people’ because we’re not a family any more, Sipolje no longer exists, hasn’t for a long time. It’s been assimilated with several other villages to form a middle-sized town.” The irony here is obvious: villages being amalgamated while an empire is being dismantled.
By writing The Radetzky March in the third person, Roth established an authorial distance, and the reader follows the unexpected rise and fall of three generations of a family, represented by three very different men. Franz Ferdinand, the narrator of The Emperor’s Tomb, may well be a cousin of the other Trottas but he comes to be, increasingly, through the book, none other than Roth himself. It is Roth’s grief. For him, the loss of the empire, the only home he knew, was his most profound sadness, and this in a life of many personal blows, beginning with the death of his father before he was born and his own early death, in exile, from chronic alcoholism.