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.

Early in The Emperor’s Tomb, the narrator, named for the archduke, the heir to the imperial throne, admits to pretending “to be a little deaf”. It seems to make things easier. But he cannot make himself forget the facts. His father had dreamed of a Slavic kingdom “under the overall suzerainty of the Habsburgs. He dreamed, if you will, of a Triple Monarchy”. However, this comes to nothing. The narrator’s father died some 18 months before the infamous assassination in 1914 that would destroy the empire and transform Europe. “I am his only son. In his will he bequeathed me his ideas . . . But I was young and foolish then, not to say frivolous . . . I lived, as they say, into the day. No! That’s wrong. I lived into the night: the days were for sleeping.”

Fractured narrative

There is a wonderfully poignant confession, when, admitting that he enrolled as a law student merely to appease his mother, he recalls thinking: “All of life lay spread out in front of me like a flowery meadow . . . I lived in the merry, even uproarious society of young aristocrats, the class that, along with artists, I liked best in the old Empire. I shared their sceptical frivolity, their resourceful melancholy, their sinful negligence, their proud sense of doom – all of the signs of the end which we failed to see coming.”

On the one morning that he does wake sufficiently early to hear the singing of the blackbirds, it is only because a visitor has arrived. It is his cousin, a man who reminds him of his late father. This cousin, Joseph Branco, brings with him an element of the ancestral village and the Slovene tongue that the narrator’s father had taught him. He also introduces the practical reality of money as a means to survive in a world no longer supported by tradition and the past. Even more important is the date: April 1914. Roth is preparing his canvas, he is revisiting the beginning of the end of what was, for him, everything.

Branco proves a likeable ruthless opportunist for whom everything is for sale. He also counters the shared distraction of the narrator and his friends, who, in common with the idle officers in The Radetzky March, fail to read the signs predicting the coming catastrophe. Chojnicki, a landowner and the prophetic voice of the earlier novel, also features in The Emperor’s Tomb. He is the character who says of the dying empire in The Radetzky March: “it’s falling apart, it’s already falling apart . . . the age doesn’t want us any more. This age wants to establish autonomous nation states! . . . nationalism is the new religion.”

Unease seethes through the fractured, atmospheric narrative. Franz Ferdinand refers to a fear of morning: “That’s when a man can see and is himself seen with the greatest clarity. And we had no desire either to see, or to be seen clearly.”

Adding to the unreality is his bizarre relationship with Elizabeth, whom he decides to marry after having done his military service, most of which was passed in a peaceful sanctuary. “So I talked to Elizabeth first. It felt like exhuming something that I had myself consigned to earth. Was there a feeling driving me on?”

In the period between the wars the narrator inhabits an ambiguous twilight zone. By far the clearest aspect, though, is his intelligently drawn relationship with his mother. She is stately and dignified. With her, he remains the small boy. In one of the many moments of startling clarity that defines their exchanges, she goes to play the piano. But there is no sound. Only then does she recall having had the strings cut.

Piece by piece, the old world changes and is lost. Roth was the supreme witness, an observer fuelled by passion. He was a great journalist. His restless personality and hopeless personal finances brought him all over the empire. Editors wanted his work, yet dreaded dealing with him. His 18 novels and short stories testify to his status as an artist; the journalism also amounts to a major body of work. There is no denying the haste with which The Emperor’s Tomb was written. Yet this is not a weakness, such is the book’s emotional force. Last year saw the publication of A Life in Letters, a volume which catches the frenzy and frustrations of Roth’s troubled existence, yet also his perceptiveness.

Perhaps The Emperor’s Tomb should be considered as the final piece in the Roth story? The Radetzky March is his most coherent and considered artistic flourish, yet this smaller work is the leave-taking, a profound farewell gesture of love and sorrow, such heartbreaking sorrow.