“That was how things were back then. Anything that grew took its time growing, and anything that perished took a long time to be forgotten. But everything that had once existed left its traces, and people lived on memories just as they now live on the ability to forget quickly and emphatically.”
There are eras when time seems to stand still and the period before the beginning of World War I was one of those times for the Austro-Hungarian empire. The empire was in decline, but not yet aware that their way of life was about to end. There was a way that things were done and any deviation was stressful and possibly scandalous. Reviewers have mentioned the dream like qualities of this book and I believe that is achieved by not only superb writing, but the evocation of a quality of life that is foreign to the fast track environment that exists today.
Joseph Roth was quoted as saying that he only really cared about writing one great sentence a day. This book shows the painstaking self-editing that I usually only associate with F. Scott Fitzgerald. The imagery he creates out of the most mundane moments reminds me of the Dostoevsky ability to write about the nuances of a character getting out of bed in the morning and keeping the reader fascinated.
This is a book about three generations of Trottas beginning with the Battle of Solferino. The last battle in world history by the way that both armies were lead by their supreme Monarch. Kaiser Franz Joseph lead the Austrians and Emperor Napoleon III lead the French. In the midst of the battle Franz Joseph approaches the front lines. He raises a pair of field glasses to view the enemy and Lieutenant Trottas, knowing that snipers were looking for anything indicating an officer throws himself in from the Kaiser and takes a bullet in the back that was meant for his Supreme Leader. He becomes known as the Hero of Solferino. Later he is incensed when he discovers that his act of heroism has been greatly distorted by writers for childrens books putting him in a much more heroic role than the actual event. He resigns his commission and asks the Kaiser to expunge the act of heroism from future books. For us, this might seem like an over reaction, but Trottas did not desire platitudes that he did not deserve. He found the whole business unseemly.
His son is not a military man, but does end up in a role of District Captain due to his position of a Baron, a designation that had been consigned upon the first Trotta by the Kaiser. His life is so consistently the same ever day that even the most minor deviation causes great trepidation. "One morning in May Herr von Trotta sat down at the table in the breakfast room. The egg, soft-boiled as usual, was in its silver cup. The honey shimmered golden, the fresh kaiser rolls smelled of fire and yeast, the butter shone yellow, embedded in a gigantic dark-green leaf, the coffee steamed in the gold-rimmed porcelain. Nothing was missing. Or at least it seemed to Herr von Trotta at first glance that nothing was missing. But then he promptly stood up, put down his napkin, and scrutinized the table again. The letters were missing from their usual place. For as long as the district captain could remember, no day had ever passed without official mail. First Herr von Trotta went to the open window as if to convince himself that the world still existed outside."
As it turned out his man servant Jacques was very sick and could not perform his normal duties of fetching the mail. This was "highly annoying"
. Later we find out that Jacques is not his name, but the name conferred on him by the first von Trotta because the nobleman didn't want to have to remember a different name from the servant in that capacity before.
The grandson of the hero of Solferino does join the military and steps into the ranks as a Lieutenant. He becomes mired in a series of affairs with married women. The last being with Frau Von Taussig who is married to a noble, but the mistress of a wealthy friend of Trotta and yet she has a hunger for young lieutenants. Trotta first meets her when he is assigned to escort her on a trip. "He doesn't have the nerve to ask who the woman is. Many faces of unknown women--blue, brown, black eyes, blond hair, black hair, hips, breasts, and legs, women he may once have brushed up against, as a boy, as an adolescent--they all sweep past him, all of them at once: a marvelous, tender storm of women. He smells the fragrance of these strangers; he feels the cool, hard tenderness of their knees; the sweet yoke of naked arms is already around his throat and the bolt of intertwined arms lies in back of his neck.
There is a fear of voluptuousness that is itself voluptuous, just as a certain fear of death can itself be deadly. Lieutenant Trotta is now filled with the fear of voluptuousness."
Okay I need to take a moment to fan myself. Is the room really warm suddenly or is it just me?
Trotta becomes mired in gambling debt much the same way he became mired in the latest elicit affair, second hand. A friend and higher ranking officer asks him to sign for his debts, and Trotta with barely a consideration signs away his life. His friend becomes more and more in debt and eventually kills himself (An event that was in vogue in this era of Austrian history. In fact at the time Vienna had the highest suicide rate of any European city.) leaving Trotta with responsibility for the owed money. He eventually ends up having to ask his father for the money. The father goes to the Kaiser and the Kaiser remembering the service of the family (well after a few false starts.) grants amnesty to the young lieutenant and has the moneylender (a Jew) deported.
Lieutenant Trotta disillusioned with his service quits the military, but then when war breaks out he of course rejoins. His father is feeling disillusioned as well, and some what embarrassed over the near scandal of gambling debts. "He was old and tired, and death was already lurking, but life would not yet let him go. Like a cruel host it held him fast at the table because he had not yet tasted all the bitterness that had been prepared for him."
The book begins with an act of heroism and ends with an act of heroism. I will not reveal the final moments of our young Lieutenant in case there are those of you that will read this Austrian Masterpiece. A wonderful book, a book that captures a time precisely and leaves me with the continued belief that fiction is so important for our collective memory. Our desires, our thoughts, our way of speaking, and our history are recorded more accurately in fiction books than it is in nonfiction. Highly Recommended!!