If I'd been an academic, I'd have almost certainly focused on that period of European history between 1880-1914. In Paris, it was the Belle Epoque, but elsewhere, it was the beginning of the end: of empires, of civility, of custom. In Middle Europe, across that expansive land over which Franz Joseph cast an aging eye, the turn of the century brought with it a new sort of nationalism, one that would forge nations from the ruins of empire.
...Which is where Joseph Roth enters the scene. Born in 1894, Roth witnessed the rise and fall of that most regal experiment, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it's in The Radetzky March that he chronicles its collapse. I can't remember the last time I was so enthralled by a novel of this sort: part history, part literature, Roth's book is the story of gentility gone awry, of war lurking in the shadows, of civil war in the waiting.
The Radetzky March isn't the only of Roth's novel to touch on these themes: Flight Without End, for instance, gets at the dislocation associated with both the Russian Revolution and First World War. But Radetzky is all the better because of its scope, its ambition: indeed, it takes the Austro-Hungarian Empire as its topic, and it stops at nothing to get at its nature, its character, its leadership, and fall.
This is how a novel of this sort should be written: it reaches for a moment of unique historical value, and tells a complex story via intersecting narratives: some focused on families, others on the nobility and the kaiser himself. The result is an emotional tale of history in the making, of empires exposed: both for what they were, and for who they were. They were, after all, people: and the von Trotta clan - central to Roth's narrative - are emblematic of the struggles, the contradictions, that emerged at the start of the last century. These struggles were linked with war, it's true, but they had to do with something else, too: the arrival of modernity.
The last word is for Roth, whose lamentation for the Old World is palpable:
"And so Herr von Trotta seemed like some character from a province that was historically rather than geographically remote, like a ghost from the Fatherland's past, the embodied pang of a patriotic conscience."