It was a bit of a gamble choosing Roth for a readalong. Not because germanlitmonthers dislike Roth – previous readalongs have always gone well – rather I wasn’t keen. (Am I the only person in the universe who disliked The Radetzky March? And because of that have never read anything else by him.) However, for 1918 week, I wanted something that acknowledged the events of a century ago, and Roth’s lament to the loss of the Austro-Hungarian Empire both fit the bill and is widely available. So the decision was made. Then I started reading the critics’ reviews. I struggled to find anything complimentary. In summary, it’s a ramshackle novel with an incoherent plot, written by an alcoholic who initially submitted a manuscript containing the same final chapter as his novel Flights Without End. Oh dear, what had I done?
And so, it was with great trepidation that I opened the book and began to read ….
Translated from German by Michael Hoffmann
… suffice to say, hang the critics! I was lamenting with Roth within the first 10 pages.
I won’t say too much about the plot, but I will direct you to Emma’s review which includes a comprehensive synopsis. I will admit that the critics aren’t entirely wrong. The prisoner of war years in Siberia are far-fetched in terms of the good luck and the good will of the enemy needed to survive, and I struggled to suspend my disbelief during those chapters. But it’s pretty effective as an interlude between the pre- and the post-WWI years, serving to highlight the contrast between the world Franz Ferdinand Trotta left behind and the one he returned to …
… a world in which he had lost his sense of place and purpose. It had moved on and fragmented without him. He had no job. His wife had become bohemian moving into art and design, together with her female partner. He needed to move back in with his aged mother. At least Franz Ferdinand Trotta could see what was happening, even if he was powerless to do anything about it. Remortgaging the house to sink the funds into his wife’s fruitless attempts at business, hanging on in the hopes of winning her, his old world, back. Equally fruitless, even if there is a momentary reconciliation ….
The past which Franz hopes to retrieve is gone, fading irretrievably just like his mother’s hearing.
Soon – so I thought – she will be quite deaf, like the piano without strings. Yes, perhaps even that occasion, when in a fit of confusion she had asked for the strings to be taken out, even that had been a sense of her approaching deafness alive in her, and a vague fear that before long she wouldn’t be able to hear notes any more! Of all the blows that old age has to give, this for my mother, a true child of music, must have been the worst.
The Emperor’s Tomb is moving on so many levels, and that’s a passage that resonated deeply with me. Frau Trotta, who encapsulated for her son the “heroic nobility” of the past century, was on a slow slide to the inevitable. Franz’s fate could, perhaps, have been turned around, but the world was not finished handing out disappointments. We all know what the interwar years led to, and The Emperor’s Tomb ends with Franz Ferdinand, having sent his son to France for safety, reduced to sitting forlornly on the Franz-Josefs-Kai or the Elisabeth Promenade, pining for his lost emperor and his lost family. With the Anschluss, he can bear no more. He heads to the Kapazinergruft – the tomb where his emperor is buried. His final words, “Where can I, a Trotta, go?”
I’m no longer sure at what point I began to think of The Emperor’s Tomb as the Austrian Great Gatsby, in the sense that plot and characters are an all encompassing metaphor for a lost world, a broken dream. I’m going to have to reread to pursue that thought further, but it’s one that prevented me getting too frustrated with city boy Franz’s inability to adjust to his new reality, in stark contrast to his pragmatic country cousins from lost parts of the empire. So, too, my thinking on the reduced circumstances of the book’s author. In 1938, at the time of publication of what was to be the last book published in his lifetime, Roth was living in exile in Paris, in dire financial straits, living on handouts from his friends, his drinking spiralling completely out of control. In despair, knowing that there was no return home for his Jewish self, his own world vanished entirely and forever, I can hear the echo of Franz Ferdinand Trotta: “Where can I, Joseph Roth, go?