Book review: The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth

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THE Emperor’s Tomb, the last novel Joseph Roth wrote, was published a few months before he died in May 1939.

The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth

Granta, 208pp. £12.99

Anyone who knows anything about the last years of his life – exiled, impoverished, alcoholic – will find it remarkable that he was able to complete a novel, and will be astonished that it is so good. Michael Hofmann, his devoted and expert translator, who has done so much to establish Roth’s reputation as one of the greatest European writers of the first half of the 20th century, finds “something astringent and shorthand and weathered about it”: astringent because it is a bitter-sweet lament for the Mitteleuropa of the Habsburg Empire, destroyed by way of “the special idiocy of nationalists”; shorthand because of the brevity of scenes and episodes and the rapidity with which Roth moves from one setting to another, one mood to its opposite; weathered because it is the work of a man who has seen too much and endured too much.

It is a companion piece, rather than a sequel, to Roth’s greatest novel, The Radetzky March. The narrator is a second cousin to the Lieutenant Trotta of that novel, and a grandson of the brother of the Trotta who saved the life of the Emperor Franz Josef in battle, was ennobled and remembered as the “Hero of Solferino”.

Before the Great War, Trotta is an idle and frivolous young man who spends his nights in cafes and his days sleeping. He lives with his widowed mother, consorts with friends as idle as himself, and is in love with a girl called Elizabeth. He marries her when war breaks out, but spends the first night of his marriage caring for a dying family servant. His wife returns to her father’s home in pique. The war comes. He serves with a yeomanry regiment, is taken prisoner by the Russians, returns to find the empire broken and Vienna a shadow of the city he knew. The family money is seeping away, and will soon be swallowed up by inflation. His wife is in a relationship with another woman, Jolanth, who poses as an artist, though she will eventually return to him and give him a son, before resuming relations with Jolanth and departing to America to pursue a career in the cinema. His reserved and high-principled mother will soon be deaf and then die; to make ends meet they turn their home into a boarding-house, populated mostly by his old café acquaintances who pay rent only occasionally.

The novel ends with the Anschluss, the Nazi takeover of Austria, welcomed by so many Viennese, and with Trotta, this utterly superfluous man, leaving the empty café, in the company of the café dog, which he never liked, and craving admission to the Kapuzinergruft “where my Emperors lie buried in stone sarcophagi”.

It sounds sad; it is sad. It sounds depressing; it is not depressing. This is first because each scene is so vividly written. Roth was always a master of the revealing detail, which is less to paint a picture than to evoke a mood. It is also because, in spite of the prevailing atmosphere of melancholy, dissolution, evanescence, and doom, Roth could never quite prevent high spirits from breaking in, and the book is often very funny. There is wit: “He was a harmless, on occasion even a good young man; I couldn‘t bear him.” Savour that “on occasion“, And there is sharp sardonic humour: The relationship between Elizabeth and Jolanth and their ridiculous Arts-and Crafts enterprise, financed by Elizabeth’s indebted father, is treated with a delicacy and delight in the absurd. Then there are moments of beauty. When, for instance, Elizabeth briefly escapes from Jolanth to keep a rendezvous with Trotta, she looks “ravishing, storming in, like a hunted animal in her half-length beaver jacket, with snow in her hair and her long lashes, and flakes of snow melting on her cheeks”. Best of all, no-one handles the passing of time, and the regrets this brings, better than Roth.

In his introduction, itself a model of its kind, Michael Hofmann suggests that in the last chapters, Trotta, the fictional narrator, is replaced by Roth speaking in his own voice: “the ending is naked self-portraiture” where you find “an atmosphere of terminal dereliction and hopelessness”. I am sure this is right, but it is at the same time also wrong, because this is not the impression that is left on the reader – not this reader anyway. Trotta can say “I had no more interest in the world“, but Roth evokes, creates, his own world so magically, that, amidst the sympathy one feels for his sad predicament, there is a murmur, or glow, of happiness. Art is redemptive and offers consolation.