This, the last novel of Austrian Jewish writer Joseph Roth (1894-1939), is quite thought-provoking. It takes place from just before the beginning of the First World War to the eve of the Second. The narrator, Franz Ferdinand Trotta, a wealthy, youngish Slovene nobleman living in Vienna with his widowed mother, spends almost all of his time with friends as frivolous and irresponsible as he. They are the pampered children of the empire, attracted to a fashionable decadence. Love, loyalty, family, empire mean little to them. Yet Roth conveys this with certain lightness, a poetic simplicity admirably captured in Michael Hofmann’s translation. While Roth himself was actively involved in trying to restore the Habsburgs, the novel avoids sentimental nostalgia for the empire. It does not precisely evoke another age and place so much as an attitude.
As the narrator tells us of his life, including serving on the army during the war, marriage, and fatherhood, and a belated search for sound values, we see in Trotta and his friends a group seemingly doomed to failure but who may share some responsibility for their empire’s demise. The novel can be appreciated, it seems to me, even by those with little interest in Austria Hungary, for the phenomenon of a decadence is not unknown in our own day. What is remarkable about this tale is both its subtle complexity and the sophisticated restraint with which it is told. It may in fact be a great novel.