Doomed Vienna

The Emperor’s Tomb, by Joseph Roth, translated by Michael Hofmann, Granta RRP£12.99, 208 pages

The collapse of Austria-Hungary at the end of the first world war left such a hole in Vienna that its citizens struggled to find their bearings in the world that emerged from the carnage. They flailed around in search of salvation for two decades before disastrously turning to Hitler for a new sense of purpose.

Joseph Roth (1894-1939), an Austrian-Jewish writer and one of Germany’s most successful interwar journalists, writes about this tormented world in novels that have recently enjoyed a revival thanks to English translations by the poet Michael Hofmann.

The Radetzky March, Hofman’s version of which came out to acclaim in 2003, followed the Trotta family from the empire’s late 19th-century heyday to the first world war. The Emperor’s Tomb, Roth’s last novel, is a sequel that ends in 1938 with the spectre of even greater violence hanging over Europe.

While The Radetzky March is an epic of Tolstoyan ambition, The Emperor’s Tomb is a sketch, composed of short chapters that read as if they were dashed off between the alcoholic Roth’s bouts of drinking and depression.

Franz Ferdinand Trotta goes to war in 1914 only to find himself, within weeks, in Russian captivity. Returning to Vienna in 1918, he finds his wife in the arms of a lesbian lover. The symbolism is clear: a businessman who extracts money from Trotta’s aged mother is Prussian; the lover is Hungarian; the Austrians are exploited victims.

The work is suffused with nostalgia for the prelapsarian world. Trotta and his friends have lost their jobs, money and social status: “We didn’t bewail our lost fatherland, we kept a respectful silence for it. Then sometimes, without any prior signal, we would start to sing old Army songs. We were all present and correct. But in reality we were all dead.”

There is little mention of the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and others for whom the death of empire brought the birth of nations. Above all, there is the sense that Roth could have produced a much better book.

But this novel is worth reading, particularly as the 100th anniversary of 1914 approaches. While most countries are likely to focus on remembering their own losses, Austria-Hungary was unique in its total collapse. Here is a rare opportunity for English-speaking readers to better understand its fate.

Stefan Wagstyl is the FT’s emerging markets editor

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