From “The Leopard” to “Sword of Honour” part two: White Guard & The Radetzky March

From “The Leopard” to “Sword of Honour” part two: White Guard & The Radetzky March October 29, 2018

Part one of this self-indulgent essay on reactionary novels of the twentieth century, with intro and some spicy takes on The Leopard, is here.


White Guard and The Radetzky March make a natural pair: two novels of imperial military defeat, one bitter and the other resigned, both staring a worse world in the face. White Guard takes place in 1918 – 9 Kiev, where national costumes and military uniforms are donned or shed in mortal terror as a succession of bandits and generals vie for the city in a kind of deadly door-slamming farce. (Bulgakov wrote in a 1923 essay, “By the account of the Kievans, they’ve had eighteen coups,” although he could only vouch for “fourteen, ten of which I personally experienced.”) The novel is frequently hallucinatory, yoking nouns to verbs which in normal Russian speech wouldn’t go together: A frigid night blossoms, a city swells, shop windows are furry with flowers.

Bulgakov adapted White Guard into a play, “The Days of the Turbins,” which Joseph Stalin adored and championed. And yet in White Guard, the novel, the aristocratic family at the novel’s core is basically good, its way of life unquestioned. The Whites are not defeated due to the inevitable working-out of larger social forces—the aristocracy is not a class whose time has passed—but due to betrayal by their craven leaders. (In the play version, an embittered character gets some lines suggesting that the Whites’ failure has left him ready to join the Red Army; that plus a closing chorus of “The Internationale” made the story politically palatable.)

Orthodox Christianity appears in two guises, the weaponized and the prophetic. St. Sophia’s Cathedral becomes the site of a rally for the Ukrainian leader Petlyura, a mob scene of people “crushed and maddened,” turning on one another in confusion. But Christianity also pierces through the novel in sudden desperate visions, at best a half-step from madness. In White Guard “the Church” as an institution is a political prisoner, and Christ appears alone to the lonely supplicant: “perfectly resurrected, and benevolent, and barefoot.”

Radetzky is a calmer, sadder novel. Its two central symbols are the portrait and the uniform: the official versions of men who could not live up to their public selves. The ubiquitous portrait of Emperor Franz Joseph I, which hangs even on the wall of a brothel, holds the Holy Roman Empire together. The portrait of Carl Joseph Trotta’s grandfather, who saved the Emperor’s life in their youth and then lived to see his action turned into a George Washington cherry-tree tale for children, broods and judges the later generations. The emperor is the head of a long line of fathers in this novel’s romance of patriarchy: “It was his father’s left hand, so long familiar to the son. And yet it was as though he were only now coming to understand that it was his father’s hand, the paternal hand. Carl Joseph felt the urge to clasp this hand against his bosom.”But he doesn’t, of course, because every romance in this book is thwarted to a degree that’s almost comic.

There’s sympathy here for these silent, helpless German stereotypes (you imagine everyone in this novel is on time for their adulterous liaisons), sympathy for the familiar rhythm of music, church festival, homage, duty; for the late-spoken love. This is a world where everybody you see all day, from the porters to the postmen, works for His Majesty, and parents think of their children by their military titles. Even the spirituality is military, the Emperor submitting to the inscrutable judgments of God because it’s not his place to criticize his Superior. And even the similes are imperial: Stars “had been punched into the close heavens by human hands like pins in a map”; Carl Joseph has a “mouth like a long-healed sabre cut.” Jews in their prayer-coats receive their Emperor, bowing before him “like a field full of strange black grain in the wind,” their beards like pennants—a part of this world, unavoidable even for those who might want to avoid them. (The Jews provide their own line of forefathers, an alternative to the imperial line; and their sons, like poor Dr. Demant the remorseful duellist, find this patrimony equally impossible to live up to.)

Where The Leopard is all flesh and smells, “vanilla, wine, chypre,” Radetzky clothes itself in simile: The past is hidden from our understanding “as by the fresh graves of the fallen”; a man is “an embodiment of love of country, like a banner that wants to be hung out somewhere, but can’t find a suitable roof ledge.” Its sensuality, repressed, emerges as public ceremonial. In this kingdom organized on the principle of the microcosm, where the Emperor is made up of all his peoples, every official banner snaps at the rhythm of a human heart; even the birds move with the fortunes of the Emperor, the wild geese leave and the ravens come.

Radetzky builds to its famous climax, in which a messenger rides through a thunderstorm to bring drunken partygoers the news that the heir to the throne has been assassinated in Sarajevo. But this spark reveals that the whole room is made of gunpowder. On the one hand Roth depicts a world of slow handwork, not yet a consumer economy but a place where “Everything that existed left behind traces of itself, and people then lived by their memories, just as we nowadays live by our capacity to forget, quickly and comprehensively.” But Carl Joseph is posted to a border town where the brush-factory workers, who for years inhaled bristles and died coughing up blood, have finally gone out on strike. Carl Joseph’s major military adventure is the violent suppression of that strike. Rerum Novarum, the 1891 papal encyclical “on capital and labor,” applied the premodern philosophy of mutual obligation to a global economy characterized by open class warfare. And Roth suggests that Pope Leo XIII should have known that the class he called to repentance and charity no longer existed—that he wrote an encyclical for knights, in an age of Pinkertons.

This is the last novel in which a peasant speaks—the last novel in which widely-disparate classes intertwine their lives, the upper commanding and the lower correcting. There’s a brilliant passage on Carl Joseph’s servant Onufri: “He did not understand, Lieutenant Trotta, that rough peasant lads with noble hearts really existed, and that many things that really exist in the world were copied and put in bad books; they were bad copies, that’s all.” By proving against Carl Joseph’s cynicism the reality of the loyal peasant, Radetzky exposes feudal hierarchy as something which needs proving: Conservatism has emerged, the paradoxical defense of the given, the attempt to convince us that we should accept what doesn’t, on its own, convince us. Conservatism emerges only after its defeat. Radetzky is a loving portrait of the lost world, but it never suggests that world could have lasted. The Empire is already hollow and teetering by the time it becomes obvious that its replacement will be much worse.

As in most of these novels, the Catholic Church permeates and persists; but the Church is neither critic, as in The Leopard and The Glass Bead Game, nor confessor. The Church feels more fragile in Roth’s book, too tightly-tied to the Catholic Empire: “Our emperor is like a worldlier pope… and no other royal family in Europe is as dependent on the grace of God and the people’s belief in that grace.” At the Corpus Christi procession the military honors and anthems are gorgeously described but the Host is not even mentioned. Where Catholic temporal power is greatest, the Church’s ability to humble and console men by enduring where they falter is most obscured.

part three: The Glass Bead Game as reactionary novel; Halloween: Sword of Honour & conclusion. Image for these posts via Wikipedia.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!