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Joseph Roth: The Emperor's Tomb (Granta)

The Emperor's Tomb was the last novel written by the prolific Joseph Roth.

It was originally published in 1939, the year in which he died at the age of 44 as a result of alcoholism. It has twice previously been translated into English, once under the imprint of its present publisher. Why Granta has commissioned another translation it does not say, nor does its new translator, the poet Michael Hoffman, who has done peerless work in resuscitating Roth's reputation, not least with the publication last year of Joseph Roth: A Life In Letters (see paperbacks on p12).

In his introduction Hoffman notes that Roth promised to deliver a manuscript of 350 pages. In the event, he managed just 173. Indeed, his long-suffering publisher – as all his publishers apparently were – was surprised to find that he had submitted virtually the same last chapter to The Emperor's Tomb as had previously appeared in Flight Without End. Initially, it seems, Roth stuck to his guns but later capitulated and submitted a new chapter. Among his several foibles was his habit of mislaying friends while garnering enemies.

Like Orhan Pamuk and Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Roth was a chronicler of a way of life that was fast fading. Like them too he was an affectionate satirist. One of his targets in The Emperor's Tomb is the Dual Monarchy, an unlikely alliance formed in 1867 between the Habsburg emperors Francis Joseph and Charles, whose empire was ultimately destroyed in the First World War.

Though he was a Jew, Roth, like Irene Nemirovsky, was not uncritical of other Jews, even in the 1930s when it was startlingly obvious what Hitler had in mind. In fact, on January 30, 1933, the very day Hitler became German chancellor, Roth boarded a train in Berlin for Paris, where he remained until the end of his life.

The Emperor's Tomb is a sequel to The Radetzky March, the best known of Roth's novels, but they are as alike as cauliflower and cabbage. For a start, as Hoffman notes: "It is a novel of mothers and marriages, where The Radetzky March is strictly patrilineal." Moreover, while that novel is told in the third person here Roth uses the first person.

Tonally, therefore, the difference could not be more marked. The Emperor's Tomb, with its fast pace and short chapters, feels almost spry in contrast to the story it tells which, in a sense, is an elegy for the end of a civilisation as its narrator has known it. His name is Franz Joseph Trotta, in homage to the eponymous emperor. It was his grandfather's brother, he relates, who saved the life of the young emperor at the battle of Solferino, after which he came to be known as the Hero of Solferino and was ennobled for his courage.

This much will be familiar to readers of The Radetzky March. But whereas that novel begins and ends with the scenes of two battles – Solferino and Krasne-Busk – this one runs from 1913 to 1938, from the onset of one war to the onset of another.

Trotta lives in Vienna whose cafes he frequents with his equally indolent, feckless and purposeless friends. He shares a house with his mother, his father having died 18 months before Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914 by a group of Serbian nationalists.

Like his creator, Trotta hankers after the shtetl and the agrarian life of his Slovenian ancestors knowing full well that he could not cope with the hardships. When his cousin Joseph Branco, a chestnut seller, gets in touch, he goes overboard in seeking to empathise with him, watching him appreciatively as he drinks soup – for breakfast – directly out of the bowl. "I was almost perplexed by the fact that people had bothered to invent something as ridiculous as spoons."

In due course Trotta meets Branco's friend, Manes Reisiger. Of him, he says: "I knew a few Jews at the time, Viennese Jews admittedly. I didn't hate them, because at the time the virulent anti-Semitism of the nobility and the circles in which I moved had become fashionable with janitors, with the lower middle-classes, with chimney sweeps and house painters."

It seems that in Vienna before the "destruction", everything – even anti-Semitism – could be deemed fashionable. It was a society built on frivolity and ripe for the taking. Not that Trotta was unaware of how charmed his life was. "Over the glasses from which we drank to excess, an invisible Death was already crossing his bony hands."

Soon he goes off to war, joining not a regiment with his aristocrat friends but one lower down the pecking order with Branco and Reisiger. Before departing, he gets married but the wedding night is a disaster, his wife having fallen for a lesbian, or "invert" as Roth writes, who is big in the arts and crafts movement, another sign that things are not what they were. As Trotta's mother puts it: "Once you start making valuable things out of worthless material! Where'll it end - No-one can persuade me that cotton is as good as linen, or that you can make laurel wreaths out of pine cones."

Roth, of course, knew exactly where it would end. For him the Second World War was the sequel to the first and he knew, even though he would not live to witness it, that it would be more terrible. "I was on extended leave from death," he has Trotta relate as he sits in a cafe while the Nazis seize control. That he could write such a wonderful book at such a time in his state of health is utterly remarkable.

The Emperor's Tomb

Joseph Roth, Granta, £12.99

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