cover image The Emperor's Tomb

The Emperor's Tomb

Joseph Roth, trans. from the German by Michael Hoffmann. New Directions, $15.95 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2127-6

In his final novel Roth retreads much of the narrative and thematic ground covered by his earlier works, notably Radetsky March. An elegy to the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, this novel follows Franz Ferdinand Trotta, a young Viennese fop, from the eve of one World War to the eve of another. As often happens in this era's stories, Trotta watches his life of leisure and promise slowly disappear: trusted servants die, friendships dissolve, marriages become strained, and financial and po-litical instability topple an entire class of Viennese society. As Trotta says in one of his pithier mo-ments, they came to call it the World War not because "the whole world was involved in it, but be-cause as a result of it we lost a whole world, our world." While the novel checks all the marks of an interwar narrative, it does so by rote. Even translator Hoffmann admits that this is a minor work, "a canny valedictory repertoire of Rothian tropes and characters, done fast, glancingly and sometimes approximately." It's difficult to argue with Hoffman's assessment; Roth was a 20th-century master of the quixotic and melancholy, but this novel, though glimmering with his talent, lacks command and depth. (May)