By Joseph Epstein

The best novels, with only a small number of notable exceptions—“Don Quixote,” “In Search of Lost Time,” “Ulysses”—have been family novels. “War and Peace,” “Anna Karenina,” “The Brothers Karamazov,” “My Antonia,” “The Brothers Ashkenazi,” “Buddenbrooks,” “Joseph and His Brothers,” family novels all, provide a deeper pleasure than does most other fiction. Family, as William Shakespeare (author of “King Lear,” “Hamlet” and “Macbeth”) would have been the first to tell you, is the great literary subject. In this pantheon of great family novels, though it is not so well known as those I’ve just mentioned, is “The Radetzky March” (1932), a novel written in German by Joseph Roth (1894-1939), a Galician Jew on whose tombstone in France are engraved the words “Ecrivain Autrichien,” Austrian Writer.

Michael Hofmann, Joseph Roth’s best translator and most perceptive critic, has called “The Radetzky March” “a work that seems to be done in oils.” That interesting remark suggests both the splendor of Roth’s novel and its feeling of permanence as a work of literature built to last. The reason is to be found not only in Roth’s literary craftsmanship, which is consummate, or in the fascination exerted by his characters, which are without exception artfully drawn, but in the grandeur of the novel’s theme. That theme is the gradual fall and ultimate demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

“The Radetzky March” takes its title from Johann Strauss Sr. ’s famous musical composition, which Roth called “the Marseillaise of conservatism.” The novel is the chronicle of three male generations of the Trottas, a Slovenian peasant family that is ennobled when at the battle of Solferino, in 1859, its first-generation figure, the young lieutenant Trotta, is wounded, almost by accident, by a bullet intended for Emperor Franz Joseph. The emperor would eventually reign over the Austro-Hungarian Empire for 68 years, from 1848 to his death in 1916.

Roth’s novel is a valediction for the political configuration of an empire that he, a far from uncritical intellectual, came more and more to admire, toward the end of his life calling himself a monarchist. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, extending from the border of Russia to those of Serbia, Italy, Germany, Romania and the Adriatic Sea, was an astonishing multinational state, a confederation comprising Bohemians, Poles, Moravians, Slavians, Croatians, Transylvanians and others. Within the Dual Monarchy, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire was also called, a true spirit of internationalism reigned: Within it one passed borders without passports, did business without tariff or taxation. Under this arrangement the Emperor Franz Joseph was like unto a god. Simple people kept his photograph on their walls next to that of Jesus Christ.

In “The Radetzky March” the collapse of the Empire is reflected in the fate and changed character of the Von Trottas over three generations: from that of the rugged military virtues of “the hero of Solferino,” as the textbooks call the first Trotta, to the rigidity of his bureaucratic son (a district commissioner in Moravia), to the aimlessness of the grandson, Carl Joseph, who will die a senseless death in World War I. It is called World War, Roth remarked, because it changed “the whole world.” That war, along with the Russian Revolution and the Treaty of Versailles, put paid to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

A grand theme can emerge in fiction only if joined to the richness of the highest art. This Roth supplies in abundance. His artistic power extends from commanding sweeping narrative to filling in arresting detail. The most minor character is often sprung to life with a single such detail, like one Captain Lorenz, who “was the father of three children, and the husband of a disappointed wife.” The Polish Count Chojnicki is “forty years old but of no discernible age.”

Roth captures friendships begun late in life, sexual infatuations contracted early in life. At one point midway in his novel, he writes: “So curious, changeable, and knotted is the human soul.” He unknots it throughout the pages of “The Radetzky March,” convincingly setting out the thoughts of characters of great intellectual penetration as well as those, like the last of the Von Trottas, “not overly endowed with imagination.” Roth’s range of characters is dazzling. An entire chapter in “The Radetzky March” is given over to the thoughts of Emperor Franz Joseph, alone in his bed chamber, sensing the end of his empire. Then there are the Jews of the provincial town of Jagers on the Russian border, who by some freak of nature had red hair. “Their beards were like conflagrations.”

In a life of only 44 years, Joseph Roth wrote 15 novels and a vast quantity of superior journalism. A spendthrift with heavy expenses—his wife, thought to be schizophrenic and later to be murdered under Hitler’s euthanasia program, spent much of her adult life in insane asylums—he worked under the lash of financial pressure all his days. Nothing he wrote was negligible, trivial. But only in “The Radetzky March” did all his impressive powers come fully into play. In that novel he left the most convincing quotidian account we have of life under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, established his literary heritage, and left succeeding generations an imperishable masterpiece.