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Joseph Roth: Die Kapuzinergruft (The Emperor’s Tomb)

As you can see below, there have been three translations of this book into English. I read the John Hoare one, not because it it is necessarily the best but because it happens to be the one I bought some years ago.

There are quite a few books which take as their basis the fact that World War I changed everything – the end of the Ottoman Empire, the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the end of Tsarist Russia are three obvious examples but they also tend to cover such topics as the end of innocence, the move from a more rural society to a more urban one and, of course, the rise of Fascism and the fallout from the Great Crash.

This book, as the title implies, is about an end of an era – the Austro-Hungarian Empire and with it the end of the reign of Franz Joseph I , who died in 1916 after ruling for sixty-eight years. By the time he died, very few Austrians had known any other leader of the country. For our hero, Franz Ferdinand Trotta, coming from a family of Empire loyalists, the impending fall of the Expire and Franz Joseph are something that obsesses him and he predicts their fall more than once.

For Franz Ferdinand and others, the joy of the Empire is in all its different nationalities. Though he lives in Vienna and speaks German on a day-to-day basis, he is of Slovenian origin and, as we shall see, this is very important to him.

If you have read Roth’s best-known novel – Radetzkymarsch (The Radetzky March) – you will be familiar with the Trotta family. The hero of that book is Franz Ferdinand’s cousin, Carl Joseph, and we learn of the Trotta antecedents, particularly of Lieutenant Joseph Trotta who saved the life of Franz Joseph when he (Franz Joseph) was only twenty-nine, at the Battle of Solferino, something the family has traded on ever since.

The book essentially opens in April 1913. Franz Ferdinand receives a visit from his cousin, Joseph Branco. Apparently Franz Ferdinand’s father had left Joseph some money in his will and he had come to collect. Franz Ferdinand is very much taken with his cousin, so much so that he buys his watch, chain and waistcoat and introduces him to his posh friends, who are also taken with him.

It is Franz Ferdinand and his friends who show us that the Empire is dying. While the regions of the Empire seem often loyal to the Emperor, in Vienna, people are more cynical. Austria’s essence is not to be central, but peripheral comments one of the friends, Count Chojnicki.

Franz Ferdinand will later get to meet Branco’s friend, Manes Reisiger, whom he assists, with the help of Count Chojnicki. Franz Ferdinand is so taken with Reisger and Branco, he decides to go and visit them, which he does. While he is there, war is declared, Franz Ferdinand returns to Vienna to join his regiment. He plans to marry his fiancée Elizabeth before joining up. Her father approves, his mother does not. Then he suddenly decides that he would rather fight and die with Branco and Reisger than with his Austrian comrades, though he gets on well with them, and, through contacts, gets a transfer.

Inevitably, things go wrong. He struggles to find his regiment and when he finally does, he and his two friends are captured almost immediately. We follow their adventures in captivity. Franz Ferdinand does not get back to Vienna till after the end of the war.

Back in Vienna, things are not looking good. The Emperor has died. His mother invested most of her money in a war loan to the state which she will never get back. His wife is in a lesbian relationship. His money has gone, which means that he has to work but he has no skills. His father-in-law claims to be doing well but everything he invests in seems to go wrong. His well-to-do friends are all broke. He and the others struggle to survive in a city where food is scarce and there are few jobs. And then the Nazis come to power.

When he wrote this book, Roth was in exile – it was published by a Dutch publisher – and like his hero, broke and separated from his wife, whom he continued to support. The Nazis had taken over Austria and Roth’s continued support for the Hapsburgs was going nowhere. This was his last novel published in his lifetime, as he died the following year. This book, a gloomy though interesting work, shows an Austria doomed to fail and then failing. No-one seems to come out well, while our hero, like his creator, naively nurses dreams of the restoration of the Hapsburg monarchy.

First published in 1938 by De Gemeenschap
First English translation in 1972 by Harrap
Translated by Alan Bance (Harrap); John Hoare (Overlook Press); Michael Hofmann (Granta/New Directions Hoffmann)