Alexander Lernet-Holenia: Die Standarte (The Standard; The Glory is Departed)
There are some books that are just a joy to read if they are not great books. This is one of them. A quick summary cannot do credit to the fine writing of Lernet-Holenia who tells a good story while still keeping an eye on the ideas behind his story.
The novel starts in October 1918. Obviously we know that World War I is about to end (at least, I assume, most of us do). Some of the characters are beginning to suspect it but have not really grasped it. Herbert Menis is a young subaltern in the Austrian army who has been injured and is only now returning to active duty. He is assigned to Belgrade – still part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. On his first night there he goes to the opera with a friend and there he sees Resa Lang who is lady-in-waiting to the Archduchess Maria Antonia and in whose box she is sitting. Contrary to all accepted protocol he goes into the box to make Resa’s acquaintance, on the basis of the fact that he might not get another chance. He does make her acquaintance but the Archduchess is mildly annoyed at the intrusion and has him sent to join the Ukrainian forces where he will be out of the way.
Unbeknownst to the Archduchess the Ukrainian forces are not in the Ukraine but only a few hours ride away from Belgrade. Menis makes a rendez-vous with Resa for the following night, reports to duty to the Ukrainian forces and then immediately makes his way back to Belgrade for his meeting with Resa. His entry to the palace and subsequent meeting with Resa are wittily told though he does seem more interested in getting Resa into bed (he does not succeed) than with getting to know her.
Then things abruptly change. Menis is number two in line to become standard-bearer in his unit. We already know he will become number one as the story is told in flashback, following his meeting with a beggar who was in his unit and whose last sight before being blinded was of Menis taking over as standard-bearer. What precipitates the death of the number one standard-bearer is not an attack by the enemy but a mutiny as the various nationalities in the unit refuse to cross over the river, knowing it is futile and will only lead to their death. The ensuring melee leads to Menis getting the standard. Subsequently they are beaten by the enemy and Menis and a couple of his colleagues escape. He naturally heads for the royal palace where Resa is waiting for him. Though he meets up with Resa, the palace is occupied by the English. In a series of well-told adventures they hide out in the palace and then escape through a secret passage and, after more adventures, return to Vienna. All the while Menis has been very conscious of his responsibility towards the standard which he carries inside his shirt.
Vienna is not the end of his troubles. The country is falling apart and no-one wants to accept his standard. Indeed, there seems to be little law and order. Eventually he makes it to the royal palace of Schönbrunn, with the aim of returning the flag to the Kaiser (Karl I). He does find the Kaiser who, with his wife, is about to go into exile (he died four years later, aged 25, on the island of Madeira. His wife survived him by 67 years.) He tries to hand the standard to the Kaiser, without success. However, he does find someone who is collecting all the official standards and flags, only to find that they are being burned to avoid their falling into the hands of the enemy. He reluctantly throws his standard into the fire but then tries to retrieve it but is too late. However, he is now free to join Resa and start his life with her.
Lernet-Holenia tells a great story – love and adventure with a good dose of suspense thrown in. But he is not concerned with just a good story. He chronicles, at least in part, the fall of the Habsburgs and the associated chaos. He addresses the theme of honour versus personal ambition and manages to do so without being mawkish or cavalier about it. Most of all, he shows that the downfall of a great empire is messy and unpredictable and that only the brave survive.
First published 1934 by Fischer
First published in English 1936 by Harper & Brothers