Vegemite Bagel

JOSEPH ROTH’S RADETZSKY MARCH is one of those novels that years ago, someone you know told you was really good, and that you should read it. Whoever gave you the tip was right. It’s that good.

The last years of the Hapsburg monarchy in Austria-Hungary, Kaiserlich und Königlich, were decadent and sclerotic, highly literate and cultured and obsessed with social trivia, bureaucratic but in an eternal, enduring and hopeless way, socially liberal at heart, and tolerant of difference by practice and temperament, but absolutely terrified of any kind of change that might threaten to bring the whole society crashing down. Bourgeois to the core, but less economically rapacious, and more domestic and suburban. If this recalls anything about Australia in 2019, you’re absolutely right, treat yourself to some strudel and a cognac. Less K und K and more Kerri-Anne Kennerley.

We live in a moment where the situation is hopeless, but not serious, as the poor parliamentarians recognised, filibustering each other in ten different languages, and arguing pork subsidy policy and education funding across internal borders. Nobody pretends to have insight into the politics or a sense of what’s going on, least of all the people whose job it is to explain it. The weather’s quite lovely, men wear moustaches, there’s a surprisingly powerful not-quite-into-the-mainstream intellectual renaissance going on (there’s Kafka pointing the finger at bureaucracy, there’s Freud making highly suggestive claims about mothers), although at the same time, the explicit public culture and commentary is dumb as rocks, reactionary and insular, obsessed with minorities and pricklishly sensitive to criticism. We’re a comfortably rich, superficial, provincial and scared society, where landlords and rent-seekers live easy, ambitious young people emigrate somewhere else, and new ideas are either ridiculous or dangerous. On the other hand the food is incredibly diverse, mass-produced luxuries are cheap, and if you look to the next corner, there’s almost certainly a really good cup of coffee and a biscuit to be had. If there’s one thing to look forward to, it’s that tomorrow will be just like today.

There’s a decent argument to be had about the historical contingency of the declinist view of the Late Hapsburgs. In the early years of the twentieth century there really was social change and investment in education. We know it declined, because some Serbian idiot shot an Archduke, all of Joseph Roth’s characters marched towards Russia and got killed, and the whole society collapsed. But what if Princip had missed? Would we have the same view of Franz Joseph’s reich if it had gone on into the mid-20thC or endured today? You have to suspect that it would be a lot like modern Australia, perhaps with more goulash and fewer vegemite bagels. Would it be better?

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