The third book of the small pile my sister gave me last year for my birthday as educational reading, "Radetzkymarsch" by Joseph Roth is so far the one I enjoyed the most (not that I did not enjoy the other two, but somehow I was able to get closer to this one).
In short, this novel mirrors large-scale historical events on a small scale: the decline of a family going hand in hand with that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was written in 1932, some time after the end of said empire in 1918.
Since last year marked the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI, the year the novel ends, it would have been a very fitting read in 2014. But it still had the same fascination and I still learned a lot from it about those times just before the beginning of the Great War by reading it now.
The novel accompanies Carl Joseph von Trotta through his relatively short life, from the time he starts his military education at the age of seven (as was the custom in families who had the financial possibility and standing in society to send their male offspring to military schools) until he dies - in military action, yes, but, strangely enough, with two buckets of water in his hands, and almost a hero.
By referring to Carl Joseph's father and grandfather - and occasionally going back even further - the book actually spans the von Trottas' family history for three generations. We get to know Carl Joseph's fater quite well; in some ways, nearly better than his son, especially towards the end of the story. The day of the old servant's death was, for me, one of the most touching parts of the novel.
I am not going to tell you too much about the story, but really want to recommend reading it to everyone, hoping that the English translation you may be able to come across will live up to the German original. The author is one of the best, language-wise, I have ever read. His style is special and ranges from reporting the facts to painting a complete picture of a situation, a person or a place with just a few precise and elegant pen strokes. I wish more authors would have the talent to write like he did!
Saldy, there are some parallels between Carl Joseph and his author. Joseph Roth died way too young, too; like his novel character, he was an alcoholic, and from what I have read about his life, he was lonely and unhappy for much of it.
You can read more about the novel here, and more about the author here (both links lead to wikipedia articles).