The Radetzky March

A week ago in Spain I was grateful for the spotless train windows. On the station platform, workers in yellow uniforms reached up with their cloths as easily as if they were cleaning windows in a room. The train pulled out and all the olive trees between Seville and Madrid were clear and bright. Train windows in Canada are dirty.

I promised myself that as soon as I got home I would wash the windows that overlook our back garden and life would similarly be transformed. In Spain I began to read Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, those long sustained scenes about the end of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire that revolve around a grandfather, father and son – a book urged upon me by my son – and one scene after another took my breath away.

I was still reading the novel on the airplane home. Especially towards the end, its pace is like a long, stately funeral procession that becomes increasingly moving as more and more figures join the procession on its way to the cemetery of the first world war.

Then we were home and the next morning my mother died.

It was three days before I had time to write down the details of the swift course of pneumonia and the hour and a half of being with her before she died, and the few hours afterwards. Then yesterday morning I read over the pages in my notebook and got great comfort from reliving those final moments in detail. I understood even better the power of Joseph Roth’s novel. Something important – life and death – is unfolding. You are immersed in it as it builds on itself and lays itself bare and leads you to a place that is momentous and strangely pure.

Yesterday snow was falling. Late April and snow was actually falling. In Roth’s novel autumn rain patters against the window panes in the final line.

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