Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Radetzky March

There are occasions when a queer character will barely announce his/her spectral presence in a modern novel—with a handful of standardised clues—before vanishing without trace of person or purpose. Lieutenant Kindermann in Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March (1932) is one such. Carl Joseph, the novel’s central character, finds him ‘more reassuring than the rest’ of his fellow officers, because he is less obviously militaristic than they. Indeed, his presence is undemonstrative almost to the point of invisibility:

He consisted of a blond, rosy, transparent substance; one could almost have reached through him as through an airy haze in evening sunlight. Everything he said was airy and transparent and was breathed from his being without diminishing him.

He is a ‘cheerful nonentity’ with a ‘high voice’ which, in contrast with the baritone of one of his colleagues, ‘sounded like a gentle zephyr grazing a harp’. His equivocal way of speaking extends, also, to the unmilitary softness of his vocabulary and his gestures:

Kindermann, ever intent on making up for his scant interest in women by feigning a special attentiveness to them, announced, ‘And his wife—do you know her?—a charming creature, a delight!’ And at the word delight he raised his hand, his limp fingers capering in the air.

But when contact with women threatens to become too intimate he falters. Caught up in a drunken regimental visit to a brothel, he cannot hide his agitation, which extends to physical illness:

Kindermann felt faint whenever he smelled naked women; the female sex nauseated him. Major Prohaska had stood in the toilet, earnestly striving to thrust his stubby finger down Kindermann’s throat.

As the seductions begin, ‘Lieutenant Kindermann blanched. He was whiter than the powder on the girls’ shoulders’.
And that is just about it. He has hardly any further role to play in the novel. Just once, a couple of chapters later, when Carl Joseph is feeling ill while on the parade ground after witnissing a fatal duel, Kindermann takes out ‘a coquettish pocket mirror’ to hold up to his eyes so that he can see how pale he looks. If one can isolate any single narrative purpose in the brief existence of this character, it is to identify Carl Joseph, by contrast, as not being queer. Unimpressed by the militaristic bluster of his colleagues, a bit of a loner, and one who hardly associates with women at all, even in the brothel scene—although he does later have a rather sketchily outlined affair with an older woman—at least Carl Joseph is not the kind of man who carries a mirror about his person.

[Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March (London: Penguin, 2000), pp.68, 73-74, 75, 110.]

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