I became interested in The Glory is Departed after finding it on the Modern Novel site (which you must go lose yourself in, if you haven’t yet). I read Count Luna, a later novel by Lernet-Holenia, last year and found it a brilliant black comedy, as grim and funny as Kafka’s best. And when I discovered that there are literally no copies of the English translation of Die Standarte available for sale on the Internet, interest turned to obsession. Fortunately, I was able to borrow a copy through the University of California Library system and enjoyed reading it on my trip back from the U. S. last week.
The glory that departs in this book is that of the Hapsburg dynasty and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Drawing upon Lernet-Holenia’s own experiences as a dragoon (a member of a light cavalry regiment) in the Austro-Hungarian Army, the story tells both of the collapse of the empire as a whole and one young man’s reactions to the end of the world he has always known. Most of the book is related in flashback, as Herbert Menis, a well-off married man in Vienna, tries to explain to a fellow veteran his outlook on the war and its aftermath.
Wounded on the Eastern front, Menis spends much of the war in rehabilitation, comfortable and safe from harm. But in October 1918, he is sent to Belgrade, Serbia, to serve at a headquarters there. On his first night, however, he becomes enraptured with a beautiful young woman accompanying the Archduchess, and his attempt to make her acquaintance ends up getting his orders changed to duty with a dragoon regiment near the front.
Although the signs of collapse grow more obvious with each day, Menis is too smitten to notice them, and we spend nearly half the book racing back and forth between his camp and Belgrade as he tries nightly to catch an hour with his beloved. Soon, however, the English and French forces begin pushing the Austrians back to Belgrade, and the awkward coalition of Poles, Ruthenians, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Hungarians and other ethnic groups that formed the Austro-Hungarian Army quickly falls apart.
However much we had foreseen, we had never supposed that something so strange and incomprehensible to us, something so terrifyingly different, always kept down till now, had laid hidden beneath the exterior of these men. Now it was breaking out, as when a herd shakes off some mighty power that has till then restrained it; and though the men actually did nothing except give vent to their feelings by inarticulate yells, one felt that with these yells they and the Regiment were discarding everything that had made themselves and the Regiment what they were–that is to say, a mighty, significant, powerful engine, an organism charged with a historic mission, an instrument of world policy. It was as though the helmets and the uniforms, the badges of rank and the Imperial eagles on the cockades, dropped off the men, and the horses and the saddles disappeared into thin air, leaving nothing but a couple of hundred naked Polish, Roumanian and Ruthenian peasants, who were sick of helping to bear the burden of responsibility for the destiny of the world under the sceptre of the German race.
When his regiment refuses to cross a bridge into Belgrade, Menis watches in horror as his own men are shot down as mutineers, and takes up the regimental standard–the small pennant and battle ribbons carried into battles for over a hundred years. The standard becomes for him evidence of the strength and values of the Empire, even as he sees it falling apart around him. His love, Resa, struggles to understand his obsession with the standard:
“It’s of no importance. Why, people have quite forgotten what a standard is: I, for instance, have never seen one. I won’t allow you to risk your life for that. I tell you I love you: don’t you understand? I love you! You can’t go off and get yourself killed, because I should die too if something happened to you. You can’t give me up for a little piece of silk that has ceased to have any significance of purpose and no longer means anything to anybody.”
“It means everything to me,” I said quietly.
Menis smuggles the standard with him as he, Resa, and a few survivors manage to escape the English and work their way back to Vienna. There, he attempts to return the standard to the last Emperor, Karl I, but finds the Emperor and a small party rushing to leave the Schönbrunn Palace for a new life in exile. He sees some men tossing other battle flags into a fire, to prevent them from falling into the victors’ hands, and, finally, throws in his standard, too. He leaves with Resa, resigned to his own new life.
Among German readers, The Glory is Departed (published in England as The Standard) is considered on a par with the other great classic of the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March. In his memoirs, Anthony Powell wrote that Lernet-Holenia was a writer on a level equal to that of his now-better-known countryman and contemporary, Robert Musil. He described The Glory is Departed as “a genre of novel of which I can recall no precise equivalent in British writing: romantic; realistic; satirical; moving.”
Although The Standard is in print in German, Spanish, Italian and French, and perhaps other languages as well, it’s been out of print in English for almost 80 years. Lernet-Holenia’s 1941 novel, Mars in Aries, was released by the Ariadne Press in 2003 as part of their Austrian literature series (which includes works by Stefan Zweig, Leo Perutz, Odon von Horvath, Hemito von Doderer, Arthur Schnitzler and other fine writers), and Pushkin Press released his thriller of mistaken identities, I Was Jack Mortimer, in 2013. However, two other volumes released by the Eridanos Library in 1989, The Resurrection of Maltravers and Baron Bagge/Count Luna (two novellas) are out of print, although used copies are still available.
I have to agree with the writer of the Modern Novel website, though, who called The Glory is Departed a good read but not a great book. While the narrative gallops along through 300 pages, the protagonist often seems more clueless than passionate. He has a gorgeous young woman madly in love with him and ready to risk life and limb for his sake, and yet his primary concern is for a scrap of fabric, even though he had spent most of his war as a complacent slacker far back from the front. However, if you manage to locate a copy yourself, like me you will probably find yourself closing the book before you’ve had the chance to think about that.