Broch’s The Sleepwalkers: Some Initial Thoughts

“Besides, after the material for character construction already provided, the reader can imagine it for himself.”

Hermann Broch’s modernist reputation only becomes clear in the second volume of The Sleepwalkers. The first is bound gently to the past, relaxed and expansive in the way of nineteenth century prose with an inner form that suggests maturity. Yet this was Broch’s first published novel.

By contrast the prose of the second volume is less elevated, more steeped in irony and skepticism. There is a dense undergrowth to the language, yet both volumes share the sinuous sentences which are hesitant about reaching a definite terminus. Each full-stop in volume two comes as a resigned sigh. You could perhaps argue that the trajectory of Broch’s “degeneration of values” critique of life is a little too evident, but I’ve yet to start the final volume, and am keen to see whether Broch synthesises the almost balladesque style of the first volume with the mocking pathos of the second, or whether he choses not to resolve.

I find in The Sleepwalkers something that happens rarely. While both styles intermingle, what is most striking is the presence of silence, a prose that holds time, that listens to its own echo. Whether or not Broch’s first novel lives up to its ambitious breadth of vision, whether he manages to resolve the chords of resonance across three volumes, it is nevertheless a book that is complete in itself. It is a book to lose oneself within.

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