Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers

‘Literature is always an impatience on the part of knowledge.’ Sontag quotes Broch’s formula, going on to say, ‘Broch’s gifts for patience were rich enough to produce those great, patient novels The Death of Virgil and The Sleepwalkers, and to inform a grandly speculative intelligence.’ Patient in that The Sleepwalkers is a leisurely novel of ideas, preoccupied with the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire and its cultural legacy, as well as the decay of values and moral bankruptcy that accompanied the shift from a medieval metaphysics rooted in a world as a manifestation of God, to the nihilism of the early twentieth century.

Psychoanalysis is arguably the Austro-Hungarian empire’s enduring legacy, as conceived by Freud and Americanised by exiles who, like Broch, found themselves in America during and beyond the Second World War. In his trilogy The Sleepwalkers, Broch weaves psychoanalytic treatment of the characters into all three novels, interspersed in the third novel with lengthy digressions on the ‘Disintegration of Values’. These are often only loosely connected with the surrounding text and serve to distance a reader.

Broch viewed Christianity as emerging from a diminished paganism and reaching its bankruptcy in the modern day, ‘a five-hundred-year dissolution of values.’ With no successor value system to adopt, contemporary man, he argued, is a sleepwalker suspended between the decline of one system and a system yet to be conceived.

This novel is his way of exploring the consequences of this state on different socio-economic classes and psychologies. It is in some sense a philosophical novel but never gets too bogged down with the abstractions of German philosophy, and in Willa and Edwin Muir’s translation, a reader can at least be reassured of the work’s literary merits.

It was an absorbing place to spend a couple of weeks, reflecting on an endlessly intriguing historical period. Is anything in history more fascinating that the last, decadent days of a dying empire? Its exploration of the degradation of values remains highly relevant. Its form and style kept the project from becoming turgid and, unlike the longueurs of The Magic Mountain, I only once felt it necessary to skip the philosophical digressions (and went back to it a day later.)

8 thoughts on “Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers

  1. Back on your “great writers’ books about great writers” post, I forgot to mention Hermann Broch’s Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time (1974), Broch’s non-fictional return, ca. 1947-50, to the subject of this novel, in a way. A fascinating book.

  2. The Sleepwalkers sounds fascinating from your post and has whet my appetite. I began The Death of Virgil and appreciated the extraordinary writing but picked it up in the middle of a period when I couldn’t dedicate the necessary time to it in order to fully appreciate it. I put it aside for a space when I can focus on it. I’m drawn to the idea of reading it, soon, now that I’m in the middle of Thelen’s The Island of Second Sight, that a reviewer compared to The Death of Virgil. Books have their time, no doubt. Encountering Broch and Thelen seems to indicate a rich vein of reading opening up to me. I haven’t felt so inspired in my reading for a long time, although I have read some very good books recently. I find it interesting what you say about skipping sections of The Magic Mountain. I found myself skipping sections of Doktor Faustus although overall I was drawn into the book and it made a big impression on me. Thelen’s The Island of Second Sight begins in Spain. It’s strongly influenced by Don Quixote and is incredibly funny. Reading that Celan and Mann appreciated it has given me a shift in focus on my impressions of German modernist literature. I hope circumstances prevail that I can keep focused enough to go back to The Death of Virgil and perhaps on to The Sleepwalkers.

    • I am honestly left torn about whether The Island of Second Sight is my sort of thing. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t read it as I like to read against the grain from time to time. The NYT review that Susanna kindly linked doesn’t help at all. The words ‘picaresque romp’ and a comment I read elsewhere about it being surreal (I loathe magic realism) leave me uncertain, so I look forward to anything else you may add on completion.

      Everything I’ve read about The Death of Virgil tells me you are right to await the right space. It’s that sort of novel I think, as is The Sleepwalkers, though the demands of the latter are less intense I think.

      Please don’t get the idea that I disliked The Magic Mountain in any way, in fact I am planning to read a different translation this year. I’m not sure that the abstractions of German metaphysics translate so easily into English and often don’t seem to make the sense I am sure they made in the original. In The Sleepwalkers they seem less integral to the narrative, which the publisher realised but Broch was not for dissuading. I think he was on the right track and found them thought provoking f0r the most part. I only skipped the longest final essay as I felt I had reached the end of Broch’s story before the end arrived. It may not be a minor masterpiece, whatever that means, but I am enriched by reading it.

  3. I remember asking you about Musil and saying it was a touchstone book for me – I can’t recall whether you’d managed to get through it or not. Between your assessment of Broch and Pistelli’s piece on BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ, I can see what I’ll be moving through for the next month or two. What have been your most intense reading experiences regarding novels wherein the city is as much a character as the characters? Or does this trope really make any sense? I waver.

    • I drifted away from Musil, but do plan to read it. It wasn’t lack of interest, just distraction.

      There are three books that come to mind in answer to your question: Ričardas Gavelis’ Vilnius Poker, which had me poring over old photographs of Vilnius; Bellow’s The Dangling Man, evocative of Chicago in the 1940’s, and Pamuk’s Istanbul, which may not be a very good book, but I read it while in the city and it brought it to a different sort of life.

      • Hi – new here and glad to be here. I am curious why you say Pamuk’s Istanbul ‘may not be a very good book’. I came across it in a used book store in Morrisville, VT and read it in the midst of a fierce Vermont cold spell. I so enjoyed it, and I recently bought the new hardback edition with even more pictures than the fine paperback edition I had purchased. I loved the book – and I’m questioning now how much I loved ‘reading’ it (the entire experience – where, when) and how much I loved the book. The passages about huzun really spoke to me and gave the city a mystique to me. I want to go to Istanbul now and to read more Pamuk based on my reading. Thanks for your blog

        • Hi. Welcome, Kurt. And thank you for commenting. I liked Istanbul very much, but I can’t separate my reading experience from the thrill of being in Istanbul for the first time. It is a great city. At some time I want to go there for several months. I think Pamuk’s style is quite dry, or perhaps that’s an absence of style. It takes nothing away from my fascination for the book. I rarely read for style.

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