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.)

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.

Broch: First Impressions

“During the last few days he had become uncertain about many things; some pillar or other of life had become shaky, and though everything still remained in place, because the parts reciprocally supported each other, yet along with a vague wish that the vaulted arch of this equilibrium might cave in and entomb beneath it all that was tottering and uncertain, a fear had arisen at the same time that the wish might really be fulfilled, and there had grown within him a longing for permanence, security and peace.”

Reading Hermann Broch for the first time, been interested in reading Death of Virgil for years, but drawn to The Sleepwalkers after someone on Twitter, possibly Charlotte Mandell, posted fragments last year. Halfway through the first volume, The Romantic, first impression is that I like these sinewy sentences, clauses within clauses, the delicate shading, With Edwin and Willa Muir’s translations I always feel in good hands. I like that his style, the disturbed hesitations, so typical of an earlier time, force a slower pace. You must slow down to catch the echoes beneath the words.

Resisting Translation

It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is exiled among alien tongues, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work. For the sake of pure language, he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language.

Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, volume 1

Pannwitz writes: “Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a mistaken premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of German into Hindi, Greek, English. Our translators have a far greater reverence for the usage of their own language than for the spirit of foreign works . . . The basic error of the translator is that he preserved the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue . . . He must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language. It is not generally realised to what extent this is possible, to what extent any language can be transformed . . .”

Walter Benjamin (quoting Rudolf Pannwitz), Selected Writings, volume 1

Broch proposed the thesis that in every work of German literature there was an echo of the world of German poetry and fairy tales – fog, forest, moon, dragons, elves – and this echo must reverberate in all translations

Marie Luise Knott, Unlearning with Hannah Arendt

Rosenzweig had already made a similar argument in 1924, but in less poetic language. In his well known criticism, that “foreign texts get translated into already existing German”, we hear an anticipation of Hannah Arendt’s attack on the linguistic clichés of refugees.

Marie Luise Knott, Unlearning with Hannah Arendt

Auto-da-Fé by Elias Canetti

George Grosz (1920)

One of the many peculiarities of Elias Canetti’s only novel Auto-da-Fé is the relationship that forms between bibliomaniac sinologist Peter Kien and his housekeeper Therese. If the line of reasoning for their marriage fails to convince, the story becomes an artfully written but unsatisfying construction.

Reduce Canetti’s story to a morality fable of an ivory-tower intellectual becoming disconnected from reality, and forced by peasants to engage with life in all its messiness, and perhaps the Brothers Grimm could have adopted this for their collection. Ultimately though Kien’s misogyny is wearing, a block. As Susan Sontag wrote of the book:

In the guise of a book about a lunatic-that is, as hyperbole-Auto-da-Fé purveys familiar clichés about unworldly, easily duped intellectuals and is animated by an exceptionally inventive hatred for women.

Published in 1935, Canetti’s book was praised by Thomas Mann and Hermann Broch. Iris Murdoch regarded Auto-da-Fé as “one of the few great novels of the century; savage, subtle, beautiful, mysterious and very large.”

Eulogies from writers I admire encouraged me to persist with this book longer than my inclination or patience. I recognise each of Iris Murdoch’s epithets but the last; the world of Auto-da-Fé struck me as very small and on page 300, of 464 in my edition (Cape, 1965) I set aside the book.

Sontag’s Reborn: Lauren Elkin Review

A convincing review from Lauren Elkin of Sontag’s Reborn. The Canetti (who I have not read) insight inspired me to order Auto-da-Fé.

In “Mind as Passion,” Sontag explores Canetti’s dedication to the writer Hermann Broch; what Canetti admires in Broch, Sontag writes, lay out what he most aspired to himself. These included “intellectual insatiety,” and a “fastidious . . . sense of the writer’s vocation.” In turn, we can read in Sontag’s admiration for Canetti the standards she has set out for herself. “Incapable of insipidity or satiety, Canetti advances the model of a mind always reacting, registering shocks and trying to outwit them.” She lauds the role of the notebook for Canetti, calling it “the perfect literary form for an eternal student. . . . The notebook holds that ideally impudent, efficient self that one constructs to deal with the world.”