‘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.)