Analysis of Hermann Broch’s Novels

Hermann Broch must surely be counted among such other major German novelists of the twentieth century as Franz Kafka, Mann, Robert Musil, Heinrich Böll, and Günter Grass, alongside such other creative artists as Wassily Kandinsky, Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Gustav Mahler, Egon Schiele, and Arnold Schönberg—in terms of both the committed humanist stance he assumes in his writing and the purely technical mastery of his craft. In this latter regard, Broch has been compared justifiably to James Joyce and William Faulkner in his use of interior monologue and stream of consciousness to capture the reality of life—and death—that he perceived all around him. For Broch, such techniques reflect the age in which he matured. William James’s Principles of Psychology, which includes a chapter titled “The Stream of Thought,” had been published in 1890. It was James who had advanced the concept of stream of consciousness, as later adapted for fiction. Sigmund Freud’s Die Traumdeutung (Interpretation of Dreams), which called attention to the irrational inner life of humans, appeared in 1900, and his Zur Psychopathologie des Alltagslebens (Psychopathology of Everyday Life) was published in 1904. Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, which called into question the very certainty with which humans could know the “real” world, was published in 1905. All these works fostered, indeed necessitated, a preoccupation with subjective truth on the part of intellectuals of the day.

Given his early training as an engineer and his more than passing interest in science, Broch was acutely conscious of such revolutionary theories concerning reality and was able to translate the scientific and psychological principles being developed at that time into viable literary devices. His most successful literary endeavor, The Death of Virgil, is a compelling tour de force, lyric in its elegiac sense of loss, dreamlike in its irreal transcendence of time and space, yet actual in its uncompromising depiction of the artist’s fate.

Broch’s lifework was the quest for meaning in a world in which all certainties were open to question. Though he did not begin his full-fledged literary career until he was in his forties, he was spiritually a part of that generation of apocalyptic writers and artists who bore witness to the crisis facing Western European culture in the first decades of the twentieth century. While other artists of the day may have contributed their share to the erosion of cultural values (the Dadaists, for example) or sought order and meaning in an irrational realm beyond the visible world of shared human experience (the Surrealists), Broch, to his credit, stood firmly in this maelstrom of eroding values, seeking to recover a sense of absolute totality in the simultaneity of universal human actions. To perceive reality, to plot an ethical course of behavior based on one’s perceptions, and to act with conviction for the betterment of humanity was Broch’s sustaining motivation in all of his writing, regardless of genre.

Hermann Broch/Pinterest

Finally, insofar as Broch reached maturity as an author well after such spiritual contemporaries as Kafka (1883-1924), Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), and Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929), Broch must be regarded as a vital link to such important Austrian writers as Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke—writers who are similarly concerned with the debilitating effect of modern civilization on the individual psyche, writers committed as Broch was to sociopolitical, cultural critique, using literary methods that owe their effectiveness in part to extraliterary disciplines such as psychology, sociolinguistics, and cultural anthropology.


The Sleepwalkers

Hermann Broch’s first novel, The Sleepwalkers, is a psychological-historical novel that explores the gradual disintegration of values beginning in the latter half of the nineteenth century and culminating in the Armageddon that was World War I. The work is a trilogy whose main sections bear the names and the worldviews of each section’s protagonist: “Pasenow, or the Romantic,” “Esch, or the Anarchist,” and “Huguenau, or the Realist.”

Specifically, the work depicts the degeneration of German society from 1888 to 1918—a thirty-year period of crucial and inevitable change, as Hannah Arendt describes it in her 1949 article “The Achievement of Hermann Broch”:

1888, when the Romantic finds himself in the not yet visible decay of the old world; 1903, when the Anarchist gets entangled in the prewar confusion of values; 1918, when the Realist becomes the undisputed master of a nihilistic society.

Part 1 of The Sleepwalkers presents the reader with the fragile world of the Junker Joachim von Pasenow, a Romantic in the sense that he inhabits an otherworldly realm of sterile conventions and anachronistic Prussian values, a realm of facades and titular masks whose symbol is the uniform. The protagonist is a man of honor, a believer in order and tradition. He loses his brother, Helmuth, in a senseless duel over family honor and so assumes responsibility for the family estate. In his task of maintaining the property and privileges of the landed aristocracy to which his family belongs, he is helped by his close friend, Eduard von Bertrand, who has risen to become a leading industrialist in Berlin. The first part comes to a close with Pasenow’s marriage to Elisabeth, who, as the daughter of a wealthy neighbor, is well within Pasenow’s social circle. The founding of this new family, particularly after the birth of a child, seems to promise the continued growth and prosperity of Pasenow’s class and way of life. As Broch’s readers will come to discover, this is not to be.

In part 2, a petit bourgeois bookkeeper by the name of Esch makes his appearance. A malcontent, he is called an anarchist because, unlike Pasenow, he has lost faith in the old values and is seeking a new faith at any cost. Yet, like the hero of part 1, Esch is presented as a victim of circumstances, of a process of general social and cultural decline destined to run its full course. Having become a small-time variety-show entrepreneur, Esch, who is a social climber, will use any means at his disposal to get ahead—bribery and blackmail included. He is an impetuous man, settling accounts with real or imagined adversaries in confrontations contrived and acted out in his mind. Such interior dialogues only exacerbate Esch’s inability to act. Though drawn to political agitators, his attraction, like his dreams, is so unrefined as to inhibit effectively any consequent action. Rather, Esch destroys things and people who are seen to stand in his way. Foremost among them is Pasenow’s friend, Bertrand, whom Esch tries to blackmail for his homosexuality. Bertrand, a man positively portrayed as someone in charge of his fate, a man against whose actions those of the other characters are to be gauged, commits suicide rather than submit to the intrigues of a person such as Esch. His death must be viewed as the death of all that is decent and worthwhile in the novel. At the close of part 2, Esch takes the widow Hentjen in marriage in a near parody of Pasenow’s marriage at the close of part 1.

In part 3, the reader is confronted with the total triumph of amorality. Although Huguenau, the realist, is the nominal hero of this last section, he shares center stage with Pasenow, who has gone on to become a major in the war and is now governor of the town in which Esch is serving as editor of a Socialist newspaper. Through a twist of fate— Pasenow publishes an idealistic article in Esch’s paper—the two men become allied across class boundaries and against Huguenau, who, after deserting from the same army in which Pasenow had served so honorably, has become a successful businessman. He is a realist in the sense that his approach to every situation in life is cold, methodical—in short, businesslike. Such a worldview allows Huguenau to manipulate life dispassionately to his own advantage. Huguenau ends up slandering Pasenow and murdering Esch—both of whom, like sleepwalkers, are oblivious to events around them—yet still manages to become a leading member of the society that has emerged after the war.

The destinies of Pasenow and Esch are those of Romantic tradition and mere anarchy: the Romantic past is over; anarchy, as a precondition for the emergence of a new social order, has spent its energy. The fascist state is being born. On a technical level, the form of the novel perfectly reflects its content. Traditional nineteenth century epic narration— reminiscent, for example, of the mature Theodor Fontane—dominates the first portion of the novel. Gradually, however, this ordered, objective style becomes transformed into a more subjective narrative style. The tightly woven and objectively related plot incidents of part 1 give way to the imaginative musings of Esch in part 2, where stream of consciousness and interior dialogue mirror the growing emphasis on subjective reality and its concomitant skepticism, prevalent around the beginning of the twentieth century.

Psychological Novels and Novelists

In part 3, the narration has become even more fragmented; it has disintegrated into a series of epic, dramatic, or lyric episodes bound loosely by the destinies of Pasenow, Esch, and Huguenau. Through the juxtaposition of seemingly objective dialogue and stream of consciousness, Broch skillfully plays off one view of reality against another. The resulting discrepancy between outer and inner reality reveals, according to Arendt, “the fundamental fragility of the time, the insecurity and convulsiveness of those who were its representatives.” Through his use of various narrative perspectives to relate main and subordinate plot lines, Broch creates multiple levels of action and reality as his characters emerge, recede, and interact with one another. This technique effectively reflects the general collapse of an integrated worldview and resultsin a true multiple perspective, each character, each social sphere declaring its own relative values to be absolute.

The Death of Virgil

The Death of Virgil, which was recognized with both Guggenheim and Rockefeller awards, was originally written in the form of an eighteen-page story in 1936. The story was modified and lengthened as a direct result of Broch’s detention and the very real threat of death at the hands of the Nazis in 1938. As Theodore Ziolkowski points out, “Whereas [Broch] had previously considered Vergil primarily as a prototype of the artist in a valueless society, he now devoted his attention to the death of Vergil.” Broch himself said of the genesis of the work that “Virgil was not written as a ‘book,’ but (under Hitler’s threat) as my private discussion with death.” Broch continued to work on The Death of Virgil after his release from prison—revising and expanding the work’s central idea—and by 1940, he had compiled the major part of the novel. He continued to refine the work until 1945, when it was published simultaneously in English and German. As the title indicates, the story deals with the death of the poet Vergil; his meditations on self and society, art and human activity, and life and death constitute the bulk of the novel.

The story takes place in the year 19 b.c.e., in the ancient port city of Brundisium in Italy; in an obvious parallel to Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), the work covers only the final eighteen hours of Virgil’s existence. This unity of time and place indicates the hero’s (and the author’s) anguished quest for unity, despite all of life’s apparent dissonance, despite the chaos that death seems to herald. It is this nearness to death that sets life into sharp focus for author and hero alike.

The plot is straightforward and easily summarized. The work opens with the dying poet’s return from Greece to Italy with the imperial navy. What follows and what takes up the greater part of five hundred pages until Virgil’s death is anything but straightforward. Broch has created an intensely lyric work that, in its approximation of poetic, even musical form and structure, has expanded the very notion of the modern novel.

Broch himself described his work as being

a poem, though not in the sense of a single lyrical outburst and also not in the sense of a poem cycle on a central theme, yet a poem and moreover, one that extends in a single breath over more than five hundred pages.

The entire work, in fact, is one long interior monologue, in which the thoughts and visions, the feverish dreams and repressed fears of Virgil are all called forth from the depths of his subconscious; in order to capture their reality and truth, the poet must articulate them by means of language.

The point of view throughout is that of Virgil himself, a poet, paradoxically enough, in despair of poetry. In the face of his imminent death, Virgil comes to question the relevance, the validity, indeed the morality of his entire lifework. Is a life given over to purely contemplative activity enough to justify it, given the need for committed action in a valueless world marked by enmity, war, poverty, and death? It is on his way from the ship to the emperor’s palace that Virgil encounters all the ill-fated members of humanity. Where, he wonders, is the dignity and meaningfulness of life? Where is the beauty that he desperately sought to reproduce in poetry? Has he not, in his work, neglected fully half of life’s total reality: namely, its horror, its evil, its ugliness? These are existential questions that the poet Rilke posed in his Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910; The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, 1930) and in his Duineser Elegien (1923; Duino Elegies, 1931) and that Kafka raised in many of his diary entries and letters. In fact, Kafka’s request to his longtime friend and literary executor, Max Brod, to destroy his works after his death finds its parallel in Broch’s novel when Virgil reveals to friends his wish to destroy the Aeneid. His reasons are that as a work of art, of beauty, it fails to represent the totality of truth and reality adequately; because it is “only” beautiful, he feels it to be of little benefit to humankind. Kafka’s doubts were those of Broch as well, as evidenced in part by Broch’s lifelong vacillation among a wide variety of forms: short story, drama, poetry, novel, philosophical essay, sociological case study, and so on. In The Death of Virgil, however, Broch confronted the problem of artistic validity head-on, and in so doing, he created a soul-searching work of literature, which, had he written nothing else, would have sufficed to add his name to the history of world literature. As Broch himself put it, expressing a kinship with Kafka, “We live and write, and that’s all.”

Broch completed his monumental novel precisely at a time in history when humanity seemed to have reached its lowest point. With death and destruction all around him, Broch, with all the conviction he could muster as a humanist, posited life and human creativity as counterweights. Virgil gives in to the pleas of his friend, Emperor Octavianus Augustus, and entrusts his Aeneid to him for safekeeping. He does so because he comes to realize that it is the task of the poet to offer humans, if ever so vaguely, a small glimpse of the eternal, which is theirs—and perhaps theirs alone—to perceive. As the harbinger of eternal, metaphysical order, Virgil sees the poet as the spiritual counterpart to Emperor Augustus, who embodies the temporal order.

Structurally, the novel is divided into four parts: “Water, the Arrival”; “Fire, the Descent”; “Earth, the Expectation”; and “Air, the Homecoming.” Each section thus corresponds to a phase in the hero’s perception of creation. In part 1, Virgil becomes aware of life’s polarities while aboard the ship taking him back to Italy. He becomes conscious of the contrast between the limitless heavens above and the dark, murky, unfathomable waters below; he sees the noble passengers above deck and the pitiful slaves below; there is the sea itself signifying life and man’s seemingly endless journey toward a shore that represents for the poet his inevitable death, his homecoming. On his journey through the dark and narrow streets of Brundisium, he sees the slums of the poor, which contrast sharply with the emperor’s palace. For Virgil, it is his arrival at the threshold of self-awareness that serves as a catalyst for all the self-doubts faced and ultimately resolved in the rest of the novel.

Book 2 depicts in rhapsodic monologues and long lyric sequences Virgil’s descent into the hellfire of self-recrimination. Book 3, which is the most narrative section of the work, presents in Virgil’s discussions with his friends the poet’s earthly expectations for himself as a poet, for his art, and his subsequent despair over his actual achievements. Part 4 brings a resolution to all of Virgil’s doubts. Through his debate with Augustus, he comes to realize that a greater sacrifice is needed for him not to burn the Aeneid. Destruction of the work would bring fleeting self-satisfaction. Allowing it to exist elevates this work of aesthetic beauty to the status of all of those creative works that bear witness to one man’s less-thanperfect quest for unity and truth.

In a final, grand vision leading from death’s door back through life to birth and beyond into the order-generating act of creation itself, Virgil comes to realize the totality of life, precisely in the affirmation of all of life’s apparently irreconcilable opposites, including life and death themselves. It is a vision of life that nearly defies verbal articulation. For this reason, Broch described the novel’s structure in musical terms, comparing it to a traditional symphony in four movements. He even ascribed musical designations to three of the four sections: 1—“andante”; 2—“adagio”; and 4—“maestoso.” Language as music is what Broch had in mind—music not only because of language’s sonorous qualities but also, and more important, because of the lyric language’s universal, timeless power to enchant.

It is the language that Hofmannsthal sought to describe in his famous Brief des Lord Chandos an Francis Bacon (1905; first published as “Ein Brief” in Der Tag, 1902; The Letter of Lord Chandos, 1952) and to which Rilke gave voice in his Duino Elegies and Sonette an Orpheus (1923; Sonnets to Orpheus, 1936). It is lyric language, self-reflective in its anxious attempt to crystallize the most fleeting of life’s moments, the moment between that which has not yet dawned and that which is irrevocably lost—Broch’s famous “no longer and not yet.” In The Death of Virgil, Broch has captured many such moments in the life and gentle death of a man who, like himself, sought to understand life and death, to perceive their meaning, to discover their intrinsic order and unity, and then to create the language commensurate to the task of conveying his vision to others.

Major Works
Short fiction: Methodologische Novelle, 1933; Methodisch konstruiert, 1949; Short Stories, 1966 (E. W. Herd, editor).
Plays:Die Entsühnung, pb. 1933 (also known as. . . Denn sie wissen nicht, was sie tun; English translation, The Atonement, 1972).
Nonfiction: “James Joyce und die Gegenwart,” 1936 (“James Joyce and the Present Age,” 1949); Dichten und Erkennen: Essays I, 1955; Erkennen und Handeln: Essays II, 1955; Brief, 1957; Massenpsychologie, 1959; Hofmannsthal und seine Zeit, 1964 (Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time: The European Imagination, 1860-1920, 1984); Zur Universitätsreform, 1969; Gedanken zur Politik, 1970; Hermann Broch-Daniel Brody: Briefwechsel, 1930-1951, 1970 (Bertold Hack and Marietta Kleiss, editors); Menschenrecht und Demokratie, 1971; Briefe über Deutschland, 1945-1949, 1986; Geist and Zeitgeist: The Spirit in an Unspiritual Age, 2002 (John Hargraves, editor).
Miscellaneous: Gesammelte Werke in zehn Bänden, 1952-1961 (10 volumes); Die Heimkehr, 1962; Kommentierte Werkausgabe in dreizehn Bänden, 1974-1981.

Bartram, Graham, and Philip Payne. “Apocalypse and Utopia in the Austrian Novel of the 1930’s: Hermann Broch and Robert Musil.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Modern German Novel, edited by Graham Bartram. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Broch de Rothermann, H. F. Dear Mrs. Strigl: A Memoir of Hermann Broch. Translated by John Hargraves. New Haven, Conn.: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, 2001.
Halsall, Robert. The Problem of Autonomy in the Works of Hermann Broch. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.
Hargraves, John A. Music in the Works of Broch, Mann, and Kafka. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2001.
Horrocks, David. “The Novel as Parable of National Socialism: On the Political Significance and Status of Hermann Broch’s Bergroman.” Modern Language Review 86, no. 2 (April, 1991).
Lützeler, Paul Michael. Hermann Broch: A Biography. Translated by Janice Furness. London: Quartet, 1987.
_______, ed. Hermann Broch, Visionary in Exile: The 2001 Yale Symposium. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2003.
Simpson, Malcolm R. The Novels of Hermann Broch. Las Vegas, Nev.: Peter Lang, 1977.
Strelka, Joseph P. “Hermann Broch.” In Major Figures of Modern Austrian Literature, edited by Donald G. Dariau. Riverside, Calif.: Ariadne Press, 1988.

Source: Rollyson, Carl E., and Frank N. Magill. 2000. Critical survey of Long Fiction. Pasadena, Calif: Salem Press.

Categories: European Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis, Psychological Novels

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