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The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch

Written by son of rambow on Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Hermann Broch's novel, The Sleepwalkers, is one of the most remarkable works of modern times. Like Alfred Döblin's November 1918 or Musil's Man without Qualities it is a novel of an epoch. Like Joseph Roth's novels it follows the transformation of Central Europe from its last fin-de-siècle glory to its post-World War I decline. It is very much a novel of ideas, but it is also a work of art.

In three connected volumes it spans the period 1888 to 1918, revisiting that world at fifteen year intervals. Two volumes are realistic, straightforward narrative. In the third this approach will no longer do. In Huguenau oder die Sachlichkeit (translated somewhat unfortunately as The Realist) Broch pushes form -- not to breaking, or to incomprehensibility, but to best represent a new world (dis)order.

Mathematically minded, Broch always aimed for and achieved clarity. Obfuscation could not serve him. His novels -- and The Sleepwalkers especially -- are novels of ideas, but it is almost an injustice to them to emphasize the fact. What astounds, perhaps, is that The Sleepwalkers is so successful as a novel of ideas -- a rarity.
Broch was a talented writer. Characterization is not his strongest point, but the novel is dominated by strong, well-drawn, and memorable figures. Each of the central figures in each section -- Pasenow, Esch, and Huguenau --, be they sleepwalking through the times or resisting them, are fully realized figures. As are many of the others, including an unlikely Salvation Army girl, and the child, Marguerite.
As an evocation of the period and the place -- a collapsing Mitteleuropa, where the center will no longer hold -- The Sleepwalkers is also a complete success, though Broch's dark vision of those dark times is not one all agree with.

In an attempted review in The Spectator L.A.G. Strong wrote: "The Sleepwalkers is too large and indigestible for the ordinary fiction review." Undoubtedly so. To merely recount its plot-outlines, its themes, its approaches does a disservice to Broch's grand accomplishment. It deserves much closer and more careful analysis, as perhaps we will eventually be able to offer. For now we merely suggest: The Sleepwalkers deserves to be and should be read. It is indisputably one of the great novels of the 20th century, one of a handful that defined Western culture in our time.

Note too the publication history and reception of this enormous and difficult novel: though Broch was unknown at the time, the book was immediately translated into English and widely reviewed and acclaimed. In contrast, one the few comparable German novels of recent times, Peter Weiss' Die Ästhetik des Widerstands (see our review) -- a trilogy, too, the most significant German novel since Grass' Tin Drum, and by an author well-known to English-speaking audiences (as author of Marat/Sade (see our review)) -- has not yet been translated into English, more than 25 years after the first volume appeared in German. Despite having so far been translated into eleven foreign languages it remains inaccessible to American and English audiences. Sad times indeed.

Note also that despite nominally being a trilogy, The Sleepwalkers should be seen (and read) as a whole. Note also that the translations of the titles of the three sections do not completely reflect the German original. Penguin, in particular, by presenting the novel in tripartite manner place even greater emphasis on the titles -- but don't express them true to the original. Dispensing with the names -- Pasenow oder die Romantik (1888) becomes merely The Romantic -- is already a problem. Worse is that they make of, for example, of Esch oder die Anarchie (1903) (literally: "Esch, or Anarchy") an Anarchist And Sachlichkeit is also not quite "Realism" (or Realist) -- a word for which there is also a perfectly good German word which Broch decidedly did not choose -- "Realismus".

Another The Sleepwalkers's review link:
New York Time

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