The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch (1945)

The silver lamp next to the couch swung gently to and fro on its long silver chain and outside the window the emanation of the city, ebbing and flowing above the roofs, was dissolved into purple, from purple-violet into dark blue and black, and then into the enigmatic and fluctuant.
(The Death of Virgil, page 47)

The Sleepwalkers

A few years ago I read and reviewed The Sleepwalkers (1931), the masterpiece of Modernist German novelist Hermann Broch (1886 to 1951). The title in fact refers to a trilogy of novels each of which focuses on a troubled individual from successive generations of German society, the novels being titled: The Romantic (1888), The Anarchist (1903) and The Realist (1918).

I reviewed each novel individually but also subjected the magniloquent claims often made about the trilogy to fierce criticism, using evidence from Walter Laqueur’s blistering attack on the failure of intellectuals in the Weimar Republic, Weimar: A Cultural History 1918 to 1933 by Walter Laqueur (1974). I argued that calling the trilogy things like ‘a panoramic overview of German society and history’ were wrong in fact and misleading in implication. The three novels are more eccentric and particular than such generalisations. But then lots of critics make sweeping claims about books they haven’t read.

Broch flees Austria

In March 1938, Nazi Germany annexed Austria in a move known as the Anschluss. Within days Broch was arrested by Nazi authorities for possession of a Socialist pamphlet and thrown into a concentration camp. A campaign by western writers managed to get him freed and he immediately emigrated to Britain, then moved on to America where he settled in 1939.

Before this happened, in 1937, in Austria, Broch had delivered a radio lecture about Virgil. Over the following years he enormously expanded and elaborated this text to become his other great masterpiece, Der Tod des Vergil or The Death of Virgil. This big novel was first published in June 1945 in both the original German and English translation simultaneously. Symbolically, it appeared in the month after the Second World War in Europe finally came to an end, with the complete destruction of Nazi Germany. A crushing end to all illusions about Germany politics, history and culture.

Schematics

Broch’s imagination is schematic: the three novels which make up The Sleepwalkers trilogy each centre on a character who a) come from successive generations and are in some sense emblematic of them; and who b) are each of a distinct and categorisable type. The same urge to structure the material is immediately evident in The Death, which is divided into four equal parts, portentously titled:

  • Water – The Arrival
  • Fire – The Descent
  • Earth – The Expectation
  • Air – The Homecoming

Despite these universal-sounding categories the ‘action’ of novel in fact only ‘describes’ the last 18 hours of the Roman poet Virgil’s life in the port of southern Italian port of Brundisium. The year is 19 BC. Virgil had travelled to Greece, according to this novel hoping to a) escape the fevers of Rome b) finally complete the long poem which has been dogging him, and c) be free to pursue his first love, philosophy.

But he was foiled in this ambition when the princeps or proto-emperor, Augustus, returning from the East, stopped off in Athens, called on Virgil and invited/ordered him to accompany him back to Italy. Hence Virgil’s regret at the start of the novel at giving in to Augustus’s insistence and abandoning his hopes of finally being rid or ‘art and poetry’ and devoting his life to meditation and study.

Anyway, on this return journey Augustus, Virgil and others of the party fell ill. Augustus fully recovered, but the novel opens with Virgil lying in a hammock that’s been rigged up in one of the ships, feeling very unwell indeed. Starting from this moment the long novel portrays the last 18 hours of his life.

The central theme or subject of the novel is Virgil’s wish to burn the manuscript of his epic poem, The Aeneid, a wish which is decisively thwarted by his master and ‘friend’, Augustus.

Modernist?

Blurbs about the novel claims it uses well-established modernist techniques, mixing poetry and prose with different styles and registers to convey the consciousness of a sick man drifting in and out of reality and hallucination but I didn’t find this to really be the case.

When I think of modernism I think of the combination of fragmented interiority matched by collage used in The Waste Land, or the highly collaged text of Berlin Alexanderplatz or the tremendous stylistic variety of Ulysses. There’s none of that here: the text is fluent and continuous. There’s no collage effect, no newspaper headlines or scraps of popular song or advertising jingles. Instead the text is continuous and smooth and highly poetic in style.

Modernism is also usually associated with the accelerated rhythms of the western city, as in the examples above or in John dos Passos’s huge novel, USA (1930 to 1936). Quite obviously a novel set nearly 2,000 years, before anything like the modern city had been imagined, could not use, quote or riff off any aspects of the twentieth century urban experience. So in that respect, also, the novel is not modernist.

What is modernist about it, maybe, is a secondary characteristic, which may sound trivial but is the inordinate length of Broch’s sentences. These can be huge and very often contain multiple clauses designed to convey the simultaneous perception of external sense impressions with bursts of interior thought, memory, opinion and so on – all captured in one sentence.

The Jean Starr Untermeyer translation

The 1945 translation into English was done by Jean Starr Untermeyer. I have owned the 1983 Oxford University Press paperback edition of this translation (with an introduction by Bernard Levin) since the mid-1980s and never got round to reading it till now. This edition contains a longer-than-usual 4-page translator’s note by Jean Starr Untermeyer who, we learn, devoted five years of her life to translating this novel. We also realise, within a few sentences, that her English is non-standard i.e. a bit quirky and idiomatic. On the whole I think that is a good thing because it continually reminds you of the novel’s non-English nature.

Untermeyer makes a number of good points about the difficulty of translating German into English. An obvious one is German’s tendency to create new words by combining individual nouns into new compound nouns. A second aspect of German style is that it can often have a concrete practical meaning but also a ghostly metaphysical implication. This doesn’t happen in English which has traditionally been a much more pragmatic down-to-earth language.

Long sentences

The biggest issue, though, is sentence length. Good German prose style has for centuries allowed of long sentences which build up a succession of subordinate clauses before being rounded out or capped by a final main verb.

English is the extreme opposite. English prefers short sentences. Hemingway stands as the patron saint of the prose style taught in all creative courses for the past 40 years which recommends the dropping of subordinate clauses, the striking out of all unnecessary adjectives, the injunction to keep sentences short and unadorned, a process Untermeyer colourfully refers to as ‘exfoliation’.

As Untermeyer points out, Henry James’s use of long, multi-clause sentences was very much against the general trend of 20th century English prose (as was the extravagant prose style developed by William Faulkner a generation or so later, contrary to the Hemingway Imperative).

Untermeyer says that English prose works by placing its thoughts in sequence and separately expressed in short, clear sentences; German prose more often works by seeking to express multiple levels of meaning ‘at one stroke’ i.e. in each sentence.

But Broch not only came from this very different tradition of conceiving and writing prose, but he pushed that tradition to extremes. Untermeyer reckons some of the sentences in the middle of the book might be the longest sentences ever written in literature. (I’m not so sure. Samuel Beckett wrote some very long sentences in Malone Dies and The Unnameable.)

Thought-groups

Broch’s sentences are long, very long, but they don’t have the deliberately confusing repetitiveness, the incantatory repetitiveness of Beckett. They are clearly trying to capture something and Untermeyer explains in her note that the aim can be summed up by one maxim: ‘one thought – one moment – one sentence’.

Each sentence is trying to capture what she calls one ‘thought-group’, the flickering and often disparate impressions and sensations which occur to all of us, all the time, continually, in each changing second of perception and thought. The difference between you and me and Hermann Broch is that Broch spent a lifetime trying to develop a prose style which adequately captures the complexity of each fleeting moment of consciousness.

In English we do have a tradition of hazy impressionistic prose maybe best represented by the shimmering surfaces of Walter Pater’s aesthetic novel, Marius the Epicurean (also about ancient Rome). And a related tradition of deliberate over-writing in order to create an indulgently sensual effect, maybe associated with Oscar Wilde and sometimes dismissively called ‘purple prose’.

Broch’s intention is different from both of those because he is trying to be precise. His sentences are so very long only because he is trying to capture everything that his subject felt in that moment. The superficial comparison in English is with James Joyce’s Ulysses but Joyce wove an intricate web of symbolic and sound associations, at the same time as he steadily dismantled the English language, in order to make his text approximate the shimmering a-logical process of consciousness. Broch goes nowhere near that far. His sentences may be epic in length, but they are always made up of discrete clauses each of which is perfectly practical and logical and understandable in its own right.

And from Pater to Joyce, the English style of long sentences has tended to choose sensual and lugubrious subject matter, from the lilies and roses of Wilde’s prose to the astonishing sensuality of Ulysses. Broch, by contrast, uses his long sentences to cover a much wider range of subject matter, much of it modern, unpleasant and absolutely not soft and sensual.

In the warehouse district

One example will go a long way to demonstrating what I’m describing. Early in the novel the little fleet carrying the emperor and Virgil docks at Brundisium. Virgil is then carried off the ship and carried in a litter by slaves to the emperor’s mansion in the city, led by a young man with a torch who leads them among the warehouses of Brundisium. Here is one sentence from the passage describing this journey.

Again the odours changed; one could smell the whole produce of the country, one could smell the huge masses of comestibles that were stored here, stored for barter within the empire but destined, either here or there after much buying and selling, to be slagged through these human bodies and their serpentine intestines, one could smell the dry sweetness of the grain, stacks of which reared up in front of the darkened silos waiting to be shoveled within, one could smell the dusty dryness of the corn-sacks, the barley-sacks, the wheat-sacks, the spelt-sacks, one could smell the sourish mellowness of the oil-tuns, the oil-jugs, the oil-casks and also the biting acridity of the wine stores that stretched along the docks one could smell the carpenter shops, the mass of oak timber, the wood of which never dies, piled somewhere in the darkness, one could smell its bark no less than the pliant resistance of its marrow, one could smell the hewn blocks in which the axe still clove, as it was left behind by the workman at the end of his labour, and besides the smell of the new well-planed deck-boards, the shavings and sawdust one could smell the weariness of the battered, greenish-white slimy mouldering barnacled old ship lumber that waited in great heaps to be burned. (Pages 24 to 25)

What does this excerpt tell us? It demonstrates both a) Broch’s ability to handle a long sentence with multiple clauses and b) the complete absence of modernist tricks such as collage, quotation etc.

And there is none of the shimmering incoherence of, say, Virginia Woolf’s internal monologues. Instead it is quite clear and comprehensible and even logical. What stands out is the repetition, and the way it’s really more like a list than a wandering thought.

I’ve mentioned that Broch is a systematic thinker and many of these long sentences don’t really meander, they work through all the aspects of a thought or, in Untermeyer’s phrase, thought-group. We are in the warehouse district, a place saturated in the stinks of the goods stored there. And so Broch enumerates them, not in the English style, in a series of short, discrete sentences, but in one super-sentence which tries to capture the totality of the sense impression all together, as it were, capturing one moment of super-saturated perception.

Pigs and slaves

Far from the shimmering impressionism of the English tradition, The Death of Virgil is also capable of being quite hard, almost brutal. Thus the opening passages contain quite stunning descriptions of being on deck of an ancient Roman galley on a very calm sea as it is rowed at twilight into the harbour of Brundisium just as a thousand lamps are lit in the town and reflected like stars on the black water. So far, so aesthetic.

But Broch mingles this soft stuff with over a page harshly criticising the aristocratic guests on the ship whose only interest on the entire journey has been stuffing their faces like pigs. At these moments the narrative is more like Breughel than Baudelaire.

He also devotes a page to a nauseated imagining of the life of the galley slaves, chained below decks, condemned to eternal toil, barely human, a frank admission of the slave society the entire narrative is set among. The theme is repeated a bit later as Virgil watches the slaves carrying goods from the ship once it’s docked and being casually whipped by their bored overseers.

And there’s another theme as well. When the imperial ship docks, it is greeted by roars of approval from the crowd who have gathered to greet their emperor. Suddenly Broch switches to a more socio-political mode, meditating on the terrible evil to be found in the crowds which seek to suppress their individual isolation by excessive adulation of The One – an obvious critique of Nazism.

From far off came the raging, the raging noise of the crowd frantic to see, the raging uproar of the feast, the seething of sheer creatureliness, hellish, stolid, inevitable, tempting, lewd and irresistible, clamorous and yet satiated, blind and staring, the uproar of the trampling herd that in the shadowless phantom-light of brands and torches dove on towards the evil abyss of nothingness… (p.47)

German brutalism

These passages also epitomise what I think of as ‘the German quality’ in literature, which is a tendency to have overgassy metaphysical speculation cheek-by-jowl with a pig-like brutality, qualities I found in the other so-called masterpiece of German Modernism.

The claim about metaphysical bloat is merely repeating the claim of Walter Laqueur, who knew more about Weimar literature than I ever will and found it present in much of that literature. The comment about piggishness is based on my reading of:

  • Berlin Alexanderplatz, which starts as the protagonist, Franz Biberkopf, is released from prison where he’d been serving a sentence for murdering his girlfriend, Ida, and one of the first things he does is go round and rape his dead girlfriend’s sister, Minna. There’s the scene where the scumbag Reinhold drunkenly smashes his girlfriend, Trude’s, face to a pulp or when Franz beats his girlfriend Mieze black and blue etc.
  • The surprising crudity of much Kafka, the protagonists of The Trial and The Castle jumping on their female companions without warning, and the visceral brutality of stories like The Hunger Artist or In The Penal Colony.
  • The crudity of Herman Hesse’s novels, such as The Steppenwolf, in which the ‘hero’, Harry Haller, murders the woman who took pity on him and loved him, Hermine.
  • The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil which I was enjoying very much for its urbane and humorous tone until – sigh – being German, it had to introduce a psychopath, Moosbrugger, who is on trial for murdering a prostitute and chopping her up into pieces, a process which the author describes in gratuitous detail.
  • In Broch’s own novels, Esch, the piggish ‘hero’ of The Anarchist rapes the innkeeper he subsequently shacks up with, and thinks well of himself because he doesn’t beat her up too much, too often.
  • Wilhelm Huguenau, the smooth-talking psychopathic ‘hero’ of The Realist, murders Esch and then rapes his wife.
  • Bertolt Brecht made a point of dispensing with bourgeois conventions in order to emphasise the brutal reality of the ‘class struggle: ‘Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.’

Phenomenology

I’ll quote from my own review of The Romantic:

Aged 40 Broch gave up management of the textile factory he had inherited from his father and enrolled in the University of Vienna to study mathematics, philosophy and psychology. I wonder what kind of philosophy Broch studied because this focus on trying to describe the actual processes of consciousness – the flavour of different thoughts, and the ways different types of thought arise and pass and sink in our minds – reminds me that Phenomenology was a Germanic school of philosophy from the early part of the century, initially associated with Vienna. According to Wikipedia:

In its most basic form, phenomenology attempts to create conditions for the objective study of topics usually regarded as subjective: consciousness and the content of conscious experiences such as judgements, perceptions, and emotions. Although phenomenology seeks to be scientific, it does not attempt to study consciousness from the perspective of clinical psychology or neurology. Instead, it seeks through systematic reflection to determine the essential properties and structures of experience.

‘Through systematic reflection to determine the essential properties and structures of experience.’ That’s not a bad summary of what Broch does in The Sleepwalker novels and does again here. The obvious difference is that whereas The Sleepwalker novels have plots and numerous characters who interact in a multitude of scenes, in The Death of Virgil Broch found a perfect subject – a deeply sensitive, highly articulate poet – to host/inspire/articulate an enormous number of these phenomenological speculations, long passages which not only describe Virgil’s sensations and thoughts, but analyse, ponder and reflect on the nature of thought itself.

Thus the first part of the passage through the warehouses, which I’ve quoted, amounts to a catalogue of sense impressions. But the smells of country produce awaken a yearning in him for the peace he knew back when he was growing up on his parents’ farm, but not some peace described in the English purple prose tradition – instead a highly theoretical and metaphysical notion of ‘peace’, as representing longing for a full integration of the self, a longing-yearning which haunts Virgil but which he is fated never to achieve.

Here’s an excerpt from that scene. To understand it you need to know that the roaring greeting of the mob in Brundisium town square had led Virgil to pretty negative thoughts about humanity in all its crudity. And so, in this sentence, the two themes –yearning, and the mob – are blended.

It was himself he found everywhere and if he had to retain everything and was enabled to return all, if he succeeded in laying hold on the world-multiplicity to which he was pledged, to which he was driven, given over to it in a daydream, belonging to it without effort, effortlessly possessing it, this was so because the mutiplicity had been his from the very beginning; indeed before all espial, before all hearkening, before all sensibility, it had been his own because recollection and retention are never other than the innate self, self-remembered, and the self-remembered time when he must have drunk the wine, fingered the wood, tasted the oil, even before oil, wine or wood existed, when he must have recognised the unknown, because the profusion of faces or non-faces, together with their ardour, their greed, their carnality, their covetous coldness, with their animal-physical being, but also with their immense nocturnal yearning, because taken all together, whether he had ever seen them or not, whether they had ever lived or not, were all embodied in him from his primordial origins as the chaotic primal humus of his very existence, as his own carnality, his own ardour, his own greed, his own facelessness, but also his own yearning: and even had this yearning changed in the course of his earthly wanderings, turned to knowledge, so much so that having become more and more painful it could scarcely now be called yearning, or even a yearning for yearning, and if all this transformation had been predestined by fate from the beginning in the form of expulsion or seclusion, the first bearing evil, the second bringing salvation, but both scarcely endurable for a human creature, the yearning still remained, inborn, imperishable, imperishably the primal humus of being, the groundwork of cognition and recognition which nourishes memory and to which memory returns, a refuge from fortune and misfortune, a refuge from the unbearable; almost physical this last yearning, which always and forever vibrated in every effort to attain the deeps of memory, however ripe with knowledge that memory might be. (pages 25 to 26)

Here we have some choice examples of the German tendency to make up new compound nouns to describe elusive philosophical or psychological categories: ‘world-multiplicity’, ‘self-remembered’, ‘animal-physical’.

And the use of repetition is pretty obvious – I’ve singled out the words ‘yearning’ and ‘memory’. It isn’t really repetition for the sake of either euphony (purely for the sound), or to drive home a point (as in, say, Cicero’s legal speeches). It is more that, with each repetition, the meaning of the word changes. Broch is examining the concepts behind these key words from different angles. Each repetition sheds new light, or maybe gives the word additional connotations. It is a cumulative effect.

An obvious question is: does this kind of thing actually shed light, does it help us to understand the human mind any better? Well, not in a strictly factual sense, but in the way that literature forces us to have different thoughts, sensations, expands the possibilities of cognition, vocabulary and expression, then, maybe, yes. And the epic length of Broch’s sentences are indicative of his attempt to really stretch the possibilities of perception, or perception-through-language, in his readers.

Then again, it isn’t an actual lecture, it’s not a scholarly paper appearing in a journal of psychology; it’s embedded in a work of literature so a better question is: how does it work within the text?

Any answer has to take account of the fact that this is only one of literally hundreds of other passages like it. No doubt critics and scholars have tabulated and analysed Broch’s use of key words and concepts and traced them back to works of psychology, philosophy or phenomenology he may have read. For the average reader the repetition of words and phrases and the notions they convey has more of a musical effect, like the appearance, disappearance, then reappearance of themes and motifs, building up a complex network of echoes and repetitions, many of which are not noticeable on a first reading. I ended up reading passages 2 or 3 times and getting new things from them at every reading.

Last but not least: do you like it? I found The Death of Virgil difficult to read not because of the clever meanings or subtle psychology but because a lifetime of reading prose from the Hemingway Century, compounded by a career working on public-facing websites, has indoctrinated my mind into preferring short, precise sentences. So I found it an effort to concentrate fully on every clause of these monster sentences – that, the sheer effort of concentrating of every element in these long sentences, holding all the clauses in your mind as they echo and modify each other – that’s what I found difficult.

But short answer: Yes, I did enjoy it. Very much. And it grows and adds new resonances with every rereading. It’s a slow read because I kept picking it up after putting it aside to make lunch, water the garden, feed the cats etc, found I’d forgotten where I was (because so many of the pages are solid blocks of text without any paragraph breaks) and so ended up rereading pages which I’d read once and not even realising it, but when I did, deliberately rereading it with a whole new pleasure, hearing aspects of the text, its meanings and implications and lush style, which I’d missed first time around.

Lyricism

Because The Death of Virgil is highly lyrical. Untermeyer says the entire text is in effect a poem because of its sustained lyricism. It certainly overflows with lyrical passages of deliberate sensuality.

Through the open arched windows well above the city’s roofs a cool breeze was blowing, a cool remembrance of land and sea, seafast, landfast, swept through the chamber, the candles, blown down obliquely, burned on the many-branched, flower-wreathed candelabrum in the centre of the room, the wall-fountain let a fragile, fan-shaped veil of water purl coolly over its marble steps, the bed under the mosquito netting was made up and on the table beside it food and drink had been set out. (p.41)

Maybe you could posit a spectrum of the content, with pure lyricism at one end, pure abstraction at the other, and a mix in the middle. So the excerpt above is what you could call entry-level lyricism in the sense that it is concerned solely with sense impressions, sense data, describing the ‘real’ world. Here’s a passage which contains hints of the metaphysical:

Yet in the night’s breath all was mingled, the brawling of the feast and the stillness of the mountains and the glittering of the sea as well, the once and the now and again the once, one merging into the other, merged into one another… (p.42)

And here is the full-on visionary-metaphysical:

Oh, human perception not yet become knowledge, no longer instinct, rising from the humus of existence, from the seed of sentience, rising out of the wisdom of the mothers, ascending into the deadly clarity of utter-light, of utter-life, ascending to the burning knowledge of the father, ascending to cool heights, oh human knowledge, unrooted, eternally in motion, neither in the depths nor on the heights but hovering forever over the starry threshold between night and day, a sigh and a breath in the interrealm of starry dusk, hovering between the life of the night-held herds, and the death of light-flooded identification with Apollo, between silence and the word, the word that always returns into silence. (p.48)

By now I hope you can see how Virgil’s mind is in almost permanently visionary mode. In his last hours he is entirely concerned with huge abstract ideas of human nature and destiny and personal intimations about being and consciousness and awareness, all mixed into a great, prolonged swirl. Every conversation, every new event, stirs a new aspect of this endless flow of thoughts, triggers a new long rhapsody. The novel as rhapsody, where rhapsody is defined as ‘an effusively enthusiastic or ecstatic expression of feeling’.

Plot summary

Part one, ‘Water – The Arrival’, is just 53 pages long. The third person narrator records Virgil’s thoughts about the sea journey, his swinish companions, his regret at being forced to leave Athens, notifies us that he is very ill, all as the fleet of 6 ships pulls into the harbour of Brundisium as night falls.

The emperor’s ship navigates among the many other ships in the harbour, ties up and slaves start to unload it, while Virgil is carried ashore in a litter borne by 4 slaves.

A huge crowd has turned out to greet Augustus in the central square, roaring approval. Virgil is carried through them, overcome with disgust at humanity, led by a youth who has appeared out of nowhere carrying a torch.

This youth leads the slaves bearing Virgil’s litter through the smelly warehouse quarter and then into a very dirty narrow back passage, reeking of poverty, as raddled women hang out their windows yelling abuse at the rich guy in the litter. This is a sort of vision of hell and goes on for some pages, Virgil repeatedly calling it Misery Street.

They finally emerge into a plaza, also thronged, and make their way through the surging crowd to the gates to the emperor’s palazzo. Here they are let through by the guard and handled by an efficient major-domo who escorts them to their room.

The mysterious torch-bearing boy is unaccountably still with Virgil and when the major-domo tells him to leave, Virgil, on an impulse, says the boy is his ‘scribe’ and can stay. When he asks how long the boy slave will stay with him, the boy gives the portentous reply ‘forever’, which triggers a characteristic response in Virgil:

 Everlasting night, domain in which the mother rules, the child fast asleep in immutability, lulled by darkness, from dark to dark, oh sweet permanence of ‘forever’. (p.44)

The slaves depart. Virgil is alone in the bedroom he’s been allotted, perceiving the night sky, the plash of the fountain in the gardens outside, overcome with swirling thoughts about peace and youth and sense impressions and memory, as he lies on the bed and tries to sleep. End of part one.


Credit

The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch was published by Pantheon Books in 1945. References are to the 1983 Oxford University Press paperback edition.

Hermann Broch reviews

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