Hermann Broch (born 1886 Vienna, emigrated USA 1938, died 1951) is considered one of the greatest of German modernists. He left Austria, after a brief period of imprisonment by the Nazis, in 1938. The Sleepwalkers and The Death of Virgil are his major works.
The Sleepwalkers (translated by Willa and Edwin Muir) is a long and challenging novel. It is in three parts, set in 1888, 1908, and 1918. Each section is meant to depict the state of mind of Germany, perhaps more Prussia, at the time. Over all it is a portrait of a society headed for a cataclysm of global proportions. It is about sleepwalking into the abyss.
The Romantic is set in 1888 and is partially depiction of the final days of high German romanticism. It focuses on a Prussian aristocrat clinging to old values.
The Anarchist takes place in 1903 and centers on an accountant who seeks balanced values. He struggles to survive in a period of economic displacement. We learn a lot about daily life in this section.
The final section, The Realist is set in 1918, at the close of World War One. It is the most intricate segment of The Sleepwalkers. It focuses on the attempts of the characters to deal with the impact of defeat on German society. It includes several chapters of poetry, an independent series of chapters on the life of a woman from Berlin and several chapters called Lectures on Absolute Values. In the long ago I studied Kant and Hegal so I am familiar with German absolutism. I am not as of now sure if these chapters are meant seriously or are suggesting that behind the grand structures of philosophy the ground work for Nazism is being laid. I am inclined to the second view. I see the lectures as ultimately comic, almost tragically absurd but I know most won't agree.
There are lots of brilliant in passing observations in this novel about the plastic arts, society, German newspapers, business ethics and a host of other topics.
Broch is trying to wake up those sleepwalking through life.
It is a powerful work. I am very glad to have read it.
I hope to read Broch's The Death of Virgil soon.