Commentary Magazine

The Sleepwalkers, by Hermann Broch

Nightmare and Redemption
The Sleepwalkers.
by Hermann Broch.
Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir. New York, Pantheon, 1948. 648 pp. $5.00


I first read The Sleepwalkers when it appeared in this magnificent translation of Edwin and Willa Muir, in 932. Since then, it has been an experience which has lingered in my mind and which I have meant to go back to. But an uneasy fear that I might be disappointed, that I might feel that this trilogy was chaotic, has held me back until a few days ago.

On re-reading this book, I find that it is one of the few really original and thoughtful novels of this century. If it owes a good deal to Joyce and Proust, then Broch has transformed their interior techniques and many-faceted sensibilities into something as harshly German as the painting of Bosch. For him art is not an end, it is an instrument of language which transforms the crudest, ugliest reality of actuality into another reality of religious vision. The great difference between the French and the Germanic genius lies really in this: to the French art is an end which transforms experience, insofar as it is contained in art, into an aesthetic object, so that the aim of life itself can appear as the transforming of real experience into such objects of contemplation and enjoyment. To the Germanic genius art is an intermediary, a kind of funnel which connects hell with heaven, heaven with hell. The basest material, in Gruenewald, Bosch, Brueghel, or even Klee goes into the machine at one end, and is sublimated into the divine at the other. So that if I go on to criticize The Sleepwalkers as an imperfect work of art, in which several stories having no interior relationship with each other, but only an external parallelism, are tacked together, and into which a philosophic essay is inserted with a crudity even more obvious than Tolstoy’s reflections on history in War and Peace; when I have said all this, I must add that these apparent artistic defects add to the impressiveness of Broch’s whole achievement in imposing a philosophic message upon his massive material. This is a novel hewn out of the life of the years between 890 and 1920 which leads into a view of history wider than political theories.



The theme of all novels is, I suppose, change. But what holds together the very disparate times and plots of Broch’s novel is his preoccupation with the conditions which produce very intensive change in his characters, complete changes of personality, almost the change of one character into another, the change of the individual into historic event, the change of consciousness into dream, and of life into death.

His characters are sleepwalkers because their own lives are shaped by the forces of the nightmare reality in which they live. A Marxist would define this reality as the breakdown of German capitalist-materialism during the years 1880-1920. But to Broch, the social forces are themselves only one element of a far profounder breakdown of the whole of modern life, a breakdown which consists of the disruption of the idea of man as a being who lives by faith in God, into the idea of him as a specialized function who devotes his life to becoming the logic which modem society requires of him: “In this absolute devotion to logical rigor, the Western world has won its achievements, . . . and with the same thoroughness, the absolute thoroughness that abrogates itself, must it eventually advance ad absurdam: war is war, l’art pour art, in politics there’s no room for compunction, business is business, . . . all these signify the same thing, all these appertain to the same aggressive and radical spirit, informed by that uncanny, I might almost say that metaphysical, lack of consideration for consequences, that ruthless logic directed on the object and the object alone, which looks neither to right nor to left; and this, all this, is the style of thinking that characterizes our age.”

Thus Broch’s characters are driven by two forces pulling in opposite directions: the ruthless logic of becoming their social function and their unavoidable religious vocation as human beings.



The first section of the trilogy, The Romantic, is in some ways the strangest and most dreamlike. On the surface it is the love story of a young officer, Joachim von Pasenow, with Elizabeth, the girl who afterwards becomes his wife but who really loves and is loved by Joachim’s best friend, Bertrand, who is a homosexual. Broch’s extraordinary power is perhaps best shown by his ability to make his most stupid-seeming characters those who in the long run are most able to be transformed by events. Joachim von Pasenow seems a singularly stupid and suspicious man, who is unable to love either his friend or his wife, and who has the rigidity of the Prussian conception of honor. But it is his very inability to understand, his bewilderment, which opens his mind to visions, to the transformation of his fiancée into her surroundings: “Now an almost insoluble problem confronted him, and it was no use trying to decipher it in Elizabeth’s face, for her face itself constituted the problem. Lying back in her chair, she was gazing at the autumn landscape, and her up-tilted face, thrown back almost at a right angle to the taut line of the throat, was like an irregular roof set upon the pillar of her neck. One could perhaps say just as well that it rested like a leaf on the calyx of her throat, or that it was a lid covering the throat, for it was really no longer a face, merely a continuation of the throat, an extension of the throat, with a far-off resemblance to the head of a serpent. . . . He shut his eyelids a little and peered through the slits at the landscape of that extended face. It blended at once with the real landscape, the woodland verge of the hair bordered the yellowing leaves of the forest, and the glass balls that decorated the rose-beds in the garden glittered with the same light as the jewel that in the shadow of the cheek—ah, was it still a cheek?—shone as an earring. This was both startling and comforting, and when the eye combined these separate things into a unity so strange, past all disjoining, one was curiously reminded of something, transposed into some mode that lay beyond convention far back in childhood, and the unsolved riddle was like a sign that had emerged from the sea of memory.”

This elaborate image beautifully illustrates the change which is preparing itself under the uniform surface of the Prussia of 880. The whole of Joachim’s world is haunted by a strange uncertainty, where, in this book, the most ambivalent character, Bertrand, hovering between the two sexes, becomes almost a point of security, because he accepts in his own personality the principle of transformation.



It is in the second part, The Anarchist, that Hermann Broch creates his most memorable character, the clerk Esch, who is the true hero of The Sleepwalkers. Esch, the philanderer, the immoral moralist who wants to make the columns of his accounts balance, the drifter whose eyes are opened to the injustices of society by the imprisonment of Martin Geyring, the trades-union agitator; Esch, who becomes the mother and the lover of Mother Hentjen, the restaurant proprietress, who attacks Bertrand because he is head of the Rhine Shipping Company, and who finally joins the Bible-reading group of Major von Pasenow: he is the most curious, poetic, and convincing of Broch’s inventions. Like von Pasenow he is a very stupid man who is reserved by life nevertheless for the most illuminating revelations, because he is made as it were of stubborn granite, honest material upon which events hew the form of his character.

The pages which describe Esch’s journey with Mother Hentjen down the Rhine are among the most beautiful in the book, immensely moving in their mixture of detached irony and sympathy. Here Broch is perhaps at his best. The extraordinary scene between Esch and Bertrand has a dreamlike intensity but it seems to press, as do several other passages, beyond the limits of that which can be expressed in fiction. There is a certain repetitiousness in The Sleepwalkers which seems to arise from the author not being able to say something, which he therefore tries to express in a dozen different ways. Perhaps as a counsel of despair, he resorts in the last volume to a philosophical journal which is introduced in fragments into the story, without any explanation as to its connection with the action.



This journal is so remarkably interesting in what it says, that one can almost forgive its inartistic intrusiveness. Yet it is not a completely successful device, because although it says much which is related to the theme of the novel, the lack of any dramatic relation to the action leaves the reader at a loss. To borrow a phrase from painting, it has no tonal relation to the other tones of the canvas. It is not within the character of any of the persons whom Hermann Broch has created, and it therefore remains stubbornly outside the rest of the novel. In itself, considered outside the novel, it is intensely interesting: but within the novel it remains a lecture, interrupting the course of the action, and therefore difficult to read.

The description of the breakdown of 918 Germany in the last part of the trilogy reads strangely true today, not just of Germany, but of the world. Broch shows here that he is a great writer of scenes of war and revolution. The character of Hugenau, the Alsatian deserter who becomes editor of the Kur Trier Herald, who instinctively and almost unconsciously supports every cause which supports his own interests, is a terrifying characterization of the post-war profiteer. And the drawing together of the two great stupid men, von Pasenow and Esch, symbols of the Germany which raised money for war by people subscribing a mark for the privilege of hammering a nail into a wooden figurehead of Marshal von Hindenburg, symbolizes, with their death after religious conversion, the theme of redemption which is the ultimate transformation of the sleepwalkers.



This difficult, beautiful, highly intelligent novel is, with all its imperfections, a masterpiece. Amongst its imperfections, one must count the fact that certain of the characters, particularly Elizabeth and Bertrand, are unconvincing, because although they exist on the level of a hallucinated reality, they seem hardly to have a convincing material existence. With some hesitation, I also consider the philosophic journal a defect. Among Broch’s great achievements are the creation of the characters of Esch and Hugenau, worthy to exist beside Stephen Dedalus and Molly Bloom, and less “literary” than either of them: the creation of a massive historic scene; and the description of states of consciousness where human life seems trembling upon the edge of a significance wider than that of the individual.



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