The Sleepwalkers (Broch novel)

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The Sleepwalkers (original title Die Schlafwandler, 1931–32) is a novel (or a novel trilogy) by the Austrian novelist and essayist Hermann Broch. It is considered[by whom?], along with Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities and Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, to be a masterpiece of modern German prose of the first half of the 20th century.

Plot[edit]

The novel contains three parts, in fact three novels in one, which differ from each other in style, time and place of action, characters and atmosphere.

The first part of the trilogy takes place in Berlin and a Prussian province in 1888 and is a parody of 19th century literary realism. The main character, Prussian aristocrat and military officer Joachim von Pasenow, balances between romantic devotion to a Czech prostitute Ruzena (Rose) Hruska and a neighbor, Elisabeth von Baddensen, who is his social equal. In his secret liaison with Ruzena he finds emotional and sexual fulfilment while courting a delicate and distant young lady. In the ocean of doubts and hesitation, he finds refuge in rationality, order and prejudice (represented by the theme of a military uniform) which lead him into a loveless marriage with Elisabeth.

Almost all the decisions and actions of Joachim, Ruzena and Elisabeth are inspired and controlled by his diabolical friend, the rich merchant Eduard von Bertrand whom, for his evident lack of comprehension for old values, Joachim never trusts fully.

The second part, a pastiche of an expressionistic prose, is situated in Cologne and Mannheim in 1903. Instead of the upper crust, the reader finds a working-class and low bourgeoisie setting. Having left his promising career as an accountant and his old friends, including social democrat Geyring and inn-keeper Gertrud Hentjen, the book-keeper August Esch starts a new life as a circus manager and starts up a women's fights production. As the circus production does not satisfy him he aspires to leave Germany for the USA and take Hentjen with him.

Like Joachim in the first part, Esch feels insecure in the world of decaying old values (here the values of business and middle-class life) and tries to find a guilty party, first in his former superior, then in unfeeling industrialist Bertrand (Eduard von Bertrand from the first part), who not only exploits his employees but is a homosexual. In fury, Esch decides to murder Bertrand but does not achieve his goal. His dream of America is destroyed when his associate runs away with all his money. Finally Esch marries Hentjen and moves to Luxemburg, where he gets an even more prestigious job as a bookkeeper.

The last part focuses on several characters (including Joachim von Pasenow, Esch and his wife Gertrud) in a little town on the Mosel River during the last year of World War I. The well-ordered way of their lives is disrupted as deserter Huguenau arrives in town and pretends to be a businessman and publisher. While Esch fulfills himself through a sect, Huguenau cheats him out of his newspaper and attempts to insinuate himself into the favour of Major von Pasenow, the military commandant of the town.

The third novel contains parallel stories of Hanna Wendling, a young woman alienated from her family; of shell-shocked and mutilated soldiers and field hospital nurses; and that of a Salvation Army girl in Berlin. The plot of each chapter determines the genre used (occasional verse for the story of a Salvation Army girl, journalistic style of the hospital chapters, etc.).

The outstanding element of the third novel is the essay titled The Disintegration of Values. While prosaic or balladic chapters refer to fictional characters and their attitudes to the community and ideas of their social role, the essay deals with the transformation of values in society theoretically.

The finale takes place during the last days of the war; in the total chaos Huguenau murders Esch and violates his wife, then legally leaves the town and soon becomes a respectable businessman in Lorraine.

Themes[edit]

In the novel Broch explains the decline of values beginning with Joachim's hesitation between a lower-class mistress and a noble fiancée. The story ends in Joachim's wedding night when both he and Elisabeth are afraid of a possible physical act of love and they finally find deliverance in his falling asleep.

Pasenow is sure of his virtues and their meaning. Esch too knows about such virtues as justice or fidelity but ignores their substance; that is why he can be both faithful and unfaithful, and can think of murder or denunciation to find their sense.

Amoral Huguenau's only criterion is profit and he follows this maxim in all his actions. He swindles and murders without remorse and his dealings bring him finally to the zero point of values, a state when old values have disappeared and the new ones have not been created.

Writing process[edit]

Since his early forties Broch had devoted himself to writing, and The Sleepwalkers, composed between 1928 and 1932, was his literary début. Before that he had published only essays.

In creating the plot of the book, Broch was inspired by his associates and friends for several characters and events, e.g. his mistress and confidante, the Viennese journalist Ea von Allesch gave him the idea of the vaudeville artist Ilona.

In the variety of styles and stories Broch tried to represent the complexity of the world, much as, for example, James Joyce did in Ulysses.

Reception[edit]

Broch often criticised the era of 1880 until 1918. He found another chance to do so in his book of essays Hofmannsthal and His Time (Hofmannsthal und seine Zeit) criticising fin-de-siecle culture in Vienna which he felt was represented by kitsch and fussiness. He created his own term, "the gay apocalypse", to describe this period.

The Sleepwalkers is among the Czech-French novelist Milan Kundera´s favorite novels. He dedicated a chapter of his essay The Art of the Novel (L´Art du roman) to an interpretation of it.

The book is also mentioned in Michelangelo Antonioni's film 'La Notte' (1961), where the novelist Pontano, (Marcello Mastroianni) finds the book lying around the mansion where a party is being held, upon which he asks his wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) perhaps ironically, "Who is reading The Sleepwalkers?".

See also[edit]