Saturday, 10 November 2012

Esch is Travis Bickle: Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers

I’m taking a break from the José Saramago Month event because I also joined Caroline and Lizzy's German Literature Month. I figured this would be a good occasion to finally read Austrian writer Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers (1932). I first came across this novelist’s name thanks to Milan Kundera, who is a huge admirer of his. Kundera’s interesting analyses of the novel can found in The Art of the Novel, Betrayed Testaments, The Curtain, and I think also in Encounter.

The Sleepwalkers is really a trilogy of novels composed of The Romantic, The Anarchist and The Realist. The novel’s time encompasses the period in European history from 1888 to 1918 and is Broch’s attempt at showing and meditating on the ‘disintegration of values,’ as he puts it in the long essay of the same name inserted amidst the narrative of the final book. The novel has three interesting protagonists, each one representing an aspect of European culture either in its crepuscule or in transition into something else. Broch writes in clear, fluid sentences and the tone is generally ironic. Some of the observations about the human condition are impeccable. I will admit right away I was expecting to enjoy it more, perhaps my expectations were too high. But let’s not allow that to get in the way.

The reader first follows the romantic misadventures of Joachim von Pasenow, the younger son of a rich man. He has difficult relationships with his mother and his father, a tyrant, and lives under the shadow of his older brother, who manages the estate, as tradition demands it, whereas Joachim was sent to the army. After his brother is killed in a duel, Joachim is expected to take his place, and he starts feeling the weight of duty and honour upon his freedom and plans for happiness. At the same time he falls in love with Ruzena, a Bohemian prostitute that he tries to rehabilitate and intends to marry, his father is preparing his marriage to the rich Elisabeth, a beautiful woman that Joachim nevertheless doesn’t love. “Chaos and disorder everywhere, without a hierarchy, without a discipline, and, yes, even without punctuality,” he thinks as he senses the horizons of his life shrinking. In his attempt to find stability away from the emotional turmoil around him – love for a prostitute, duty to marry a woman of his social condition, the prospects of a miserable and unhappy domestic existence - he seeks comfort in the order his military world gives him, often symbolized by the uniform he wears (except when he changes into muftis to visit brothels). And yet the motives of his love for Ruzena are the same reason why he can’t have her. He’s acutely aware that they belong to different worlds, and that he can never join her world or take her away from hers:

What did it all lead to? And with a jerk regaining his prescribed military bearing, he suddenly thought with relief that one could love only someone who belonged to an alien world. That was why he would never dare to love Elisabeth, and also why Ruzena had to be a Bohemian. Love meant to take refuge from one’s own world in another’s, and so in spite of his jealousy and shame he had left Ruzena in her world, so that her flight to him should be ever sweet and new.

Keeping the Joachim-Ruzena-Elisabeth triangle intact is Herr Bertrand, Joachim’s dissolute friend, his whoring and drinking buddy, who abandoned the army to become a successful businessman. He doesn’t care much about duty, thinks only about pleasure, and ridicules Joachim for his lofty feelings. First he flirts with Ruzena, who nearly shoots him dead, and then with Elisabeth, who loves him. Thanks to his machinations, Elisabeth and Joachim finally marry, doing what is expected of their social condition, but it is assumed that theirs will be an unhappy and miserable married life.

Herr Bertrand is seen again in the next novel, as the owner of a company and the boss of August Esch, an accountant clerk who, in 1903, is seeking for a great meaning in life, greater than himself. Esch has just been fired after a colleague, Nentwig, convinces his former boss that he was cooking the books. Esch spends most of the novel planning the best way of handing him to the authorities, but always lacking the will to act, until he shifts his hatred of Netwing onto Bertrand. This happens after he befriends Martin, a social democrat cripple who is also a unionist and moves in the socialist circles and participates in the proletarian struggles. Martin helps him get a job in Bertrand’s company and Esch originally admires him as a great man. Esch, like Pasenow, also worries about the disorder in the world, the ‘anarchical condition of the world,’ and this convinces him to try to join the socialists, but the group’s own inaction disillusion him and he continues his search of meaning elsewhere, until he finds God. The entire novel is Esch trying to change his life, and always failing. He tries to become a circus manager but his partner runs away with the money. He dreams of going to America to start a new life but never takes any decisive steps. He finally gains a sort of focus after Martin is arrested during an illegal workers’ meeting. Esch blames Bertrand and tries to destroy him. Little by little his hatred of the world is concentrated in the figure of Bertrand, after it had been concentrated in Nentwig’s. But even his plans to murder Bertrand fail.

Somewhere Kundera wrote that ‘Esch is Luther,’ but I’ve thought of another comparison: Esch is Travis Bickle. If you think this is absurd, watch Taxi Driver and then read this novel and you won’t believe the similarities, the list of similarities practically write themselves. Esch and Travis are two lonely and deranged individuals incapable of stable human connections. Esch originally admires Bertrand and Travis admires Palantine, then they try to kill these men. Both fail. Travis is also Iris’ protector and in the novel Esch tries to protect vaudeville actress Iona from her knife-throwing partner. Both Esch and Travis see themselves as warriors in a world that has lost all moral values. Esch starts by despising the ‘parsons and their morality’ and claims to have embraced the Freethinkers, but his dialogue is peppered with religious vocabulary: he speaks of the world needing a redeemer, of evils that need expiation, of sacrifice, and always of decency. In his worldview ‘people melted into one another’ and since the ‘wrong done existed apart from the doer’ it was the ‘wrong alone that had to be expiated,’ which is he how he ends up justifying turning his hatred away from Netwing to Bertrand:

Perhaps it was really Nentwig who should be made to pay. For if the world was to be redeemed one must attack the virus at its source, as Lohberg said: but that source was Nentwig, or perhaps even something hiding behind Nentwig, something greater – perhaps as great and as securely hidden in his inaccessibility as the chairman of a company – something one knew nothing about. It was enough to make a man angry (…).

Then Esch grows old and finds religion. In 1918, he’s living in a small village, married and running a newspaper, to which Major Joachim Pasenow contributes articles, when deserter Huguenau arrives. Huguenau is the final dissolution of all moral values: besides being a deserter, he’s a killer and a scammer, and he treads gaily through the world with his smile and persuasive spiel and manipulates events in order to get everything the way he wants, without ever wearing a villain’s mask. Pretending to be a businessman he steals Esch’s newspaper from him, narrowly avoids being revealed as a deserter at the end of the novel thanks to a well-timed murder, and returns into the civilian life rich and innocent. It is with wonderful irony that this final novel is called The Realist.

The final novel was the one I enjoyed the most, perhaps because Huguenau has such a powerful presence and charisma, but also because it was the least conventional of the three. The former two were rather outdated for the time Broch was writing them, perhaps deliberately in order to mimic the historical periods they’re set in, but The Realist is a polyphonic creation that mixes prose, poetry and drama, interweaves several parallel narrative and includes Broch’s long essay “Disintegration of Values.” This is where I can finally see what attracted Kundera so much to it. One of the things I immediately liked about Kundera, when I started reading him a few years ago, was exactly the way he mixed an essayistic voice with his fiction, becoming a detached commentator of the stories he kept remembering us were mere fictions created by him. Another thing that unites Broch and Kundera: emotional distance, the strength to resist the persuasiveness of sentimentality, being in control of the characters’ feelings so that they never descend into pathos, a gentle ironic tone where other writers would use a solemn tone to emphasise the seriousness of the narrative. Huguenau defeats anyone’s attempt at taking him seriously. As the novel opens he shepherds the reader into an ‘overwhelmingly senseless world.’ Major von Pasenow has the army and Esch has his Bible classes to continue to devote themselves to something higher than themselves, to continue to live with the sacred in their lives still, and Huguenau has himself and his total ruthlessness, amorality and ability to bend with reality to better find a place in it that will grant him stronger chances of surviving. He surpasses them because they’re clinging to institutions that no longer have vitality, because the religious fervour of the Middle Ages, when God was everything, will never return, and because the honour of the war has finally been soiled by the use of an ‘unchivalrous weapon’ like poison gas. There’s nothing bigger or higher than man, just man himself, terribly alone. This novel is about loneliness, from Joachim to Huguenau, the protagonists are all alone, but only Huguenau isn’t affected by this situation, whereas the others try to create bonds with the world and other humans, Huguenau ferociously protects his individuality and takes it to the extremes of caring for nothing, feeling for no one, which gives him advantages to survive the collapse of eras better than others whose existences are intimately attached to the institutions that disappear when they collapse.

Esch asks, “Oh, God, is there no possibility of one human being reaching another? is there no fellowship, is there no understanding? Must every man be nothing but an evil machine to his fellows?”

And the novel resoundingly says, no, there is no fellowship, no understanding, Huguenau is the future of man. And the reader can agree or not, but that doesn’t steal anything from the novel’s excellent argument in favour of this grim prediction.


  1. The description of "The Realist" as well as the description of Huguenau reminds me a little of Dostoyevsky's "The Possessed" and the character of Pyotr Verkhovensky. have you read that novel? It is also about a slightly different type of moral decay as well as a very nefarious character.

    1. Brian, yes, I have read it. I didn't make the connection, so I'll have to think about it. Thanks for bringing it up.