Hermann Broch’s first novel, The Sleepwalkers, is a psychological-historical novel that explores the gradual disintegration of values beginning in the latter half of the nineteenth century and culminating in the Armageddon that was World War I. The work is a trilogy whose main sections bear the names and the worldviews of each section’s protagonist: “Pasenow, or the Romantic,” “Esch, or the Anarchist,” and “Huguenau, or the Realist.”
Specifically, the work depicts the degeneration of German society from 1888 to 1918—a thirty-year period of crucial and inevitable change, as Hannah Arendt describes it in her 1949 article “The Achievement of Hermann Broch”: 1888, when the Romantic finds himself in the not yet visible decay of the old world; 1903, when the Anarchist gets entangled in the prewar confusion of values; 1918, when the Realist becomes the undisputed master of a nihilistic society.
Part 1 of The Sleepwalkers presents the reader with the fragile world of the Junker Joachim von Pasenow, a Romantic in the sense that he inhabits an otherworldly realm of sterile conventions and anachronistic Prussian values, a realm of facades and titular masks whose symbol is the uniform. The protagonist is a man of honor, a believer in order and tradition. He loses his brother, Helmuth, in a senseless duel over family honor and so assumes responsibility for the family estate. In his task of maintaining the property and privileges of the landed aristocracy to which his family belongs, he is helped by his close friend, Eduard von Bertrand, who has risen to become a leading industrialist in Berlin. The first part comes to a close with Pasenow’s marriage to Elisabeth, who, as the daughter of a wealthy neighbor, is well within Pasenow’s social circle. The founding of this new family, particularly after the birth of a child, seems to promise the continued growth and prosperity of Pasenow’s class and way of life. As Broch’s readers will come to discover, this is not to be.
In part 2, a petit bourgeois bookkeeper by the name of Esch makes his appearance. A malcontent, he is called an anarchist because, unlike Pasenow, he has lost faith in the old values and is seeking a new faith at any cost. Yet, like the hero of part 1, Esch is presented as a victim of circumstances, of a process of general social and cultural decline destined to run its full course. Having become a small-time variety-show entrepreneur, Esch, who is a social climber, will use any means at his disposal to get ahead—bribery and blackmail included. He is an impetuous man, settling accounts with real or imagined adversaries in confrontations contrived and acted out in his mind. Such interior dialogues only exacerbate Esch’s inability to act. Though drawn to political agitators, his attraction, like his dreams, is so unrefined as to inhibit effectively any consequent action. Rather, Esch destroys things and people who are seen to stand in his way. Foremost among them is Pasenow’s friend, Bertrand, whom Esch tries to blackmail for his homosexuality. Bertrand, a man positively portrayed as someone in charge of his fate, a man against whose actions those of the other characters are to be gauged, commits suicide rather than submit to the intrigues of a person such as Esch. His death must be viewed as the death of all that is decent and worthwhile in the novel. At the close of part 2, Esch takes the widow Hentjen in marriage in a near parody of Pasenow’s marriage at the close of part 1.
In part 3, the reader is confronted with the total triumph of amorality. Although Huguenau, the realist, is the nominal hero of this last section, he shares center stage with Pasenow, who has gone on to become a major in the war and is now governor of the town in which Esch is serving as editor of a Socialist newspaper. Through a twist of fate—Pasenow publishes an idealistic article in Esch’s paper—the two men become allied across class boundaries and against Huguenau, who, after deserting from the same army in which Pasenow had served so honorably, has become a successful businessman. He is a realist in the sense that his approach to every situation in life is cold, methodical—in short, businesslike. Such a worldview allows Huguenau to manipulate life dispassionately to his own advantage. Huguenau ends up slandering Pasenow and murdering Esch—both of whom, like sleepwalkers, are oblivious to events around them—yet still manages to become a leading member of the society that has emerged after the war.
The destinies of Pasenow and Esch are those of Romantic tradition and mere anarchy: the Romantic past is over; anarchy, as a precondition for the emergence of a new social order, has spent its energy. The fascist state is being born. On a technical level, the form of the novel perfectly reflects its content. Traditional nineteenth century epic narration—reminiscent, for example, of the mature Theodor Fontane—dominates the first portion of the novel. Gradually, however, this ordered, objective style becomes transformed into a more subjective narrative style. The tightly woven and objectively related plot incidents of part 1 give way to the imaginative musings of Esch in part 2, where stream of consciousness and interior dialogue mirror the growing emphasis on subjective reality and its concomitant skepticism, prevalent around the beginning of the twentieth century.
In part 3, the narration has become even more fragmented; it has disintegrated into a series of epic, dramatic, or lyric episodes bound loosely by the destinies of Pasenow, Esch, and Huguenau. Through the juxtaposition of seemingly objective dialogue and stream of consciousness, Broch skillfully plays off one view of reality against another. The resulting discrepancy between outer and inner reality reveals, according to Arendt, “the fundamental fragility of the time, the insecurity and convulsiveness of those who were its representatives.” Through his use of various narrative perspectives to relate main and subordinate plot lines, Broch creates multiple levels of action and reality as his characters emerge, recede, and interact with one another. This technique effectively reflects the...
(The entire section is 2549 words.)