The Sleepwalkers is considered by many critics to be one of the major literary achievements of the twentieth century, ranking with James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain, 1927), and Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931, 1981). Hermann Broch’s three-volume novel bears as little resemblance to any of these works as they do to one another; it stands alone, an uncompromising experiment in the art of fiction writing.
The Sleepwalkers consists of three short novels, The Romantic, The Anarchist, and The Realist, held together loosely by the reappearance of some of the characters. In structure, the work is hardly a novel, for the form is incidental. Using this technique, sometimes referred to as essayism, Hermann Broch examines the intellectual, psychological, and moral forces in Germany that culminated in World War I. The book presents an unsparing picture of the character traits and attitudes of the German people that resulted in the glorification of the militaristic personality. These traits are exemplified in the rigid, proud personalities of the Pasenow family.
This carefully constructed novel builds slowly, but with great skill, its power deriving from the cumulative effect of the parts. The narrative relies not on melodrama or romance but on logical development to hold the reader’s interest. Each incident serves to make an intellectual point, to symbolize an attitude, or to represent a psychological condition. Like somnambulists, the characters move rigidly and unavoidably to their fates, themselves becoming symbols in a world reduced to dehumanized symbols. Intellectual conversations and the discussion of philosophical and moral attitudes occupy much of the time of these characters, but often they repeat only platitudes and safe assumptions that will not disturb their world. More than anything else, The Sleepwalkers is an exploration of moral and ethical principles.
For its characters, correctness of conduct is all-important, regardless of the hypocrisy and of the deceit lying beneath the proper facade. Safety can be found behind elaborate manners and correct wardrobes and uniforms. Indeed, military uniforms assume symbolic proportions in the novel. When people cast off their uniforms, their true natures and their animal instincts are freed—for good and for evil. Joachim’s and Bertrand’s thoughts about military uniforms become an essay on the nature of uniforms in general. Much space is given to the significance of clothing of all kinds—any human covering becomes, in effect, a uniform, labeling the wearer. Women prefer men in...
(The entire section is 1138 words.)