“The whole world goes on crutches…a hobbling monstrosity…” – August Esch
The wonderfully named Heimito von Doderer, author of the monumental, three volume, novel The Demons, responded to comparisons with mad genius Robert Musil, author of the equally monumental The Man Without Qualities, by declaring that, on the contrary, his great work was not like Musil’s because he, at least, von Doderer that is, could complete his! Well, he was right of course, completion of a work is a tick in your column, although The Demons is, in no other way, the superior work. If I had to choose one existential Austrian novel fit to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Musil’s, one that could maybe even kick sand in it’s face, then that would be The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch. Broch was a strange man, one who appeared to consider novel-writing as an activity for plebs; it was, he suggested, an intellectually inferior pursuit, inferior to philosophy, which was his real passion. And yet he wrote two of the greatest novels in the German language, the one under review here and The Death of Virgil.
Structurally The Sleepwalkers is divided into three [largely distinct] parts, or short novels; indeed, it is often referred to as a trilogy, although the three novels are never published separately. The reason for this is that in order to fully understand what Broch’s was trying to say they must be read together, one after another, from start to finish without breaks. While in a narrative sense there is [almost] nothing linking the first two parts of the book, while there is very little continuity between them, and even the third, although it shares some characters with the first and second parts, has a distinct storyline, philosophically the parts hang together as a whole. To give you a sense of what to expect from the book I will discuss each part separately and try and say something about Broch’s ideas, his unifying vision, as I proceed.
The first novel, which runs to approximately 160 pages, is called The Romantic. It concerns Joachim von Pasenow, an officer, and his relationships with earthy working girl Ruzena and posh totty Elisabeth. Of course, the term romantic could be perceived as purely descriptive, as the action in this first part is centred around love and marriage and romance, yet its real meaning is a reference to Joachim’s state of mind and the state of Germanic [and possibly world] society-culture at the time the novel is set. So, what Broch means is not romance or the romantic, as we generally understand those words, but romanticism as a world-view. Pasenow is a man still tied to what Broch considers to be a disappearing set of values, such as honour, duty, and chivalry. However, what has sprung up around him is a new way of thinking about the world, about morality, a new relationship with the world, which is encapsulated by his friend, a civilian, Bertrand. Bertrand, who Joachim is both drawn to and suspicious of, is a business man, a capitalist, who cares little for the absurd dictates of honour, etc.
Broch expertly handles Joachim’s moral-ethical crisis; he makes you believe in the battle taking place within him, between the new and the old, between an intense longing for freedom or liberalism, encapsulated by Ruzena, and traditional conservative values, such as his duty, as he sees it, to marry and protect Elizabeth. At the beginning of The Romantic Ruzena is a dancer at a casino who Joachim’s father tries to buy, for one night at least, for his son. Joachim baulks at this, but eventually the couple start an affair and it is through her that he discovers erotic love. It is telling that they come together as lovers, not as client and whore, because while prostitution is a transaction subject to rules and expectations of behaviour, a state of affairs that Joachim is comfortable with and is used to, a love affair is different. Love affairs are wild and confusing and follow their own [il]logical course; there is no prescribed way of behaving, and this seduces and scares Joachim.
Almost surprisingly for a novel-of-ideas, it is not only the central characters who are well-drawn. One of the most impressive things about Broch’s writing is his subtle characterisation of all of the players in his novel-as-a-whole, no matter how small their part; for example, as someone indicative of a new way-of-being one would expect that Ruzena would be one-dimensional, be it brassy or hard-faced or whatever, that, furthermore, she would be uninterested in love or traditional values, and yet she is incredibly vulnerable and seems to yearn for the kind of life Joachim is running away from, even though she knows it is impossible for her. Elizabeth, too, is not merely a gilded void, not merely a blonde-haired virgin-innocent, even though that is how Joachim sees her. She is also seduced by, or drawn to, Bertrand [Ruzena being already of that world is the only one who isn’t], is also torn between [or, as Broch would have it, is sleepwalking through] the old and new moral systems.
The second part is called The Anarchist, which is set some time later  than The Romantic and [mostly] features different characters. Here the focus is August Esch, a book-keeper, who loses his job and soon finds another with the Central Rhine Shipping Company, which is owned by Pasenow’s friend, Bertrand. Beyond this, the surface action of the story is Esch’s relationship with the ageing Mother Hentjen and his own foray into business as a partner in a female wrestling enterprise [I shit you not]; but, as in the first part of the novel-as-a-whole, it is what is happening psychologically to the main character, his existential crisis, and how that relates to the times, that is the real focus.
The anarchy of the title refers to Esch’s state of mind, and the moral-cultural state of Germany. Unlike Joachim, whose life has clear prospects and a clear line of progression [if he chooses to follow it], Esch’s life, and German socio-political life, is unpredictable, is unstable. Jobs are held then lost or given up, women are had and thrown away, and while capitalism has now taken over the country socialism has risen up in [apparent] opposition. In The Romantic Joachim found himself caught between two ways of being, two separate ways of approaching the world, one of which he must choose as his own, but Esch’s crisis is born out of not knowing what his choices are. The times are characterised by a moral-cultural murkiness, an ambiguity, while Esch strives for clarity, for concreteness; he feels, like a lot of people do these days actually, cut adrift with no rudder, with no one or no thing to direct him.
Abandoned, in the Sartrean sense, he appears to turn towards quasi-religious thinking. After being present during a knife-throwing act he becomes obsessed with the female assistant, the girl who has the knives thrown at her. He believes it is his task to save this girl from an act likened by Broch to crucifixion; not only that, but that he must somehow sacrifice himself in order to do it. Then, in an important scene towards the end of The Anarchist, during which Esch and Bertrand [a strangely God-like figure] meet, the idea of a redeemer is touched upon. The idea, voiced by Bertrand, is that humanity can only return to a stable state with the coming of a man who will bring in his wake almost total destruction, i.e. that only when society has reached its lowest point can it be rebuilt; this man, you might say, with hindsight, was Hitler, and the beginning period of necessary destruction is dealt with in part three.
The third novel, which is by far the longest, is called The Realist and takes place during World War 1. Aside from another jump forward in history, and the introduction of war-time conditions, what really sets it apart from its predecessors is its more experimental form. The Romantic and The Anarchist were both straightforward narratives, solely focused on one story, one set of characters, but The Realist is made up of multiple stories, including a Salvation Army girl, the critically injured Godicke, Hanna Wendling, and Huguenau; in addition Broch dabbles in poetry and includes a series of essays entitled The Disintegration of Values. Your enjoyment of this third part isn’t assured, even if you enjoyed parts one and two, as it seems, having read some reviews of the book on the web, that The Realist is either the favourite or the least liked amongst readers. I would say, though, that the essays and poetry etc are not that difficult, are not dry and humourless either, and they do serve a purpose, which is to elucidate Broch’s themes and ideas. In any case, if one needs a reason to persevere with part three then it would be that it is this section of the novel-as-a-whole that brings Esch and Joachim together, who team up in [philosophical] opposition to a new kind of man, Huguenau. Huguenau, unlike Pasenow, and even the anarchist Esch, is entirely without principle. He is prepared to act in any way, without conscience, and so the progression of humanity towards a state of being thoroughly self-serving is complete. To make absolutely clear that this man is without scruple his first act is to desert from the army; he then proceeds to con and swindle and ultimately murder.