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Hermann Broch: Die Schlafwandler (The Sleepwalkers)

This is one of the great novels of the twentieth century, stemming straight from Joyce but at the same time remaining true to its authentic Austrian roots. It is, in fact, three novels, written and first issued as a trilogy. The first novel tells the story of Joachim von Pasenow, an Austrian army officer of noble birth who tries to break out of the conventional background into which he has been born and bred. He fights with his father, has an affair with a dancer and admires the cynicism of his friend, Bertrand. However, he is, despite himself, very much part of the Prussian Junker class and his uniform and status are important to him. He ends up making a conventional marriage to Elizabeth, a symbol of purity for him, rejecting the love of the more carefree dancer and, at the end, “falls asleep”, an apt symbol for what is to be the end of his class.

The second book is about August Esch, an accountant. Accountancy is as important a structure for him as the army/nobility background was for von Pasenow. However, in the opening sentence we learn that he has argued with his boss and been fired. He turns to anarchy and sex but he, too, needs his stability and ends up marrying an older widow, Mutter Hentjen. Even with his interest in the theater, he remains an accountant at heart and when the theater he has invested in goes broke, he becomes a bookkeeper in a large firm.

The final novel is about Wilhelm Huguenau, a businessman. He is called up in 1917 but deserts and becomes a partner in a newspaper owned by Esch. He also mixes socially with von Pasenow. But von Pasenow becomes insane, Huguenau murders Esch and rapes his widow and marries for convention. He and his value system succeed while the old values are swept away. Broch has painted a wonderful portrait of how, with World War I, the old values are swept away and new values replace them. There is no question that, for Broch, these new values are worthless. This theme will be taken up again and again in novels from Ford Madox Ford to Robert Edric and will make for one of the most poignant themes of the century. But this is definitely the one to start with.

Publishing history

First published in German 1931-32 by Rhein
First English translation 1932 Little, Brown; Secker
Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir