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Hermann Broch: Der Tod des Vergil (The Death of Virgil)

This is an amazing but, let it be said, very difficult novel. The whole novel consists of the dying Virgil discussing his life work with himself. The novel is divided into four parts, named for the four elements. In the first part, called Water and subtitled The Arrival, the dying poet is returning by ship to Italy and he is disgusted at the crowd’s wildly enthusiastic reception for the Emperor and decides to destroy his Aeneid. The second part, Fire, shows the poet in a fevered state during his final night and the images that come back from the past. Earth, the third part, has Virgil, the man, arguing against the Emperor, representative of the state, that he has a right to destroy his own work. The final section is called Ether and brings us the death of the poet.

This is not a book that rests on its plot. It is a major mystical work and concerned with many of the issues important to Broch, including the role of the individual against the role of the state, the role of the artist and the nature of art, the change between one value system and another (in this case this disintegration of the Roman Empire and its replacement by the Christian world), the nature of creation and the role of man. It has been compared to Ulysses because it concerns one day in the life of a man, while illuminating his whole life, and using interior monologue to do so but in most respects it is very different as Broch is intent on using the dying Virgil to outline his mystical philosophy and is not afraid to use Virgil’s own techniques to do so. Moreover, Broch is far more concerned with political and individual freedom than Joyce is in Ulysses. This will never be hailed as one of the great novels of the century – it is too inaccessible for that – but it still stands as a great work of art and a testament to a man who was to die six years after its publication.

Publishing history

First published in German 1945 by Pantheon
First English translation 1945 Pantheon
Translated by Jean Starr Untermeyer