Uttering the Unutterable

The Death of Virgil

by Hermann Broch, translated by Jean Starr Untermeyer
Grosset & Dunlap, 493 pp., $2.95

Hermann Broch’s enormous trilogy, The Sleepwalkers (1932), begins with old Herr von Pasenow, an excellent short sketch of character both physical and moral. It ends with a long and rebarbatively abstract epilogue, the tenth installment of a sequence of similar disquisitions on the “Disintegration of Values” which sadly weaken the impact and hardly clarify the significance of the third part of the trilogy. The Death of Virgil (1945) constitutes a marked advance, or prolongation, in the direction indicated by the philosophizing parts of the earlier work, though with this difference: that the reflections of the dying Virgil, while equally abstract, are largely unargued, they proceed less by logic than by what alas is called “poetry,” sometimes reminding us of Thus Spake Zarathustra, but rarefied, diluted, and inflated, lacking in pointedness and in Nietzsche’s dubious yet undoubted excitement.

Formally The Death of Virgil has been described more or less aptly by a number of admirers. Thus Hannah Arendt calls it an “uninterrupted flow of lyrical speculation leading through the last twenty-four hours of the dying poet.” (H. M. Waidson estimates it at eighteen hours: to me both estimates seem highly conservative.) And George Steiner has said that the book “represents the only genuine technical advance that fiction has made since Ulysses.” But few critics, so far as I know, have attempted to ascertain the success, as distinct from the intention, of the novel, and the usefulness, rather than the nature, of the technique. Two questions are provoked by the descriptions I have just quoted. Could it be that what a flow of lyrical speculation needs is precisely to be interrupted from time to time by the unlyrical and the known? And can a technical advance be “genuinely” an advance if its prime effect is to produce unreadability? But then, the argument of The Death of Virgil is so abstract, assertive yet evasive, so highflown and yet so narrow in compass, that one hardly feels inclined to study it with the closeness that a critical appraisal would require. It is safer to exclaim, “A great European novel!” and leave it at that. Which, fair enough, will serve to warn off the great majority of potential readers.

In form The Death of Virgil consists of almost continuous interior monologue, in sentences so long that their beginnings are forgotten before their ends are known. The monologue is interrupted by a conversation between Virgil and Augustus of a length and earnestness which no sick man could possibly sustain, and a scene with Virgil’s friends which, modest as it is, seems to me much nearer the sublime than anything else in the work. The book’s speculative profundity can be indicated by a few quotations. “What we seek is submerged and we should not seek it as it mocks us by its very undiscoverability.” Or “Only he who is able to perceive death is also able to perceive life.” Broch’s prose poetry is rather similar to Rilke’s poetry deprived of most of what makes it poetry, or…

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