What Hermann Broch so poetically explores in The Death of Virgil is art, its promise of knowledge and its inevitable failure…
“Everything came to him, everything was here, washed in the chaotic light from the landing place, breathed at by the unbreathable, bawled at by the incomprehensible, assembled to a single unity in which the far-off easily became the near-at-hand, the near-at-hand became remote, permitting him who was balanced above it all and surrounded by savagery to come to an untroubled balanced-swaying awareness…He himself in the centre of the plaza as if someone had wanted to bring him to the centre of his own being, to the cross-roads of his worlds, to the centre of his world, compliant to fate. For all that it was only the harbour of Brundisium.” Virgil, the poet of the Aenid, is being carried in a litter through the port, to the palace of Augustus Caesar. Over nearly 500 pages, Hermann Broch moves through the largest to the minutest movements of this poet’s consciousness in the hours before his death, to make this remarkable German novel, The Death of Virgil (Der Tod des Virgil, 1945.)
A different attempt
Broch fuses narrative elements and that of a searching consciousness in a way that the novel’s sensual world and its enquiry arise from the same place. This makes him immediately different from his great contemporary Robert Musil, who is perhaps better known, because Musil is so clearly a novelist of ideas that a reader can take from him a certain tangible understanding of the times. Broch was perhaps far closer to Musil in his first novel, The Sleepwalkers, where he actually interrupts the narrative repeatedly with an essay on the disintegration of values in early 20th century Europe.
There are certain unusual facts intertwined with the writing of this novel and its translation. It was begun in a concentration camp where Broch was imprisoned. It was first published in English in 1945 and only later in the German world. Its clearly gifted translator, Jean Starr Untermeyer, in her afterword, calls it a poem. “The Death of Virgil is a poem, although neither in the sense of a single lyrical outburst nor a sequence of poems on a single theme, yet one that sustains its tension through nearly 500 pages.” Untermeyer and Broch met at Yaddo, the American writer’s retreat, in 1926, and remained very close friends. One assumes that he approved of his novel being described in this way at its very first publication.
Broch’s way of entering consciousness was indeed through a language which is as close to poetry as prose can possibly be. He is a master of the long sentence, and has certainly written some of the longest in a work of fiction. At times in the earlier part of the novel, he actually goes into a kind of free verse. It is not surprising that these are the only places where he seems far less a master. His grasp of the line and the sentence are not the same. This teaches us something about the tenuous border between the most poetic prose and verse, a border not of the spirit but its manifestation. Whether The Death of Virgil is a poem or not is a matter for long discussion. But it certainly uses the elements of poetry with a profundity almost never seen in a novel. The long sentences are intensely musical, and they make for a striking incantatory quality, as well as a distinct slowing down of time, all of which combine with the matter of the prose to touch an inner world that normally only a poet would attempt to touch. “…here the empty surface of unmastered existence was suddenly laid bare…”
But The Death of Virgil is as much a novel because of the way in which Broch creates narrative, with a keen sense of drama, the particularity of situations, encounters and dialogues. He does not abandon any of the devices of the classical novel, but he transforms it through his poetic attitude and by sheer depth of philosophical enquiry. This is often present even in the simplest dialogues.
“You are Virgil.”
“I was once and may be again.”
And The Death of Virgil does what only the novel can do: live within a life and a consciousness over time, dilating and compressing that time as it needs, because it is only in the novel that time is allowed fully, so that we can begin to understand its functions of change, reversal, decay, hope, and transformation. In his visions as he falls ill, Virgil sees the world moving through its histories, fantastic beings and things, he sees diverse landscapes; in the long dialogues with Caesar, with his friends, his slave boy, he is a reflective and cogitative mind. But in the last section, when Virgil is actually coming closer to his death, Broch slows down everything, there is only Virgil’s consciousness in which every movement seems to have endless duration, and a sense of the spreading sea and sky.
The book is a masterpiece because it is that rare thing — an attempt never before made, an attempt realised through the most rigorous craft and insight, perhaps valid for itself only, yet a work which changes the nature of the medium and shows its endless possibilities. Broch’s contemporaries were Musil, Kafka, Rilke, Robert Walser, and Mann in German, and outside it James Joyce, who helped him to emigrate abroad. Born in the 1880s, all these writers were solitaries, but they did know each other, and sometimes met, and would have known each other’s work. One wonders whether the awareness of each other’s pioneering attempts gave them strength and ability in their work.
For all of these writers the novel was a way of understanding existence, nothing less. The Death of Virgil places itself in one of the innermost spaces of that enquiry. Paradoxically enough, what Broch explores in it is art — its promise of knowledge and to Broch, its inevitable failure. Virgil wants to burn the Aenid, and Caesar will not let him. Over the course of the book, Broch’s Virgil awakens to his life even as he is dying, to his work as a poet, and the immense spaces in between.
Sharmistha Mohanty is the author of two novels, Book One and New Life, and the forthcoming Broken Nest and Other Stories (Tranquebar Classics), translations of the fiction of Tagore. She is the founder-editor of the online literature journal Almost Island.