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IN SEARCH OF
THE ABSOLUTE NOVEL

November 3, 1985
By Theodore Ziolkowski; the Dean of the Graduate School of Princeton University and the President of the Modern Language Association, author of ''Varieties of Literary Thematics.'' 
THE SLEEPWALKERS By Hermann Broch. Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir. 648 pp. San Fransisco: North Point Press. Paper, $15.50.                                

IT is a paradox that two of the most boldly innovative novels of the 20th century were written by a man who regarded literature as a poor substitute for philosophy. Hermann Broch undertook ''The Death of Virgil'' (1945), a fictional vision rivaled only by ''Finnegans Wake,'' because the radio station that commissioned him in the mid-30's to address the problem of literature at the end of a cultureal epoch insisted on a story rather than a lecture. When his narrative led him, like his hero Virgil, to the conclusion that poetry is immoral in an age of decline, Broch rejected literature and devoted himself until his death in 1951 to the study of mass psychology and politics.
Text:

Broch initially wandered into fiction out of what he called an ''impatience for cognition.'' Born in 1886, he was a product of that fin de siecle Vienna that he analyzed devastatingly in his brilliant study ''Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time'' (recently available in English). The dutiful son of a Jewish textile manufacturer, he attended the local technical institute, took his engineering degree at a textile school in Alsace-Lorraine, traveled to the United States to observe milling procedures and in 1907 patented a cotton-milling device. When his father retired in 1915, Broch took over the business and in the next 10 years became what he cynically termed a captain of industry.

At the same time, he nurtured ambitions for an intellecutal career. For years he sporadically attended courses in mathematics and philosophy at the University of Vienna and wrote essays and reviews for various liberal journals. In 1927 he dismayed his family by selling the plant and declaring his intention to pursue a doctorate. But within a year, disenchanted by the disdain for ethical questions displayed by the Vienna Circle of logical positivists, he gave up his academic plans and turned to fiction. As he wrote in a ''Methodological prospectus'' for his publisher, he had become convinced that those realms of experience rejected by contemporary philosophy can best be dealt with in literature.

''The Sleepwalkers'' (1931-32) is a thesis novel with a vengeance. According to Broch, sleepwalkers are people living between vanishing and emerging ethical systems, just as the somnambulist exists in a state between sleeping and walking. The trilogy portrays three representative cases of ''loneliness of the I'' stemming from the collapse of any sustaining system of values. ''The Romantic,'' a subtle parody of 19th-century realism, takes place in Berlin in 1888 and focuses on the Purssian landed gentry. Joachim von Pasenow is a romantic because he clings desperately to values that others regard as outmoded, and this ''emotional lethargy'' lends his personality a certain quaint courtliness but renders him unfit to deal with situations that do not fit into his narrow Junker code, such as his love affiar with a passionate lower-class young woman. ''The Anarchist'' moves west to Cologne and Mannheim in 1903 and shifts to the urban working class. The accountant August Esch, who lives by the motto ''business is business,'' seeks an escape into eroticism when he realizes that double-entry bookkeeping cannot balance the ethical debits and credits in the turbulent society of prewar Germany.

Toward the end of World War I, both men end up in a small village on the Mosel River - Pasenow as military commandant and Esch as publisher of the local newspaper. Their inability to come to grips with the new reality brings them otgehter for consolation in a religious sect. Their precarious harmony is disrupted when Huguenau, ''The Realist,'' arrives in town, his break with the past symbolized by his desertion from the army. He swindles Esch out of his newspaper and bullies Pasenow into submitting to his authority. When the November Revolution of 1918 is over, the romanticism and anarchy of the past have given way to the forces of objectivism. Broch does not admire Huguenau, but he presents this whooy value-free man as ''the only adequate child of his age'' adn the inveitable harbinger of fascism.

A plot summary does justice neither to the narrative power of ''The Sleepwalkers'' nor to its experimental origniality. Hoping to achieve what he called ''polyhistorical totality,'' Broch included, after the manner of Dos Passos, a number of parallel plots involving characters who exemplify the theme of existential loneliness - the esthete Eduard von Bertrand, a shadowy figure on whom the others project their hopes and fears; the shellshocked sholdier Godicke, who must reassemble his personality in The veterans' hosptial; the architect Jaretzki, who loses an arm in the war and with it, symbolically, his sense of proporation; the alienated young wife Hannah Wendling; the orphan Marguerite; and others. And the three parts are unified through a complex set of images involving uniforms (security) and the Statue of Liberty (freedom), a small reproduction of which Esch dreams over.

BUT multiplicity of narratives was not enough for Broch. He wanted to demonstrate that rationalism and irrationalism are also among the fragments that litter the psychic landscape when ethical unity falls apart. To represent these poles, he incorporated into the lengthy third part 16 chapters that sometimes rise to pure lyric poetry and 10 chapters of an essay titled ''Disintegration of Values.'' While the essay expounds the philosophical theory underlying the novel, the ''ballad'' tells a story seemingly unrelated to them main narrative - the love of a Salvation Army girl in Berlin and the Jew Nuchem is doomed by irreconcilable differences in religion. We come to realize that the narrator of the ballad, Dr. Bertrand Muller, is also the author of ''Disintegration of Values.'' Since the essay embraces the various plots, he is by extension the author of the entire novel. Through this series of encapsulations, Broch sought to create an ''absolute'' novel that, as in Einstein's theory of relativity, contained its own observer within the filed of observation.

''The Sleepwalker'' was reviewed respectfully in 1932, when it appeared in a fine English translation by Edwin and Willa Muir, and it has been admired since World War II by serious European critics, who put Broch in the company of Kafka, Mann and Musil as well as Joyce and Proust. But despite reprintings in 1947 and 1964 (the second time with an introduction by Hannah Arendt) the book has never found a following in the United States. In part, no doubt, this failure can be attributed to Broch's own ambivalence about his literary works during his emigre years in the United States (1938-51). In part it can be attributed to the style and philosophical content of the work, which seemed more difficult 40 or 50 years ago than they do now to a generation that has read Joyce in high school. Having a convenient edition ready for Broch's centennial year should help acquaint Americans with a classic that enlarged the scope of 20th-century fiction by focusing with unparalleled precision on the profound transformation of values that produced the modern consciousness.

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