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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Sleepwalkers

Hermann Broch

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To purchase The Sleepwalkers

Title: The Sleepwalkers
Author: Hermann Broch
Genre: Novel
Written: 1931 (Eng. 1932)
Length: 758 pages
Original in: German
Availability: The Sleepwalkers - US
in the UK: The Romantic (Part I)
The Anarchist (Part II)
The Realist (Part III)
The Sleepwalkers - Canada
The Sleepwalkers - India
Die Schlafwandler - Deutschland
Les somnambules - France
I sonnambuli - Italia
  • German title: Die Schlafwandler. The three parts were titled:
    • I. - Pasenow oder die Romantik (1888)
    • II. - Esch oder die Anarchie (1903)
    • III. - Huguenau oder die Sachlichkeit (1918)
  • Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir
  • The British Penguin editions have introductions by James White

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Our Assessment:

A+ : one of the towering achievements of 20th century literature

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Commentary A 10/1948 Stephen Spender
The Nation . 7/12/1932 John Cournos
The New Republic . 18/1/1933 Gerald Sykes
New Statesman & Society . 12/11/1932 Michael Sadleir
The NY Times Book Rev. A+ 11/2/1932 Louis Kronenberger
The NY Times Book Rev. A 11/10/1964 J.P. Bauke
The NY Times Book Rev. . 3/11/1985 Theodore Ziolkowski
The Spectator . 22/10/1932 L.A.G. Strong
Time . 16/2/1948 .
TLS A 20/10/1932 .

  Review Consensus:

  An impressive effort, a significant book, and Broch a born novelist.

  From the Reviews:
  • "On re-reading this book, I find that it is one of the few really original and thoughtful novels of this century. If it owes a good deal to Joyce and Proust, then Broch has transformed their interior techniques and many-faceted sensibilities into something as harshly German as the painting of Bosch. (...) This difficult, beautiful, highly intelligent novel is, with all its imperfections, a masterpiece. Amongst its imperfections, one must count the fact that certain of the characters, particularly Elizabeth and Bertrand, are unconvincing, because although they exist on the level of a hallucinated reality, they seem hardly to have a convincing material existence. With some hesitation, I also consider the philosophic journal a defect." - Stephen Spender, Commentary

  • "Without much doubt here is one of the few first-rate novels of our generation. (...) There is no wavering, no blurring, no unevenness or lack of proportion about The Sleepwalkers: its weight is perfectly distributed, its structure shows magnificent fore-planning, its psychology is acute and convincing, its themes ar developed with clarity and power." - Louis Kronenberger, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(T)he moral impulse behind The Sleepwalkers does not detract from the book's esthetic appeal. On the contrary, Broch's moral seriousness gives the novel a vitality that raises it from the level of historical fiction. (...) It is an intellectual adventure of the highest order, the book on which Broch's claim to greatness rests." - J.P.Bauke, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The Sleepwalkers (1931-32) is a thesis novel with a vengeance. (...) A plot summary does justice neither to the narrative power of The Sleepwalkers nor to its experimental origniality. (...) 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." - Theodore Ziolkowski, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The Sleepwalkers, a massive and gloomy trilogy, which he calls a philosophical essay, is his big book. It is written with a calm, thoughtful air, describing in great detail the mental processes and the doings of some of the unloveliest people ever seen outside the caricatures of George Grosz." - Time

  • "The book is a powerful and often eloquent symposium of contemporary thought and manners, admittedly "Teutonic" in its taste for massive synthesis, but rich in both humanity and intellectual suggestion." - Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Hermann Broch's novel, The Sleepwalkers, is one of the most remarkable works of modern times. Like Alfred Döblin's November 1918 or Musil's Man without Qualities it is a novel of an epoch. Like Joseph Roth's novels it follows the transformation of Central Europe from its last fin-de-siècle glory to its post-World War I decline. It is very much a novel of ideas, but it is also a work of art.
       In three connected volumes it spans the period 1888 to 1918, revisiting that world at fifteen year intervals. Two volumes are realistic, straightforward narrative. In the third this approach will no longer do. In Huguenau oder die Sachlichkeit (translated somewhat unfortunately as The Realist) Broch pushes form -- not to breaking, or to incomprehensibility, but to best represent a new world (dis)order.
       Mathematically minded, Broch always aimed for and achieved clarity. Obfuscation could not serve him. His novels -- and The Sleepwalkers especially -- are novels of ideas, but it is almost an injustice to them to emphasize the fact. What astounds, perhaps, is that The Sleepwalkers is so successful as a novel of ideas -- a rarity.
       Broch was a talented writer. Characterization is not his strongest point, but the novel is dominated by strong, well-drawn, and memorable figures. Each of the central figures in each section -- Pasenow, Esch, and Huguenau --, be they sleepwalking through the times or resisting them, are fully realized figures. As are many of the others, including an unlikely Salvation Army girl, and the child, Marguerite.
       As an evocation of the period and the place -- a collapsing Mitteleuropa, where the center will no longer hold -- The Sleepwalkers is also a complete success, though Broch's dark vision of those dark times is not one all agree with.

       In an attempted review in The Spectator L.A.G. Strong wrote: "The Sleepwalkers is too large and indigestible for the ordinary fiction review." Undoubtedly so. To merely recount its plot-outlines, its themes, its approaches does a disservice to Broch's grand accomplishment. It deserves much closer and more careful analysis, as perhaps we will eventually be able to offer. For now we merely suggest: The Sleepwalkers deserves to be and should be read. It is indisputably one of the great novels of the 20th century, one of a handful that defined Western culture in our time.

       Note too the publication history and reception of this enormous and difficult novel: though Broch was unknown at the time, the book was immediately translated into English and widely reviewed and acclaimed. In contrast, one the few comparable German novels of recent times, Peter Weiss' Die Ästhetik des Widerstands (see our review) -- a trilogy, too, the most significant German novel since Grass' Tin Drum, and by an author well-known to English-speaking audiences (as author of Marat/Sade (see our review)) -- has not yet been translated into English, more than 25 years after the first volume appeared in German. Despite having so far been translated into eleven foreign languages it remains inaccessible to American and English audiences. Sad times indeed.

       Note also that despite nominally being a trilogy, The Sleepwalkers should be seen (and read) as a whole. Note also that the translations of the titles of the three sections do not completely reflect the German original. Penguin, in particular, by presenting the novel in tripartite manner place even greater emphasis on the titles -- but don't express them true to the original. Dispensing with the names -- Pasenow oder die Romantik (1888) becomes merely The Romantic -- is already a problem. Worse is that they make of, for example, of Esch oder die Anarchie (1903) (literally: "Esch, or Anarchy") an Anarchist And Sachlichkeit is also not quite "Realism" (or Realist) -- a word for which there is also a perfectly good German word which Broch decidedly did not choose -- "Realismus".

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The Sleepwalkers: Reviews: Hermann Broch: Other books by Hermann Broch under review: Books about Hermann Broch under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Austrian author Hermann Broch was born 1 November 1886, and died in New Haven, 30 May, 1951. He wrote such notable novels as The Sleepwalkers and The Death of Virgil.

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