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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Death of Virgil

Hermann Broch

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To purchase The Death of Virgil

Title: The Death of Virgil
Author: Hermann Broch
Genre: Novel
Written: 1945 (Eng. 1945)
Length: 522 pages
Original in: German
Availability: The Death of Virgil - US
The Death of Virgil - UK
The Death of Virgil - Canada
The Death of Virgil - India
Der Tod des Vergil - Deutschland
La Mort de Virgile - France
La morte di Virgilio - Italia
La muerte de Virgilio - España
  • German title: Der Tod des Vergil
  • Translated by Jean Starr Untermeyer
  • The British Penguin edition has an introduction by Malcolm Bull

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Our Assessment:

A : daunting but remarkable poetic-novelistic vision

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Commentary . 11/1946 Paul Goodman
The Hindu . 2/8/2009 Sharmistha Mohanty
The NY Times Book. Rev. A 8/7/1945 Marguerite Young
The NY Rev. of Books . 6/1/1966 D.J.Enright
Time . 2/7/1945 .
TLS A- 28/9/1946 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is a book shot through with the troubles and personal revaluations of one who, like many others, was shaken by the persecutions of the last years. (...) After a single reading, I cannot fairly judge of the importance of The Death of Virgil. The main "obvious" failing is that it seems to have so many words and so little content, so much philosophy and so little novelty or subtlety of thought (though what there is is true), so much feeling described and so little dramatic compulsion. (...) For the most part, to repeat, I do not yet find that in all this admirable, unified complexity and over-all simplicity there is much new thought or exciting perception." - Paul Goodman, Commentary

  • "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." - Sharmistha Mohanty, The Hindu

  • "In the wide reaches of the American nation there must be surely many readers who will appreciate the immensity of an adventure story such as this. It should be a corrective to our fundamentalism, our departmentalism. The work (...) should command a vast respect." - Marguerite Young, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(T)he 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." - D.J.Enright, The New York Review of Books

  • "Author Broch's involved stream-of-consciousness method and philosophical ponderings make The Death of Virgil intensely difficult reading." - Time

  • "The fevered meditations and dreamings of the poet, in spite of the jungle of imagery, seldom lose clarity. The deep and pregnant symbolism of the Aeneid is skilfully exploited. For all its turgidity and repetition -- it is much too long and its essential virtuosity would have been enhanced by a greater regard for economy of line -- this book is manifestly a labour of insight and of love." - Times Literary Supplement
  • "It is as though only now those purely artistic elements which always gave the traditional novel its literary validity, the lyrical passion and the transfiguration of reality through the universal, have emancipated themselves from the merely informative and found a new and valid form." - Hannah Arendt, The Achievement of Hermann Broch, in The Kenyon Review (Summer, 1949)]

  • "(A) strong candidate for the least readable alleged masterpiece in the European canon" - John Lanchester, The New York Review of Books (17/12/2009)

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:

       The Death of Virgil is a grand, complex accomplishment. A symphonic novel, its language closer to poetry than prose, it recounts Virgil's dying day. The span covered of the novel is a very short one, but Broch brings in much of Virgil's past (as well his work) as the poet reflects on and remembers the past in coming to terms with the inevitable end just ahead of him. It is one of the ultimate novels about art and artistry.
       The Death of Virgil is a daunting novel, very different from The Sleepwalkers (see our review) and Broch's other work. Broch here does push language to its extremes (leading to the inevitable comparisons to Joyce's Ulysses), while maintaining a surprising control over it. The subject matter -- the classic poet and his work -- ground the novel, though modern unfamiliarity with Virgil and The Aeneid mean the work is not as readily accessible as it was for better educated readers of yore.
       Where The Sleepwalkers or The Spell were also decidedly political and contemporary novels, Broch's Virgil, written during World War II, transcends time. Politics play a role in it, but the focus is tightly on the artist and the art. Strikingly modern in its approach, The Death of Virgil is also "classic", arching from Virgil to modernity, transcending any historical moment. It is, in all senses, a timeless work.

       The English translation of The Death of Virgil is also a remarkable achievement, created almost concurrently with the German original and in close collaboration with Broch himself. The significance of the work was understood upon publication, as it was immediately hailed as a work of great significance. From the front-page review in The New York Times Book Review to the international acclaim it received, The Death of Virgil was recognized as one of the most significant novels of our time.
       (Acclaim -- and a front page, full page review in The New York Times Book Review -- only go so far, however. In his book, The Business of Books (see our review), André Schiffrin writes about the 1945 publication of the book:

Pantheon published this admittedly demanding book in two editions -- 1,500 copies were printed in English and the same number in German. The German edition sold out immediately; it took over twenty years for the English-language copies to be sold.
       Apparently neither quality nor good and prominent reviews can move Americans to read true literature -- then and now.)

       More experimental and less approachable than The Sleepwalkers, The Death of Virgil is an important and worthwhile but not always easy or fully satisfying read. Readers should be aware of what they are getting into, prepared for a demanding, lyrical, dreamy, and referential narrative.

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The Death of Virgil: Reviews: Hermann Broch: Virgil: 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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