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Book Reviews - Review 219

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Hermann Broch

Die Schlafwandler, Part 2: Esch oder die Anarchie

Category: Fiction | Published: 1930 | Review Added: 29-03-2010

Rating: 4 - A top read

As mentioned in my review of Pasenow oder die Romantik, I am working my way slowly through this large and weighty modernist doorstep, and reviewing each individual novel as I finish it.

Esch oder die Anarchie is the second novel of Broch's trilogy. It tells the story of August Esch, a slightly disreputable clerk who loses his job in turn-of-the-century Cologne and moves to Mannheim, where he gets involved with various misfits, including his landlord and his sister, an earnest tobacconist, and members of a circus knife-throwing act. With the latter, Esch sets up in business showing female wrestling, with the ultimate aim of moving to America with his lover, where, he imagines, the world will be his oyster.

I found Esch oder die Anarchie a much more interesting book than Pasenow oder die Romantik. The characterisation is rich and amusing, the tone is subtly ironic, and the ideas are more fully worked through than in the first novel. That's not to say it is an easy read - on the contrary, the elaborate prose sometimes gave me a headache - but it is a rewarding one. Broch's project is certainly ambitious: to present the predicament of modern man in a society bereft of ready-made values. Esch seeks a sense of purpose in self-sacrifice, action (he plans to kill a rich capitalist), chivalry and love - but finds the fruits of all his endeavours wanting.

This is a highly schematic novel, and sometimes its symbolism seems a little contrived (the imperfection of the world is repeatedly represented in the image of a beautiful woman having knives thrown at her); but even where it gets rather abstract, the precision of Broch's prose is very satisfying to absorb. All told, this is a very thought-provoking book that the reader feels inclined to come back to.

Incidentally, I highly recommend the English translation of Die Schlafwandler, which I dived into frequently when the convolutions of the German prose got the better of me. The translation is by the poet Edwin Muir and his wife Willa, and the talents of its authors in their own right are evident throughout. The syntax of some sentences is boldly overhauled in order to arrive at idiomatic English, yet the tone and meaning stay faithful to the German. It's one of the few translations I've read in which very little seems to be lost.

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