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Hermann Broch (1886-1951)


Austrian writer whose reputation rests on a number of formally inventive and intellectually ambitious novels. The dilemma of the artist in a period of historical crisis is the subject of Hermann Broch's masterpiece Der Tod des Vergil (1945, The Death of Virgil). Broch's attempts to reconcile the scientific world view with deep psychological and metaphysical ideas connects him to his Austrian contemporary Robert Musil, who also came to literature after first pursuing a technical and commercial career.

"Oh, Augustus, der Schreiber lebt nicht; der Erlöser hingegen lebt stärker als alle, denn sein Leben ist seine Erkenntnistat, sein Leben und sein Tod." (from Der Tod des Vergil)

Hermann Broch was born in Vienna into a well-to-do Jewish family. His father was Josef Broch, an industrialist, and mother Johanna Schnabel Broch. He was first educated privately, after which his education was intended to prepare him for an administrative position in his father's textile factory in Teesdorf. Broch studied at the Imperial and Royal State Secondary School (1897-1904), the Technical College for Textile Manufacture (1904-06), and Spinning and Weaving College in Mülhausen (1906-07). From 1907 to 1927 Broch administered family's factory in Teesdorf. During World War I he served as an administrator for Austrian Red Cross. In 1909 he married Franziska von Rothermann; their son Hermann Friedrich Broch de Rothermann (d. 1994) became a interpreter for UNESCO and the United Nations, he also translated his father's works into English.

In the cafes of Vienna, Broch met such intellectuals as Robert Musil and Franz Blei, and the talented journalist Ea von Allesch, a former nude model, who was called 'the Queen of Café Central'. Ea von Allesch's first husband was an English pianist, who died at the front during the war. Lieutenant Johannes von Allesch, her second husband, had a nervous breakdown three months after their weddings. Among the wedding guests were the writers Musil and Rainer Maria Rilke. Broch left Milena (Jesenská) Polak for her - and Milena started her affair with Franz Kafka. A Czech journalist and translator, Milena taught Broch Czech. Her short affair with Broch was an open secret at Café Herrenhof, where Milena and her husband, Ernst Polak, frequented. Milena died in 1944 in Ravensbrück concentration camp. Café Griensteidl was the favorite place of Karl Kraus, editor of Die Fackel, who attacked in it hypocrisy and militarized bureaucracy and whom Broch greatly admired.

In 1919 Broch became a reviewer at Moderne Welt, partly due to Ea von Allesch's contacts. She encouraged Broch in his literary aspirations and Broch wrote her passionate letters. Sometimes Broch complained her coldness. She was 11-years older than Broch, who concluded that marital traumas must be behind her problems. Their romance started to cool in 1927. Broch portrayed her in the second and third part of the trilogy Die Schlafwandler (1931-32). Ea was also Robert Musil's femme fatale in his play Vinzenz und die Freundin bedeutender Männer (1923). Anna Herzog became Broch's secretary and new mistress.

After working for many years in the family textile firm, Broch devoted himself from the age of 40 to intellectual pursuits. Broch divorced in 1923 and sold the factory in 1927. From 1926 to 1930 he studied mathematics, philosophy, and psychology at Vienna University, where the highly influential Vienna Circle was organized in 1929. Its members, including Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, Otto Neurath, and Friedrich Waismann, and other logical positivist, campaigned against metaphysics as an outdated precursor of science. They attempted to add the technical equipment and logical rigour of modern mathematical logic to the empirical tradition of Hume, Comte, and Mach. "... mathematics is a kind of last desperate stand made by the human spirit..." says one of his characters in Die unbekannte Grösse (1933, The Unknown Quantity). "In itself it's not really necessary, but it's a kind of island of decency, and that's why I like it." Broch himself saw that the unique task of literature was to deal with problems, whose solutions elude the "hard" sciences. Disappointed with his professors' reluctance to consider metaphysical questions, Broch abandoned his studies.

At the age of forty-five Broch published his first novel, the trilogy Die Schlafwandler, an essay novel, which reflected the author's Spenglerian conviction that history progresses in cycles of disintegrating and reintegrating value systems. "All epochs in which values are decayed are historically orientated," Broch once noted. Set in the period between 1880 and 1920, the characters experience social, political, and economic troubles as periods of personal difficulties and transition. Joachim von Paserow, a Prussian aristocrat and a military officer, breaks with the oppressive conventions with the Bohemian prostitute Ruzena, but ends in a joyless marriage with Elisabeth, his neighbor and social equal. August Esch, the impetuous bookkeeper and a visionary, is a transitional figure. His world falls apart when he is fired from his job. At the end of a period of wandering, he marries a restaurant owner. Wilhelm Huguenau is the "value-free" person, who swindles and murders his way to social and financial success. He epitomizes a social system devoid of traditional values. Huguenau deserts the army, kills Esch, rapes Frau Esch, and becomes a respected businessman. The structure of the novel is loose, fragments of philosophical essays, pieces of journalism, sections of dialogue, and fantasies follow each other. The disintegration of cultural values in Germany is dealt in the third part in an essay, written by one of the characters, Bertand Müller. He is perhaps the same person as Eduard von Bertrand from parts one and two.

The spread of fascism made Broch abandon his literary projects. In 1937-38 he worked on the Völkerbund-Resolution (Resolution for the league of Nations), suggesting that the international recognitions and enforcement of human rights might stem the tide of fascism. Broch's interest in the collective psychological sources of Nazism was later expressed in Massenpsychologie (1951), which was written with the aid of several American foundations during and after World War II. Die Verzauberung (1976) was a novel about mass psychology. The story was set in a small Tyrolean mountain village, where farmers fall for the promises of a fanatic fundamentalist and even participate in the ritual murder of a young girl. Broch worked on the book periodically since the 1930s, but it was left unfinished. At the time of his death, he was going through the third version of the text. In Die Schuldlosen (1950, The Guiltless) Broch traced the rise of Nazism to political apathy, "wakeful somnolence", and psychological disorientation of European society. His characters have lost their values, they are outsiders in their own life.

Broch was arrested by the Nazis on the day of the German annexation of Austria and detained briefly in 1938. Inspired by the visions of impending death in the prison in Altaussee, he wrote a few elegies, which became the core of Der Tod des Vergil. With the help of James Joyce and other writers, Broch was allowed to emigrate from Nazi Austria. He moved to London, then to Scotland, and finally to the United States, where he settled first in Princeton, New Jersey. Ea von Allesch took care of Broch's mother, but could not save her from the Nazis and she ended in a concentration camp. Ea died in 1953 in Vienna.

Because Broch did not have academic degrees, he was unable to obtain regular faculty appointments at Princeton or Yale. He received a series of stipends from various fellowships, including Guggenheim, Rockefeller, Bollingen, Oberlander, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. From 1940 Broch was involved in refugee work, and much of his money he gave to other European refugees of the war.

The Death of Virgil, one of the great monuments of exile literature, was completed in the United States - Broch began to write it when he was in the concentration camp. The four parts of the book are ruled by the four elements water, fire, earth, and air. The first section consist of the poet's return to Italy through filthy and noisy streets of the port - he is carried from his boat to the palace in Brundisium. Virgil clings to his consciousness, "he clung to it with the strength of a man who feels the most significant thing of his life approaching and is full of anxiety lest he miss it, and consciousness kept awake by the awakened fear of obeyed his will: nothing escaped his observation..." The second is predominantly a fevered dream in the palace of the emperor Augustus. The third consists of Virgil's decision that the Aeneid must be destroyed, because society is doomed and poetry is useless, and his struggle with the emperor who wants the work preserved. In the last chapter Virgil finally accepts death.

Within the framework of eighteen hours, the dying poet is engaged in long philosophical conversations with his physician, with the emperor, and with his friends. The conversations with Caesar deal partly with the nature of totalitarianism and the relationship of religion and the state. In this work Broch attempted to represent the transition from life to death through a musical and poetic technique. Long, almost unstructured sentences, convey the complexity and emotional and aesthetic content of a single thought. Added with recursive language, the novel is a difficult read. Hannah Arendt and Aldous Huxley greatly admired Broch's treatment of the idea of art as "an affiliation with the human community, which was the aim of real art in its aspiration toward humanity." On the other hand, Huxley was bewildered by many of the the quasi-poetic sections of the novel.

Broch was among those intellectuals, who were convinced of the decay of the West, but like the cultural historian Egon Friedell, the writer of A Cultural History of the Modern Age (1927-31), he hoped for a rebirth of Western culture. He believed that in the Middle Ages there was a real totality. The nineteenth century was for him one of the most miserable periods in world history. Wagner was "an unmusical genius of music and an unpoetic genius of poetry" and Baudelaire paved the way for the darkest anarchy of the twentieth century. However, in Joyce's Ulysses and Mann's Joseph novels he saw signs of the rebirth of myth in the present age. Totality was a central term in Broch's literary criticism. According to Broch, "art which is not capable of reproducing the totality of the world is not art." He condemned the search for beauty it can only lead to kitch. The term in his writings refers to repetition; technically kitsch always copies its immediate predecessor. "Kitch is certainly not 'bad art'," Broch once said, "it forms its own closed system, which is lodged like a foreign body in the overall system of art, of which, if you prefer, appears alonside it." (from Kitch: an Anthology of Bad Taste by Gillo Forfles, 1969)

Broch spent the last years of his life in close contact with Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. In 1949 he became a fellow at the Saybrook College. On the eve of a planned return to Europe, he died of a heart attack on May 30, 1951. Although Broch had converted to Catholicism as a young man, at the time of his death he was planning a return to the Judaism of his childhood.

For further reading: Dichter wider Willen, ed. by Erich Kahler (1958); Hermann Broch by T. Ziolkowski (1964); The Sleepwalkers by D.C. Cohn (1966); Men in Dark Times by H. Arendt (1968); Materialen zu Hermann Brochs "Die Schlafwandler", ed. by Gisela Brude-Firnau (1972); The Novels of Hermann Broch by M.R. Simpson (1977); Hermann Broch by Ernestine Schlant (1978); Herman Broch: Eine Biographie by Paul Michael Lützeler (1985); Hermann Broch; Werk und Wirkung, ed. by E. Kiss (1985); Hermann Broch: Literature, Philosophy, and Politics, ed. by Stephen D. Dowden (1988); Brochs theoretisches Werk, ed. by Paul Michael Lützeler and Michael Kessler (1988); Asthetik Ethik Und Religion Bei Hermann Broch Mit Einer Theologisch Ethischen by A. Mersch (1989); A History of Modern Criticism, vol. 7, by René Wellek (1991); Die Zeitdarstellung bei Hermann Broch by Jörg Zeller (1998); The Unfortunate Passion of Hermann Brochby José María Pérez Gay (2008)

Selected works:

  • Die Schlafwandler: Ein Romantrilogie - Passenow; oder, Die Romantik, 1888, 1931; Esch; oder, Die Anarchie, 1903, 1931; Huguenau, oder, Die Sachlichkeit, 1918, 1932
    - Sleepwalkers: A Trilogy (translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, 1932)
    - Unissakulkijat 1: Luutnantti Pasenow eli Romantiikkaa, 1888; Unissakulkijat 2: Kirjanpitäjä Esch, eli, Anarkia, 1903; Unissakulkijat 3: Liikemies Huguenau, eli, Asiallisuus, 1918 (suom. Oili Suominen, 1988-1994)
    -TV film in 1979: Esch oder Die Anarchie, dir. by Rainer Boldt, screenplay by Jens-Peter Behrend, Barbara Bilabel, starring Lore Bronner, Alexander Kerst, Hans-Peter Korff, Karl Merkatz
  • Die unbekannte Grösse, 1933
    - The Unknown Quantity (translated by Willa & Edwin Muir, 1935)
  • Die Entsühnung, 1934
    - The Atonement (translated by H.F. Broch de Rothermann & George E. Wellwarth, in German Drama Between the Wars: An Anthology of Plays, 1972)
  • James Joyce und die Gegenwart, 1936
  • Der Tod des Vergil, 1945
    - The Death of Virgil (translated by Jean Starr Untermeyer, 1945)
  • Die Schuldlosen, 1950
    - The Guiltless (translated by Ralph Manheim, 1974)
    - TV film 1994: Zerline - En tjenestepiges fortælling, dir. by Bente Kongsbøl, starring Bodil Kjer
  • Gesammelte Werke, 1952-1961 (10 vols.)
  • Der Versucher: Roman, 1953
  • Gedichte, 1953 (edited by Erich Kahler)
  • Dichten und Erkenne, 1955
  • Essays, 1955 (edited by Hannah Arendt)
  • Briefe von 1929 bis 1951, 1957 (edited by Robert Pick)
  • Massenpsychologie: Schriften aus dem Nachlass, 1959
  • Die unbekannte Grösse, und frühe Schriften mit den Briefen an Willa Muir, 1961 (edited by  Ernst Schönwiese)
  • Short Stories, 1966 (edited by E.W. Herd)
  • Hermann Broch, der Denker. Eine Auswahl aus dem essayistischen Werk und aus Briefen, 1966 (edited by Harald Binde)
  • Hermann Broch in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten, 1966 (edited by Manfred Durzak)
  • Der Bergroman: die drei Originalfassungen, 1969 (4 vols., edited by Frank Kress and Hans Albert Maier)
  • Zur Univärsitätsreform, 1969 (edited by Götz Wienold)
  • Briefwechsel, 1930-1951 / Hermann Broch, Daniel Brody, 1970 (edited by Bertold Hack and Marietta Kleiss)
  • Gedanken zur Politik, 1970 (edited by Dieter Hildebrandt)
  • Kommentierte Werkausgabe 1-17, 1974-1981
  • Hermann Broch Daniel Brody Briefwechsel 1930-1951, 1971 (edited by von Bertold Hack and Marietta Kleiß)
  • Barbara, und andere Novellen, 1973 (edited by  Paul Michael Lützeler)
  • Hofmanstahl und seine Zeit, 1974
    - Hugo von Hofmanstahl and His Time (translated by Michael P. Steinberg, 1984)
  • Schriften zur Literatur, 1975 (2 vols.)
  • Die Vierzauberung, 1976
    - The Spell (translated by H.F. Broch de Rothermann, 1987)
  • Menschenrecht und Demokratie: polit. Schriften, 1978 (edited by Paul Michael Lützeler)
  • Dramen, 1979 (edited by Paul Michael Lützeler)
  • Briefe über Deutschland, 1945-1949: die Korrespondenz mit Volkmar von Zühlsdorff, 1986 (edited by Paul Michael Lützeler)
  • Das Teesdorfer Tagebuch für Ea von Allesch, 1995 (edited by Paul Michael Lützeler)
  • Briefwechsel: 1946 bis 1951 / Hannah Arendt, Hermann Broch, 1996  (edited by Paul Michael Lützeler)
  • Psychische Selbstbiographie, 1999 (edited by Paul Michael Lützeler)
  • Der Tod im Exi: Hermann Broch, Annemarie Meier-Graefe Briefwechsel 1950/51, 2001  (edited by Paul Michael Lützeler)
  • Geist and Zeitgeist: The Spirit in an Unspiritual Age, 2003 (edited by John Hargraves)
  • Zwei Schriftsteller im Exil: Briefwechsel / H.G. Adler und Hermann Broch, 2004 (edited by Ronald Speirs and John White)
  • Transatlantische Korrespondenz: 1934-1938 und 1945-1948 / Hermann Broch und Ruth Norden, 2005 (edited by Paul Michael Lützeler)
  • "Frauengeschichten": die Briefe an Paul Federn: 1939-1949 / Hermann Broch, 2007 (edited by Paul Michael Lützeler)
  • Hermann Broch: Briefe an Erich von Kahler (1940-1951), 2010  (edited by Paul Michael Lützeler)
  • Verlorener Sohn?: Hermann Brochs Briefwechsel mit Armand 1925-1928, 2010 (edited by Paul Michael Lützeler)

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