One of the great pleasures and illusions of reading is being given words for what we already know. We reach the end of a paragraph so original it’s familiar, as if the writer were transcribing our own mind. “I’ve always known this,” we lie. In surrealism this effect is more rare. Waking as a cockroach isn’t familiar; nor is following a rabbit. And yet Hermann Broch – a writer as offbeat as Kafka and Carroll – somehow seems always to be telling the truth, even at his most uncanny. “And because horses, who although docile are yet somewhat insane creatures, exert on many human beings a kind of magical influence,” he writes, and I’m ready for what comes next, having always known this about horses.
Like other modernists (and other Austrians) Broch heightens things beyond their usual scope, but only because we all do. Characters in The Sleepwalkers witness each other through a fog of their own preoccupations, a psychological filter through which things become meaningful only as they distort. Language plays a devastating role in this, like a friend so good at actively listening they reduce you to a single perfect cliché.
“It was all incomprehensible,” someone realises, working harder than all the philosophical sections of the novel combined. Passages like the “logical excursus” are worthy enough, but by comparison form a negative argument for the value of fiction. Happily, both fiction and philosophy are told with the heterogeneous tools of modernism, given a Teutonic twist: Broch’s stream-of-consciousness is clearer than Woolf’s, and a 282-word sentence is Proustian only in length, describing not personal memory but the categorical distinction between the rebel and the criminal.
But for all its formal variety (plays, letters, hymns) the book’s existentialism is unyielding. “For although every man believes that his decisions and resolutions involve the most multifarious factors, in reality they are a mere oscillation between flight and longing, and the ultimate goal of all flight and all longing is death.”