Thursday, August 1, 2019

"Caesar, his enchanter" or Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil

"(A) strong candidate for the least readable alleged masterpiece in the European canon."

-John Lanchester, New York Review of Books

Ha, ha. Well, I can't say that Mr. Lanchester is entirely wrong...

I found that quote, though, at Michael Orthofer's review at his site Complete Review and he grades it as one of his few As, and quotes a number of other more positive reviews.

So opinions are divided.

It's written mostly in an elusive, philosophical language, often suggestive more than actually descriptive or informative. Jean Starr Untermeyer, the English translator, says it should be thought of as a poem not a novel. Certainly it doesn't have much plot. It represents the last twenty-four hours of Virgil's life; he's dying the whole time, and his thoughts sail off into feverish meditations, though his fevered musings are still more profound than anything I could come up with...

Broch mostly follows what limited biographical information we have about the death of Virgil. Our earliest source is Aelius Donatus, mid-fourth century, a scholar--he was St. Jerome's Latin teacher--who wrote a life of Virgil. In his late 40s, Virgil goes to Athens to put the final touches on his nearly finished Aeneid. Augustus runs into Virgil in Athens and insists Virgil come back to Italy with him. Virgil picks up a fever somewhere and as they pull into Brindisi, he's already dying. It's here Broch begins his story.

There's one other element of the Virgil biography that's important for Broch: even though parts of the poem had been 'published,' Virgil wanted his friends to burn the unfinished Aeneid.

Broch divides the work into four parts: Water, Fire, Earth, and Air. Virgil is already confined to a litter, and in the Water chapter, he's carried from the ship to Augustus' palace in Brindisi. Fire is later that night, and the exhaustion of even that form of travel leads Virgil to spend a feverish night. The following day is Earth, and Virgil is somewhat rested and more coherent; but visits from his friends, from a doctor, and finally from Augustus wear him out. Air is the final chapter, the fever takes over again, and Virgil is dying, his consciousness dissolving into the elements around him.

I feel like I should quote some prose to give a sense. Here's a passage I noted from early in the Fire section:
"He was listening to dying; it could not be anything else. The knowledge of this had come over him without any shock, at most with the peculiar clarity which usually accompanies a mounting fever. And now, lying and listening in the darkness, he understood his life, and he understood how much of it had been a constant hearkening to the unfolding of death, life unfolded, consciousness unfolded, unfolded the seed of death which was implanted in every life from the beginning and determined it, giving a twofold, threefold significance, each one developed from the other and unfolding through it, each the image of the other and its reality--was not this the dreamforce of all images, particularly of those which gave direction to every life?"
That's the beginning of a paragraph of six pages in my edition, and the beginning of Virgil's feverish night. It's not exactly difficult in the way of Joyce (though Broch and Joyce were friends) or Mann (also a friend) or even Proust, but it is difficult, especially at length. A bit like reading philosophy, or perhaps even more, like reading a mystic. This is especially true of the final section Air. I was reminded at times of Eliot's Four Quartets.

The Earth section is the longest and the most straightforwardly novelistic. Virgil's friends, Plotius Tucca and Lucius Varius Rufus come to visit him; they try to jolly him along: "You'll be fine in a few days," and pooh-pooh his wish to burn his manuscript of the Aeneid, telling him he'll have plenty of time to fix it up; the doctor Charondas, sure of himself and self-important, too, does little for Virgil, but is sure he's done much. The third visit, with Augustus, was handled very subtly, I thought. Virgil starts by addressing Augustus very much as subject to emperor, but that's not the whole of their relationship, and they take to squabbling about the meaning and merit of the Aeneid in a more personal tone, with Augustus, now plain Octavian, piqued Virgil thinks *his* (Octavian's) poem unworthy; Virgil's Eclogues and Georgics had other dedicatees. Finally Augustus, the emperor again, simply browbeats Virgil into accepting his manuscript will not be burned.

So why does Virgil want to burn the Aeneid? What is the relationship between an artist, the work of art, and posterity? Does art have a separate value? And is Virgil right to want to burn the unfinished (though nearly finished!) Aeneid? The conflict in the book lies in these questions, and isn't easily summarized.

One of the motifs is should Art be beautiful or true? They're not the same (pace Mr. Keats) it seems:
"I have made my poems, abortive words...I thought them to be real, and they are only beautiful..."
" one grasped the truth, no one knew that the divinity of beauty was only a sham-divinity, the shadow cast by the coming of the gods."
Virgil foresees a new yearning to the divine, and art must serve that coming divine, which was never the Aeneid's purpose. Augustus is happy to identify the new divine with the State and sees the purpose of poetry as political; Virgil resists this. Broch never explicitly mentions Christianity, which in the year (19 BC) of Virgil's death, would be an anachronism; but much of his imagery felt to me Christian. And, of course, Virgil is often absorbed into Christian belief: as Dante's guide in the Divine Comedy, as author of the Fourth Eclogue, which supposedly prophesies the birth of Christ. But Broch isn't wrong about this: there are other signs the old religions are no longer working in that era: the importation of new gods to Rome, Mithra and Cybele, the Great Mother, so this emphasis is not completely ahistorical. But also, I'd say, writing a perfectly accurate historical novel is not Broch's primary concern.

Anyway, this is turning into one of my longer posts and I've already been puzzling over it for a few days. I had a couple of other things I'd wanted to mention, but maybe I'll save them for other posts, or maybe they'll just live in my journal...

So: should you read this 'candidate for the least readable alleged masterpiece?' (Though frankly it's nowhere near in the running with Finnegans Wake.) I'm going to give a qualified yes. It's not an everyday sort of read for sure, and I'm going to need a chaser next. But the fact that it gave me so much to think about, even if I'm not sure of any of my answers, says to me there's a lot going on. It goes after some big questions. I'm often drawn to these big modernist slog-fests, but then I wonder did they have to do that so difficultly? In this case, maybe so. Anyway, I'm glad I put it on my Classics Club list, and I'm glad I read it, even if I can't entirely tell you why...


  1. A strong candidate for the least readable alleged masterpiece in the European canon is not a good selling point. LOL. But I agree with you there are rewards for reading “difficult” works. Usually I approach them with merely wanting to experience firsthand what the fuss is about. But sometimes they work my brain in such a way that I do come away with a real sense of understanding, even if much of it did seem a slog and impenetrable while reading. I’m thinking of The Tin Drum by Gunther Grass or Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. They had a real emotional effect on me which I would be hard pressed to locate anywhere specifically in the text. But it was there. Finnegan’s Wake I did find incomprehensible however.

    1. Thanks for the long and thoughtful comment! Leading me to babble on some more...

      In some ways I'd say those sort of books have an intellectual interest rather than an emotional--certainly that's true of The Death of Virgil. There's a bit of romantic interest in Gravity's Rainbow--Roger Mexico and Jessica Swanlake--but mostly it makes you think about theories of history or something, and not about individual characters. I feel like I know Pierre Bezukhov in a way that Tyrone Slothrop isn't even there to know. Vineland in Pynchon's oeuvre I find to be the one exception to that. Ulysses is probably the big exception to this rule about the modernists--Leopold Bloom really is there to know, despite all of Joyce's shenanigans...

      I have The Tin Drum to look forward to!

  2. Least readable, but it certainly sounds intriguing... I'll look out for it!

    1. It was definitely an interesting and suggestive read. I don't know how long I've known of it, but a long time, I guess. However, it was pushed up the list of things to read when I read Broch's The Sleepwalkers a few years ago. I thought that was really very good--and for Broch I'd probably start there.

  3. Back again! I am currently reading The Seven Sisters by Margaret Drabble and I just read this sentence, "Next to Candida, Mrs. Jerrold seems to be reading a large paperback book called The Death of Virgil which she has said she has been intending to read for years. It is a famous and famously unread novel by a German writer called Hermann Broch." Funny coincidence. :D

    1. Ha! Serendipity, indeed! It definitely has a reputation. That's a Margaret Drabble I haven't read--that would have been a particularly timely chaser.