Hermann Broch The Spell.
Translated by H. F. Broch de Rothermann.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 391 pages, $22.50
The Viennese novelist Hermann Broch finished The Spell in January, 1936. This was some four years after he completed his monumental trilogy, The Sleepwalkers, and nine years before the publication of The Death of Virgil, the works that established and continue to sustain Broch’s reputation as one of the pre-eminent literary voices of the century.
Set in the early Thirties, The Spell recounts events in a remote Alpine farming village over the course of nine months, from late winter to the following autumn. Into the peaceful, still largely peasant community nestled at the foot of Mount Kuppron, an exotic-looking, mustachioed stranger named Marius Ratti appears one day. A charismatic crackpot, Marius is a wanderer who comes to the village full of ideas about the importance of chastity, the sacredness of living in harmony with the earth, and the evils of city life and technology. He is also full of promises about re-opening the old gold mines in the mountain.
Obviously eccentric, if not indeed mad, Marius is greeted at first by detached curiosity and derision. But gradually he wins converts among the villagers; in those in whom he fails to spark romantic longing he sparks greed. Implicitly challenging the spiritual authority of old Mother Gisson, Broch’s representative of traditional peasant wisdom, Marius proclaims a new order based on male dominance and a violent earth mysticism. As Marius consolidates his psychological hold on the community, his pronouncements take on an increasingly ominous ring. “We all have to hearken to the earth together,” he says about halfway through the book, “then justice will be established . . . and if they are not ready for such togetherness, they must be made to accept it.” In the course of establishing this “justice,” Marius fuels a campaign of hate against Wetchy, the village insurance agent who is branded a city man and outsider; and he begins talking about the necessity of a blood sacrifice to restore the community’s lost harmony with the earth. The book climaxes at a drunken harvest festival where Irmgard, the granddaughter of Mother Gisson who has fallen in love with Marius, offers herself up as the requisite unblemished victim to fulfill his gruesome redemptive fantasy.
This story is related in the journal of an aging, unnamed community doctor. The doctor, himself a city man who had retreated to the village some ten years earlier in the wake of a disastrously unhappy love affair, came to Mount Kuppron “for the sake of a different kind of knowledge which was to be stronger even than all oblivion.” As it happens, some such “knowledge” is on pretty much everyone’s mind in The Spell.
In a two-page commentary written in 1940 that is appended to the translation, Broch tells us that he conceived of the book as a study of “mass-psychological phenomena.” Given the times, it is no surprise that the book is meant partly as an allegorical portrait of Hitler’s mesmerizing rise to power. Broch chose to tell the story in the form of a journal, he says, because “a journal is the simplest and most honest means of reflecting on psychological phenomena.” And “since peasants do not keep journals,” he entrusted the tale to the doctor, presumably one of the few literate characters in the story. In fact, the doctor’s testimony reveals the extent to which even he—a relatively skeptical, relatively urbanized onlooker—is susceptible to Marius’s spell. But while there is some effort to preserve the illusion of the journal form, at least in the book’s opening pages, the narrative soon dissolves into an abstract retrospective meditation far removed from the immediacy and day-to-day chronicling that we associate with a journal.
In itself, this is perhaps a minor point. But what it tokens is the total disarray of the novel as we have it. The confusion surrounding the book begins with its title. It was published in its current form in German under the title Die Verzauberung (“The Spell” or “The Enchantment”) in 1976. In his correspondence, however, Broch usually referred to the book simply as the “Mountain Novel,” sometimes as “my religious novel,” and in his papers he indicated various provisional titles ranging from The Wanderer to Demeter to The Tempter (“Der Versucher”), the title given the book in earlier German editions of Broch’s works.
But the most important thing to appreciate about the book is that Broch himself never saw fit to publish it. As soon as he completed the first draft, he set to work revising it, substantially—indeed, drastically— altering the tone and texture of what he had written. But it was just at this point in Broch’s career—when he had revised little more than half the novel—that his doubts regarding the value of literary activity deepened into a skepticism so complete as to border on rejection. Scarcely a year before, in 1935, he could still exclaim that “the only meaning” of his life lay in the novel he was working on; but by 1936 he wrote in a letter that “intellectual, or poetic, or any other cognitive work has become superfluous” given the shadow cast over Europe by the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. Putting the point more generally, Broch concluded in another letter that “the contemporary world in its disintegration of values no longer has a place for intellectual and artistic achievements.”
In Broch’s view, our precarious age demands concrete ethical and political guidance, not the ambiguous speculations of art; increasingly, literature seemed to him to be an aesthetic game that might entertain or distract but that was unable to furnish either real knowledge or the “new myth” that an age of disintegrating religious values required if it was to heal itself. As Hannah Arendt put it in her classic essay on Broch, “during the last years of his life [Broch was] completely convinced of the primacy of knowledge over literature, of science over art.” In 1937, he abandoned work on The Spell, turning instead to writing political tracts and, in time, to composing The Death of Virgil, his dense, lyrical paean to the death of literature.
Yet Broch returned to The Spell once more. Near the end of his life, living in exile and desperate for money, he acceded to his publisher’s request for a novel, setting aside his political writings and work on mass psychology. But instead of simply turning over the completed manuscript of The Spell, he once again went to work revising it: even straitened circumstances could not induce him to publish it in its current form. He had managed to get through about five chapters of a third version of the book when he died of a heart attack in May, 1951, in New Haven, Connecticut.
The text, ably translated here by Broch’s son, is based mostly on the first—and only completed—version of the novel. In chapter ten, however, Mr. Broch de Rothermann has chosen to interpolate a longish passage from the second version of the novel. In this passage, the doctor suddenly goes back fifteen years to recount his ill-fated love affair with a pediatrician and self-described “militant communist” named Barbara who ends up committing suicide after a plot to assassinate a political figure fails. Mr. Broch de Rothermann explains that he included this passage from the second version partly because “its descriptive sections are stylistically much more polished and rounded, and the insights into the doctor’s personality. . . are more sharply focused” than they are in the first version, and partly because of “the central position that this story occupies in the structure of the novel.”
His decision strikes one as arbitrary and ill-judged. It is true that the passage in question is stylistically superior not only to the balance of chapter ten but to the entire novel. But because it introduces such a drastically new tone, and presents the doctor in such a radically different light, it almost seems to be drawn from a different book. And appealing to the “central position” that the passage was to have in the novel seems especially odd—not to say disingenuous—since the body of which this was to be the central element is unavailable. Above all, however, the interpolated passage indicates how substantial were the revisions that Broch planned even for the second version of the novel.
Yet for all this, The Spell is a fascinating document—not, alas, as a novel, but as an example of what can happen when a major literary imagination suffers shipwreck on an idea that just doesn’t pan out. Characters are never quite realized, the action seems contrived, themes are only half worked out or are introduced with a heavy hand: indeed, the novel never manages to come together. But in its fiercely intelligent disorder it reveals a good deal about how Broch went about the business of fabricating stories. And of course there are marvelous passages. Chief among Broch’s purely literary gifts was an ability to evoke nature with great lyrical delicacy. Consider the moment in chapter ten when the doctor, in the midst of his budding love for Barbara, gazes dreamily out of the window:
I leaned out the window of my apartment above the laboratory and looked down at the trees, their pinks and whites slowly dissolving into grayish shades while the sea of the city’s roofs gently sank into the spent, smoky haze of the darkening night, the diaphanous veil of the evening appeared to me like a translucently gossamer flower, an eye crowned by the brows of angrily tempestuous clouds that edged the far-off horizon, and duskily disclosed an ivory face framed by tea-black auburn hair, gray-eyed and illuminated by an ineffably tender smile, truly seen for the first time although I already knew it so well. I gazed into this face, I could not draw away from it, and I remained leaning at the window until night set in, and the night was like an infinitely gentle and feminine hand, softly resting on the brow of the world.
That is sweetly observed. And there are other passages of equal beauty scattered throughout the book.
Unfortunately, though, such oases do little to salvage the novel. For one thing, the action of the book is incredible. Viewed abstractly, the story of Marius’s conquest of the tiny village can be invested with all manner of significance. The problem is that Broch has failed to make Marius’s attraction compelling. In the commentary appended to the book, Broch observes that
it is one of the essential elements of the present era that it attempts to compensate for the decline in religious faith by an almost feverish worship of “nature,” on the surface motivated by hygienic, sports-related, ecological, or other such rationalizations, though in truth its sources He much deeper and, indeed, within the metaphysical sphere .... [O]ne would not be wrong to see in this constant readiness of mythic and nature-oriented tendencies to reassert themselves one of the main reasons why our present epoch is so vulnerable to mass-psychological forces.
All this may be perfectly true. But Broch does not realize this insight in the story of Marius and the peasants of Mount Kuppron. He has populated this version of the novel with types, not characters, with picturesque mouthpieces for the various ideas and “positions” he discerns in the crumbling society around him. None of his personages is endowed with sufficient specificity to be considered an individual. Indeed, just about everything in this book, down to the landscape and animals, is enlisted in Broch’s quasi-philosophical allegory;. Mount Kuppron is never just a mountain, nor is the doctor’s poor dog, Trapp, ever allowed to go about his doggy life: both are heavily painted props in this passion play of demonic redemption.
And perhaps never before have so many peasants clamored so breathlessly, so articulately, so unconvincingly after the infinite. (Indeed, in some ways, “the infinite” may be considered the real hero of the book.) The chief tip-off that a character is in the process of delivering himself of profound sentiments about sex, death, and man’s unutterable relation to the earth is that his speech suddenly is peppered with ellipses. For example, Marius, elaborating on his chthonic theories against matriarchy, explains that women “do not release the knowledge they have swallowed, they only release children from their wombs . . . they swallow and swallow and they forever suck . . . but the end of their time has come, they cannot listen to the earth because they are themselves in the earth . . . their time has ended, their power is over, the earth won’t stand for it any longer.”
And of course when it is time for Mother Gisson to die, she repairs to the forest, to the spot where her husband was shot dead years ago, to commune with the departed spirit of her granddaughter. Directing herself to the doctor and a sixteen-year-old peasant girl who, we are led to understand, is the beneficiary of Mother Gisson’s spiritual mantle, this presumably uneducated peasant woman confides that
I have learned that we need not die into our death but may live into it and that such a death is neither in vain nor senseless, and that then the bitter death itself becomes alive, and what is alive is never futile. And I have learned that I must not look at the end if I wish to see it but must instead look at the center, the center which is where the heart is. . . yes, the center is so strong that it reaches past the beginning and the end, so strong that it reaches into what is dark and that which is feared by men because they see nothing there but sheer nothingness and darkness .... But when the center has been allowed to grow freely, then it casts its brightness beyond all borders and to the utmost limits, then there is no difference any longer between what is past and what is to come and we are permitted to look to the other side and to those who have died, we are permitted to speak with them and they live together with us.
There is no doubt that Broch was attempting to dramatize a species of nature mysticism here. But the effect, as his biographer Ernestine Schlant has observed, was not mystical insight but an “indulgent mystification.”
The chief allegorical ambition of the book is to presage the “spell” that Hitler and his National Socialist ideology had cast over Germany and Austria. But here, too, I'm afraid that the novel is unconvincing. Marius is certainly a disturbing figure. But his ranting on about man’s broken relation to the simple cycles of the earth or his demand for a blood sacrifice to re-establish the cosmic order hardly makes him a stand-in for Hitler. Nor does his henchman, the dwarf Wenzel, bear a noticeable resemblance to Goebbels, despite his penchant for organizing the local youth into paramilitary squads. Nor indeed does the pathetic Wetchy family do very well as a figure for the Jews under Hitler; not every village scapegoat is the subject of a concerted ideological purge. The editor of the critical edition of Broch’s works has devoted a scholarly article to tracing all the allusions to Hitler and the Nazis in the book, and one is not surprised to discover that his efforts were amply rewarded. But the truth is that by dramatizing the Hitler phenomenon in the bucolic setting of Mount Kuppron, Broch has isolated the Nazi debacle from the social, economic, military, and racial realities that made it the world-threatening eruption that it was. To draw an analogy between Marius’s seduction of Mount Kuppron and Hitler’s twelve-year militaristic orgy, labeling both “mass psychological phenomena,” is to aggrandize one and trivialize the other.
In the end, though, criticism of the book must be somewhat qualified. For what we are dealing with here is not really a “book” but a manuscript that was deliberately left unpublished by its author. At most, we should consider it an abandoned experiment. And in this sense, considered as an experiment, there might be some justification for publishing The Spell, at least for scholarly reasons. But to present it as a finished novel, in any way comparable to The Sleepwalkers or The Death of Virgil, is to deceive the public and do a profound disservice to the memory of Hermann Broch.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 5 Number 8, on page 73
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