Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Sleepwalkers

Harmann Broch

In reading The Future of Theory a bit ago one of the texts mentioned there was a trilogy from the early twentieth century by Broch called the Sleepwalkers. I eventually got to the item, read it, and found another reason to endorse ’Future’. The Sleepwalkers is an incredible piece of literature, reflective in all the right ways and delivering powerful drama linked to extremely ambitious ideas. As a story the main structure concerns the nature of change in society, the way a country grows, declines, and warps itself beyond all recognition over a pattern of lifetimes. One of the main things captured is the disorienting character of such change, the way the future ripples into the requirements of perception not as the nightmares of the present but as things not even capable of being imagined by people embeded in their situations. It’s not a story of progression across any forseen or foreseable path. It’s also not a tale of everything coming to ruin, although certainly in the focus on the war and the collapse of moral values it has a lot of darker elements. I takek the account to be about the framing of lives in literature and history as a type of text that rewrites its constitutent elements, leading to the birth of something wholly new from the Victorian and Edwardian eras; modernity, in all its grotesque and complicated glory.

Part of what makes this focus on the proces of shifting historical setting without in any way compromising the priority placed on depicting character. Rather the two forms become bound together symbiotically, it’s simply not possible to envision the main cast except in the particular eras that they appear in and as embodying specific elements from their respective periods. There’s one particular development, the anarchist remade into established comfortable man, and from there into murderer, that brings an enormous amount of pathos and psycho-political sensibility. Across the sizable main cast there wasn’t anyone that felt awkwardly constructed or out of place, and it’s a testament to the book’s success that I didn’t ultimately see them as characters in the larger novel. The prose is extremely strong, and it shows it versatility in the different literary styles embeded for different eras and arcs across the work.

This is an imposing book to write about, and I feel that my own ability of analysis here is barely scratching the surface. At a certain point the writing turns less on the book in its entirety and more on my own position in reading it, such as my atypiacl decision to read and assess the trilogy as a single text, and how much emphasis I ended up putting on the historical continuities it represents. I definitely intend to reread this work at some point, and at that point it might be very productive to write about it at some length and detail, I’d also like to incorporate Broch’s novel into a larger essay. For the moment, though, I’ll have to content myself with some free-association by way of conclusion: Violence. Masks. Travel. Fluidity, plasticity and the process of redefinition. Complicity, in larger processes and social forces that are beyond the capacity to even be fully perceived. Politics. Adultery. Self-narrative. Materiality. Consciousness. Will. Disintegration.

Better than: Gradisil by Adam Roberts
Also better than: Vellum by Hal Duncan
Worse than: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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