By Hermann Brock.
Volume one of the trilogy: THE SLEEPWALKERS.
Translated from the German original SCHLAFWANDLER, by Willa and Edwin Muir.
179 pages
New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
ISBN: 0-679-76406-2

Comments of Bob Corbett
June 2001

August Esch, despite the title of the novel, is no anarchist, though he certainly is a sleepwalker on Brock's definition. Ironically, in more normal use of language Esch would be called a romantic, the title of the first volume of this trilogy, THE SLEEPWALKERS.

We do have a seeming real anarchist in the character Martin Geyring, crippled union organizer. Officially he works for the Socialist Party labor unions, but Martin has no commitment to the socialist ideology, but is aloof from any movement or commitment. He seems to be much more the radical individualist and anarchistic type.

All this leaves me quite curious as to what it is Brock believes an anarchist is.

But August Esch is a strange and interesting character. When we meet him at the opening of the novel he is a young 30ish bookkeeper. His is used as the scapegoat for some fraudulent work at his company and fired. Through out the novel he carries a bitter grudge against the boss who got him fired, and even begins to display a paranoia about being attacked by others as well as an utter fixation with revenge against people who break rules.

Yet Esch has no use for rules themselves. It that sense alone he seems to have anarchistic tendencies, but when they are contrasted with his desperate need for rules and order, his inner being as an anarchist is revealed as a lie.

Esch moves from the Cologne of his first job to Mannheim where he continues as a bookkeeper. He is seeking, we slowly discover, true and perfect happiness. One of the general obstacles for him is any uncertainty in life whatsoever. He just can't handle it and tries to force the world and people into some system of perfect order and an order which will yield happiness for him.

In Mannheim he meets Ilona, a woman who works in a vaudeville show with a knife thrower and is the knife thrower's target. He has no relationship with Ilona, but somehow idealizes her as a woman whom he must save, and he must save her somehow by great sacrifices on his part. Either Brock is never very clear about this obsession of Esch's on the part of redemption through sacrifice or I just didn't get it. But obsessed he is. Eventually he lures the knife thrower into a theatrical venture back in Cologne in which they will feature women wrestlers. The whole plan is designed to get Teltscher, the knife thrower, into other work. Esch, Gernerth the theater impresario and Teltscher head back to Cologne to offer this unique entertainment.

Back in Cologne Esch sort of falls in love with Mother Hentjen, who, despite the name, is only an early 30s widow, who runs the restaurant where Esch takes most of his meals. He conceives that once he saves Ilona then he and Mother Hentjen will head to America for a new life -- again this desire to solve it all by a new life in America makes him sound much more like a romantic than an anarchist. In his idealized portrait of the U.S. there are no labor troubles, and despite his fixation on the U.S. his plans are actually to go to South America, which he seems not to know is a different place altogether.

Ultimately nothing really works out; no happily-ever-after novel for Brock. Ilona returns to Teltscher for knife throwing work, Mother Hentjen's savings from the restaurant are lost in a cock-a-mamie theater scheme, the American venture is lost and Esch has to face the fact that life holds no serious possibilities for true love and happiness. And yet he goes on. As we leave him in the end he clings to the American dream since one needs a dream, and he has settled into a somewhat better bookkeeping job supporting himself and Mother Hentjen to a modest life of bourgeois comfort.

August Esch is an angry man, but it is not always so clear what he is angry about. It is actually late in the novel before author Hermann Brock is able to convince me of Esch's anger and it comes ultimately from his inability to handle the moral ambiguity and complexity of the world in which he lives.

Esch is a bit of a freethinker and has a somewhat non-traditional personal morality. However, he does have a sense of some notion of social responsibility for what goes on around him and is particularly attracted to the world of socialist labor organizer, Martin Geyring. He never fully joins Geyring's work, but is morally pressed by it.

As time goes on and he experiences more and more of the frustrating position of the struggling working class the angrier and angrier Esch becomes. To this reader it was not obvious what it was that was driving Esch's anger until, Brock reveals how upset he is at these complex causal relationships and his ability to make sense of them. With a small investment Esch is partially funding a women's wrestling entertainment. To produce profits the wrestling is rigged so that one woman's tights must burst at a certain critical place. Esch find this demeaning to the women (though he is much less disturbed by the general notion of the women's wrestling, which he and his partner conceive strictly to attract men). When his partner complains about profits which he needs for his children to go on vacation Esch laments: "Esch felt sorry for Gernerth, a good fellow, Gernerth; all the same the affairs of the world became confused again when you reflected that out there on the stage a pair of tights must presently burst so that Gernerth's children might go away for a holiday." A few sentences later this state of affairs is connect to the larger sense of Esch's rage and frustration. "…perhaps it was simply the muddle and confusion which filled him with disgust and rage."

This volume two of the trilogy does reveal Brock's meaning of who the sleepwalkers are. They are those who come to recognize that humans cannot really know the meaning or direction of life in any clear manner, but, like sleepwalkers, wander through life with only some vague awareness of where life is going. In one long passage Brock uses an extended train image in which Esch is a passenger and the train is speeding down the track, but he only has a vague notion of where it is going.

However, in a confrontation with the man who has caused socialist Martin Geyring to be in jail, Esch wakes from his sleepwalking in one sense, he comes to see that life is living in this state of sleepwalking and it cannot mean anything at all. In his short waking from sleepwalking he realizes that it the human of who he may say: "… he who had dreamt of flight and the joys of freedom, and yet now was condemned to rattle the bars of his cage." Rattling the bars of one's cage is as far as the human can go. It's not other humans who frustrate the sleepwalkers, nor is it the social systems, it is the fundamental nature of reality itself.

In the first volume of this trilogy Brock dealt with characters who were primarily either rural or military, and one higher level capitalist. In this novel we are presented simpler people from the bookkeeper Esch, the labor organizer Geyring, restaurateur Mother Hentjen, lower-level theater people and others of the working class. The portraits are clear and seemingly accurate, yet I was never grabbed by THE ANARCHIST in the way I was with THE ROMANTIC. I'm curious to see what happens next in THE REALIST, the final volume of the trilogy, a novel set in 1918. Each of the volumes is separated by roughly ten years, THE ROMANTIC beginning in 1888.

Bob Corbett

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