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

Comments of Bob Corbett
May 2001

In a singular break with his narrative style, Hermann Brock sets aside his pattern in the very last four lines of THE ROMANTIC and reveals that he's his own most astute critic. Joachim von Pasenow, is a complete neurotic who must have order and continuity in his world. He is wedded to tradition since change is just too frightful for him to face. At the very end of the novel his is perched at the brink of where he will live a traditional life of landowner, in a loveless but respectable marriage. Just hours after having married, his bride, Elizabeth Baddensen, and he have trained to Berlin and are in their hotel room. It was uncertain as to whether or not they should spend the night in Berlin, or continue on toward Munich. Joachim could not recommend the Berlin stop. "He did not dare, however, to suggest that they should stop at Berlin, fearing that she might interpret it as concupiscence." But Elizabeth suggests it; she's tired. After settling in their hotel rooms, (yes plural!) Joachim, terrified of his new wife who he has romanticized as Snow White or perhaps more respectfully as the Madonna, doesn't know how to behave.

It's at this point that Brock ends the novel and tells us about his own writing. What will happen? He ends the novel with this paragraph:

"Nevertheless after some eighteen months they had their first child. It actually happened. How this came to be cannot be told here. Besides, after the material for character construction already provided, the reader can imagine it for himself."

The rub is, I can't imagine it for myself. Not because Hermann Brock has not adequately given "… the material for character construction…", he certainly has. Rather, it is because the poverty of my imagination is not up to Brock's and especially with a character as different from me as Joachim von Pasenow.

Joachim is his parent's second son. His older brother, Helmuth, is designated to run the extensive family estate, and according to custom, Joachim deplored his option:

"…Joachim still considered it a ridiculous arrangement that the elder son had to take to the land and the younger to the army."

But to the military he did go and he as we meet him he is Second Lieutenant von Pasenow, soon to be Captain. He has fully internalized the late 19th century German notions of social order, tradition, including such notions as "honor" (for which his brother dies in a duel), and the idealization of upper class women (thus the view of his wife Elizabeth as some sort of virtuous saint -- which she seems to be).

However, he has a certain weaknesses which lean in a different direction, a sort of morbid and terrified fascination with "the other," anything other. This fascination cannot be faced in itself, so he focuses on his friend and former officer, Eduard von Bertrand who embodies this more liberal world view and who exercises profound if ultimately failing influence on Joachim. He also experiences a love relationship with an unschooled Bohemian woman, Ruzena.

It is difficult to read the novel and not become tremendously upset with Joachim at times for his utter stupidity, timidity and lack of imagination. However, returning to my central theme here, once one faces the character squarely one realizes that Joachim is just perfectly being Joachim, and that's the genius of Brock.

While Joachim is the central and most developed person, he is not the only marvelous character. There is Elizabeth, the perfect upper class country lady, Bertrand, the rising capitalist with an amoral approach to the world, Herr von Pasenow, senile old man resenting any glimmer of rebellion in his son, the saucy and honest Ruzena, and even the quiet, gentle, powerful and reliable mother of Joachim who manages everything from behind the scenes.

Brock has an uncanny ability to reveal the times his is writing about in the characters, but not only in them. Various themes he treats do so in almost text-book fashion of philosophical reflection. I was particular fascinated with a very long discussion of the place of uniforms in late 19th century German culture. Brock sees the uniform as protecting people from the consciousness of uncertainty and passions, by covering the body in rigid form which reflects the rest of society around it.

He also presents an intriguing theory that social change (Bertrand is always the advocate of change), as actually coming into existence in a wide-spread fashion some half-century before the "feelings" of the masses catch up with the actual social behaviors. This phenomenon causes lots of guilt and feelings that the world is going to the devil. It also reflects for Brock both the power of change to occur no matter what, and the atavism of conservatism in the face of change.

In another section one of his characters remarks that "…America was still the country where unruly or disinherited or degenerate sons were sent." I think I especially loved that image!

All of the profound sense of the period -- the book is actually set in 1888 -- is carried on in a very slow style of writing with great care in the detail of description. It fits with the slow pace of life the people lived, most especially in the countryside. Brock has a great eye for the period and the ability to draw the reader into it. Making me even care for Joachim von Pasenow, which I did by the end, was a great achievement of Brock.

Bob Corbett

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