PHILISTINES AND FLAGELLATION AND HERMANN BROCH

the next post will be on or before Sunday 17th June

PHILISTINES AND FLAGELLATION AND HERMANN BROCH

‘Broch is the greatest novelist European literature has provided since Joyce’

George Steiner

‘We are at the very limits of the expressible…impeccable virtuosity’

Aldous Huxley

‘“You’re right,” Zerline admitted. “Nobody understands it. If you sleep with too many it’s bad: if you sleep with too few it’s bad, and if you don’t sleep with anybody it’s even worse.”’

The Guiltless by Hermann Broch (1950)

Thus speaks the old, ugly and conniving servant of the Baroness, who routinely refers to her employer’s beautiful unmarried daughter Hildegard as ‘the bastard’ as she knows who her real father was and it wasn’t the Baron, an eminent judge. The novel in set is in the unnamed capital of one of the old German municipalities in between the two world wars, and there are regular references to chronic inflation and the precariousness of the Deustchmark. The young hero A who is surely Broch’s alter ego has Dutch citizenship and has moved here to a kind of premature retirement as he is stinking rich from his time as a diamond collector in South Africa. In reality Broch himself (1886-1951) was an Austrian Jew who came of a very wealthy family and after entering their textile business changed course at the age of 42 to attend Vienna University where he studied Maths, Philosophy and Psychology. Strikingly, he converted to Catholicism in 1909 in order to marry the aristocratic Franziska von Rothermann. He was regularly unfaithful however, and they divorced in 1923. His first novel, a trilogy called The Sleepwalkers came out when he was 45 in 1931 and 7 years later with the Austrian Anschluss he was arrested by the Nazis, and, Catholic convert notwithstanding, put in prison. Friends of his including James Joyce successfully campaigned to have him freed, and after a brief while in the UK he settled for the rest of his life in America. In Vienna he had been acquainted with many of the great Modernists of the day including Rilke, Robert Musil and the Bulgarian Jewish Elias Canetti (1905-1994), subsequently the lover of Iris Murdoch and the Nobel winner in 1981. Like Canetti, Broch was fascinated by the phenomenon of crowds and there are enlightening references to his obsession in The Guiltless. Among others, Milan Kundera has claimed to be greatly influenced by the Austrian master and specially by The Sleepwalkers.

Broch’s last work The Guiltless assembled 2 years before his death, is something of a complex patchwork. His Munich publisher wanted to put out some uncollected stories from the 1920s, but Broch decided they would make more impression if 6 extra stories were added, and the whole was given a lyrical unifying framework with some of the original stories expanded. Thus, we have a collection that reads like a novel of sorts, with a core of mesmerising characters reappearing throughout. The central stories extend the tale of wealthy A in his mid-30s who decides to move in as lodger with the Baroness, much to the chagrin of her very hostile but beautiful daughter Hildegard. We fully expect Zeline the stony and knowing old maid, to be a tangential character, instead of which she immediately reveals Hildegard’s illegitimacy to A, meaning the shocking details of the Baroness’s affair with the rake of a diplomat Herr von Juna, who once lived in the castle’s hunting lodge. It is fair to say Zerline is contemptuous of almost everyone and especially of women of all ages, and given that she was once a beauty herself, she also has a strong line in declaring sexual manipulation is at the root of all power and self-assertion.

‘“Except that if you took a good look at him [Herr von Juna] you could see the ugliness behind his pretty goatee, even behind his pretty mouth, you could see that he couldn’t and kept on wanting to, the ugly lust that comes of weakness. That kind of man is easy to get. If I had wanted him” -she pinched an imaginary flea between two fingers – “I’d have had him just like that.”

Even though the pair of them openly loathe each other, both Zerline’s and Hildegard’s unrepentant wickedness knows no bounds. Fascinated by the handsome diplomat, and contemptuous of the Baroness, the young Zerline lies in wait one day and flings herself upon him, driving him half mad with lust, as he has another mistress over in the Lodge so cannot take her there. Later, the maid starts to muse in a way extremely untypical of peasant servants, and rather more like A and other highly sophisticated refractions of the author, Broch.

‘“Everything that passed between me and Herr Juna was such a darkly gentle timeless gift of death, and one day it will help to gently carry me down, itself carried by the fullness of memory. Anyone would say it was love, love to the death.”’

Whereafter Broch, jumps athletically out of the implausibility of peasants ruminating like literary intellectuals in their profoundest moments, by adding:

‘That was what A had heard, but there was no certainty that is what Zerline had said. Many old people have a way of breaking into a mumbling chant, into which the imagination can easily read one thing and another…’

And then dramatically, one of von Juna’s hunting lodge lovers dies in suspicious circumstances, and the rumour is that he must have poisoned her, meaning in Zerline’s crude terms that Hildegard is the bastard child of a murderer. However, it transpires the same lover was a morphine addict, with a whole pharmacy by her bedside, so that von Juna looks set to escape the guillotine as the capital punishment method was in inter-war Germany then. At which point, merciless Zerline decides she wants to make all of her superiors and especially her diplomat lover suffer, by unearthing the Baroness’s and von Juna’s love letters and sending them anonymously to the trial judge, who happens to be no other than the Baron, the cuckold himself. As Zerline explains to A, the Baron, stern as he is, is such a moral man that he will refuse to be swayed by personal interests and will almost certainly acquit von Juna, even supposing the rake did deserve the guillotine. This indeed is exactly what happens and the diplomat retires abroad where he will die in safe obscurity.

Zerline in old age also takes upon herself the questionable role of procuress when she brings the young peasant girl Melitta, currently a humble laundress, to be A the new lodger’s mistress. A had already met Melitta which means ‘little bee’ (her doting grandfather keeps beehives) in her own grubby part of town, had shown a keen romantic interest, and presented her with a beautiful handbag which had won her heart immediately. Zerline now arrives with a fictitious invitation from A and then leads her to the hunting lodge where she promptly orders Melitta to undress.

‘“Not bad,” she says, lifting the girl’s breasts a little. “A bit soft and heavy. Mine were firmer at your age, but you’re all right. Just what lots of men like, they’re mad about them, and pink little nipples like yours are like milk and honey to them.”

After a tender night of love, A duly falls in love with Melitta and she with him. A. then makes the bizarre proposal that he will buy a huge house in the countryside and will take the Baroness there, and be for her the son she never had. Zerline who will also be going there, is delighted at the news, whereas Hildegard the daughter is horrified and thinks it will just make more intolerable anxiety and uncertainty for her, especially if A dies before her mother. Nevertheless, A proceeds with his cloyingly sentimental plans, the only problem being that Zerline refuses to countenance Melitta moving in with them too. That would mean that she the family servant would be skivvying for a laundress and her pride cannot bear it. A. may sleep with Melitta and pamper her wherever he likes, but not in the new mansion, where he fully intends to spoil his new mother who is the Baroness. Hildegard is even more cruelly prescient, in this respect, and she goes round to the laundress’s slum and tells her that A no longer loves her and has other women besides. Soon after she leaves, the distraught young girl flings herself out of the window to her instant death. And well before this, and as part of her plan, Hildegard had already seduced A in a scene that is infinitely disturbing in its portrayal of absolute moral nihilism. She urges A to rape her when he gently insists he loves her, and the more she demands to be raped, the less he is able to perform. Hildegard prophesies that he A will now be incapable with all women, and then commits another riot of violence on his body.

‘A cry of triumph and of lust, of pure animal lust. He made a forlorn move to escape her, but he was helpless: she held him in an iron grip and her teeth bit into his shoulder until the blood came; every movement increased the raging pain. Then, when she saw that he had given in and was holding still, she fell suddenly asleep.’

What follows all this ugly violence and harrowing suicide is blackly comic in its anti-climax. A and the Baroness and Zerline all move into the new house, where the old maid proceeds to stuff the other two with infinite amounts of food, so that A especially becomes obese and tranquil and loses his hair and suddenly has no sex drive, just as Hildegard had obliquely prophesied. His sole activity apart from chatting to and doting on his replacement mother, is lying on his back reading the details of his always steady stocks and shares. Bizarrely he tries to counter the overall sloth with leaving at least one window open in all weathers, so that he almost petrifies and has to wrap himself in umpteen blankets. In this cosy living death, he is one night visited by a strange, blind, very old man who we soon guess is the grandfather of Melitta. This prophetic old man had previously appeared in a story called The Ballad of the Beekeeper and rather like one of the pantheistic seers out of a Jean Giono novel, such as Bobi in Joy of Man’s Desiring, he comes to confront A in his terminal sickness, his sloth, his asexuality and his guilt about the tragic death of the old man’s granddaughter. I won’t give away the surprise ending but suffice to say this dialogue between white bearded prophet and obese sybarite, is far too expositional and idealised, so that we are more or less being treated to a contrived moral lecture by the author. The point is that Bloch’s genius is as Huxley says, in writing about the inexpressible, and he does it best when it comes as a kind of integral and subtle meditation from one of his more complex characters, especially A, or for that matter Hildegard. For Bloch’s real fictional concern is the understanding of Evil, a proper enough obsession given that as a Viennese Jewish intellectual he saw the decades building up to Hitler, and now in New Haven, USA, has had another decade to reflect on the appalling aftermath. His conclusion is that evil is rooted in philistinism and that the worst philistine ever was Hitler, the kind who would not for a second baulk at the monstrousness of concentration camps nor gas ovens but might well be prudishly affronted by sexual frankness as witnessed in both the arts and in ordinary culture.

However, Broch’s account of the inexpressible does not just touch on the coordinates of Good and Evil, but also on the infinitely inexpressive mystery of Experience itself, and it is here he is reminiscent of writers like Proust, William Gerhardie, and, at least in his critical musings, Vladimir Nabokov.

‘The red geraniums sparkled in harmony with the glittering glass as though the soul of man were born to pure joy, nay more, as though it had existed since the beginning of time and would live forever. This of course was only the façade, of that A was well aware, and he was no less aware that there are dark cubicles behind the brightest, the most timeless façade; he knew that there is no colour without a substance behind it, but all this knowledge was diffused and attenuated by the blueness of the air and the gladdening arch of the fragmentary rainbow, which now stretched over the square, giving with its veined transparency, an intimation of the dark, immeasurable cosmos behind it: a spectrum connecting the dark and earthly, the solid and substantial, with the open light of heaven and nevertheless leading back to immeasurable darkness.’

If all this seems too enormous and too abstruse, be aware that in The Guiltless there is also a hilarious one-off tale about a preposterous teacher called Zacharias who A bumps into in a pub before he moves in with the Baroness in her castle. Zacharias is the most pompous stuffed shirt you have ever met, albeit he is a prominent Social Democrat, though one of  those who doesn’t believe in going too far. Hence he decries Einstein for doing just that with his Relativity Theory, and though it is not emphasised in the text, Einstein was of course a Jew.

‘“Did I say anything about killing it by silence?” Zacharias countered sternly. “You weren’t playing close attention…didn’t I make it very clear that I am only opposed to modishness, not to progress…I am a member of the Social Democratic Party, which stands foursquare behind the theory of Relativity. But progress must not be allowed to confuse the schoolboy’s undeveloped mind. Now do you understand?”’

With the Social Democrat piously protesting, A buys the pair of them more and more drinks, until both of them are good and drunk. As A has somehow mislaid his hat, the suddenly uninhibited Zacharias is inspired to share his own with his inattentive companion. He swiftly cuts it in two and keeps the brim for himself, and the brimless cup for A. He then orders A to come home with him, where it all turns into grotesque albeit worryingly German vaudeville. His angry wife is waiting up for her drunken husband with a punitive feather duster, and before A’s eyes she inverts it to employ it as a cane. Her prudent and reasonable Social Democrat husband then submissively extends his backside for a flogging, which his bridling wife administers with due gusto. Just as A is leaving, he sees the stern teacher pulling his trousers down for a more effective flagellation, and it is apparent that this kind of drama is a regular pattern for the philistine social democrat and his unforgiving and equally philistine wife.

‘The Guiltless’ was translated by the legendary Geman translator Ralph Mannheim and published in the USA in 1974, and then in the UK by Quartet Encounter in 1990

 

 

 

 

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