Hermann Broch (German, 1886)
Der Tod des Vergil/ The Death of Virgil (1945)
begun while Broch was imprisoned in a German concentration camp,
is a historical novel that sounds more like a mix of an epic poem of Homeric
times and a philosophical meditation on death and art.
The style is mostly free-form, although not as free as in Joyce's "Ulysses".
It is unbound in that a sentence may begin describing a landscape and then
take a thousand detours to discuss metaphysics.
The book narrates the last 24 hours of the Roman poet Virgil,
or, better, Publius Vergilius Maro, the author of the epic poem "Aeneid ".
It is divided in
"Water-The Arrival"; "Fire-The Descent"; "Earth-The Expectation"; and "Air-The Homecoming."
carrying the manuscript of the "Aeneid",
is aboard the ship that is taking the emperor, Octavianus Augustus, as it enters
the southern Italian port of Brundisium welcomed by an enthusiastic crowd.
Virgil joined the journey reluctanctly and didn't enjoy it, being sick.
Nor does he enjoy the view of the mob. He stares melancholic and disgusted at
the senseless human life as two slaves carry his litter to the imperial palace.
This section is a long stream of consciousness: we see and hear the world
through Virgil's mind, and it is not a pretty view. Virgil meditates on
people's propensity for evil.
The poet is, ultimately, unhappy with his own life and (we soon learn) with
He briefly chats with a slave boy, and perhaps briefly
contemplates having sex with him, but the coughing and tiredness prevail
and he goes to sleep.
This section has the lyrical style of the Homeric poems but mixed with an
impressionistic hyper-realist quasi-photographic technique.
The meditations range from mournful Sartre-ian existential reasoning to
nostalgic Proust-ian old man's reminescing.
The second section, "Fire-The Descent," opens with the poet who cannot sleep
because of his sickness. He is aware that he is listening to himself dying.
He walks to the window and spies three drunk people arguing in the street
over garlic and insulting the emperor. His meditations become looser and
more abstract, rendered in different writing styles. He takes the three figures
to be a bleak omen. In his rambling delirium he faces the fact that his
poetry is "beauty without real creativity", or "un-art".
He thinks of his life's love Plotia. His hallucination gets worse and awakes
his slave boy Lysanias.
Virgil does not want to talk to him, perceiving him as an echo, and instead
reaches the conclusion that he should burn the "Aeneid".
Virgil sees himself reflected in Lysanias,
meditates on the meaning of homecoming, and sees the apparition of an
angel of death.
After the apotheosis of stream of consciousness and long convoluted sentences of
the first two sections,
the third section returns to more amenable narrative techniques.
Lysinias introduces his friends Plotius and Lucius who came to pay their
respects. Virgil is still in bed and very sick, and the friends reproach him
for going to Athens in such conditions. Luckily Augustus forced him to return
to Italy. Virgil scoffs at the reproach and tells them that he means to burn
the "Aeneid". The friends scoff, in turn, at his madness and point out that
even Horace, the other national poet, sent a letter of congratulations and
well wishes. Virgil knows that Horace is jealous, but Virgil himself is
jealous of Horace because Horace, like so many other great men, served for
real in the army, and therefore his art contains that element of realism that
Virgil feels is missing from his own poetry.
Left to himself again, Virgil meditates that love and death are the same
He interrogates Lysanias and learns that he was brought as a child from Asia
after his father was killed on the cross. Virgil listens to the slave pray to
his omnipotent, infinite and eternal god, and is fascinated.
Then the doctor comes to visit the patient. Charondas announces that the emperor
in person is going to call soon.
When the doctor leaves, Virgil is seized by another hallucination. This time
he sees Plotia enter the room through the mirror and call him to eternal love, which Virgil identifies with
"homeland", while Lysanias warns him to flee
while he still has time and the doctor admonishes the slave that Virgil cannot
turn around anymore. Plotia asks Virgil to renounce Alexis, presumably his male lover.
Augustus arrives in what looks like a theater scene, followed by a lengthy
dialogue (probably the weakest part of the novel).
Augustus has been told that Virgil wants to destroy the poem and tries not so
much to dissuade Virgin as to take the poem from him. After debating art,
state and Augustus' own merits. Augustus' argument (that, basically, the
"Aeneid" belongs to the Roman state) finally prevails and Virgil delivers the
manuscript to Augustus so that the emperor can carry it to Rome despite
hallucinations in which Plotia still tempts the ailing poet to destroy his
After all, it is the eve of Augustus' birthday.
Augustus departs and Virgil is left to the caring of his friends. Virgil,
feeling that death is approaching, demands to write his will urgently.
He grants freedom to Lysanias and bequeathes him his seal-ring.
While still theatrical
in nature, this dialogue is far more interesting than the previous ones because
the dying Virgil mixes reality and hallucinations, mixing his friends (notably
Plotius) who are receiving his last will with visions of his own mother,
his slave boy Lysanias and his beloved Plotia floating around the room.
Plotius impatiently waits for Lysanias to materialize but then realizes that
the slave boy doesn't exist, and so do we: all the scenes with Lysanias only
took place in Virgil's mind.
This section ends as
Virgil is being carried on a litter into the streets, presumably dead.
Part IV returns to the stream of consciousness style (long poetic sentences)
of the first two sections,
although it is narrating something (the story of the universe until now and
from now forward).
The poet is presumably dead and is being transported in a boat to the
underworld by Plotius. Virgil sees his old acquaintances again but now he
sees them in a different way.
As the boat expands in all directions, Lysanias, who has taken the semblances
of Alexis and Cebes, the boys loved by Virgil, flies away (brandishing the
ring) and Plotia leads
Virgil out of the boat and towards Eden. There he falls asleep and dreams
of making love to her (or at least becoming one with her). When he wakes up, she has disappeared.
Now Virgil experiences the collapse of the world, a sort of rewind of the way
the world was created until light itself is no more.
Virgil is becoming one with the absolute.
Suddenly the process is reversed, the world recreated and Virgil resurrected
but in a state of enlightenment, and he hears the word of God, "the word beyond