A great Catholic avante-garde novel, and why it is surprisingly relevant today

Jean-Baptiste Wicar, "Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia," circa 1790 (image: Wikimedia Commons)  

The Austrian novelist Hermann Broch dreaded the rise of Hitler, and with good reason. Within 24 hours of the Nazis’ march into Vienna in March 1938, Broch was placed under arrest. He later speculated that the Germans had planned to detain him even before they made their move to annex Austria.

Broch was weak and ill in prison, suffering severe stomach pains and intestinal bleeding. Even worse, he feared he would be executed. In this frame of mind, he devoted his energies to writing a book, although he doubted anyone would ever read it. “I believed I would never publish anything again,” he later recalled, “and that I would end my days in a concentration camp.”

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And what did he write about? In a peculiar historical displacement, the incarcerated author turned his attention to the dawn of the Roman Empire and the final hours of the dying poet Virgil. The subject matter was incongruous, but the style of Broch’s writing even more so. The resulting novel, The Death of Virgil, is written as a labyrinthine stream-of-consciousness narrative far more intricate than anything Broch had previously attempted.

70 years after it was published, The Death of Virgil still earns our praise as one of the great experimental novels of modern fiction.

When Broch was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950, his reputation rested primarily on this recondite work and his brilliant pre-war trilogy, The Sleepwalkers. Even today, 70 years after it was published, The Death of Virgil still earns our praise as one of the great experimental novels of modern fiction. On the other hand, the intensely Catholic nature of this work is almost entirely ignored, and Broch is passed over in discussions of important Catholic authors. Yet anyone seeking out the “great Catholic avant-garde novel” will hardly find a more impressive—or timely—candidate than this extraordinary book.

This novel, rich in symbolism, is as much about Broch’s own situation under the Nazi occupation as it is a historical account of ancient Rome. Like the author himself, Virgil is consumed by fears of his impending death and concerns about the authoritarian political regime that has arisen during his lifetime, yet he finds sustenance in a spiritual vision. Virgil, in this book, is as much a mystic as a poet. He has been granted a glimpse of the coming of a Christian ethos that will prove even more powerful than the institutions of imperial Rome. In his final hours, he is forced to reconcile his commitments to Emperor Augustus with a growing sense that there are forces and principles even more potent than the most powerful man in the world.

Dare I say that this theme is still relevant in the current day? As even a quick perusal of the newspapers makes clear, thorny conflicts between our duties of conscience and our responsibilities as citizens are hardly issues restricted to theology and philosophy texts. In every sphere, from immigration law to court rulings on civil liberties, religion and politics collide again and again. Much like Virgil in the pages of Broch’s book, we need to decide almost daily what we stand up for and when—and what price we are willing to pay for our convictions.

Virgil Meets Augustus

Broch’s arcane narrative focuses on just a few hours in the life of the great Roman epic poet. And unlike Leopold Bloom, who at least got to stroll around Dublin during his stream-of-consciousness day in literary history, Virgil is mostly confined to bed during the course of this 500-page book. If you are seeking action and conflict, The Death of Virgil isn’t for you. Perhaps I should restate that: If you are seeking physical conflicts, Broch has little to offer. But if you are interested in metaphysical and existential ones, the novel is brimming over with them, especially in the long, intense dialogue between Virgil and the Emperor Augustus that serves as the novel’s centerpiece.

Much like Virgil in the pages of Hermann Broch’s book, we need to decide almost daily what we stand up for and when—and what price we are willing to pay for our convictions.

The most obvious debt here is to James Joyce (in a fitting turnaround, Joyce would return a very large favor, later assisting Broch in his attempt to get out of Austria). Broch had published the first major essay on Joyce’s Ulysses in German—issued as a short book in 1936 but based on a public lecture he had given in 1932. The marked influence of the Irish author is evident on almost every page of The Death of Virgil.

Yet the most surprising aspect of Broch’s project is its intensely Catholic perspective, even more pronounced than Joyce’s (who had a complex and conflicted relationship with his religious upbringing and Jesuit education). In a tour de force of symbolism and indirect discourse, Broch manages to achieve this without making a single overt reference to Christianity at any juncture in the course of his book. There are hundreds of hints and indirect references—to everything from the Trinity to the birth of Christ. Virgil himself is transformed into a forerunner of John the Baptist, a prophet who aims to clear the way for the arrival of a promised savior, but this is a redeemer he cannot identify by name. Echoes of the Gospel pervade the novel, but everything is clothed in pre-Christian trappings. And for a very good reason: Virgil died roughly two decades before the birth of Christ.

How are we to reconcile the ostensibly pagan context of the novel with predictions like this one, embedded in its pages: “The curse of shifting mastery, yielded or filched from one another, expends itself at last...if in the chain of divine generation there appears one whom a virgin has borne: as the first one not in rebellion, he enters into the father and the father into him; they are united in spirit, eternally three in one.” Here and elsewhere in the novel, Virgil sounds more like a participant at the First Council of Nicaea than a pagan poet.

The marked influence of James Joyce is evident on almost every page of The Death of Virgil.

These Christian themes come to the forefront of the novel during the long dialogue between Virgil and the emperor, which can be read as an attempt to give Augustus advance notice of the Christianized Rome of the future. Is there a stranger or more spiritually moving conversation in the annals of modern fiction? Here the dying poet tries to describe to the ruler the reality of the higher kingdom that will soon transform his earthly empire. “We stand between two epochs, Augustus,” Virgil declares to the most feared man in the world. “The new truth must arise radiantly from the blackest falsehoods, from the wildest raging of death the redemption will come to pass, the annulment of death.” Augustus is puzzled by these grand claims. “Annulment of death?” the Emperor responds. “There is no such thing; glory alone outlasts death on earth.”

In the supercharged argument between Virgil and Augustus, we can see why Broch turned to this ancient story during the dark days leading to World War II. Augustus is, to some extent, a symbol for Hitler, and the conflict between the Roman emperor and the visionary poet serves as a test of whether art can offer any adequate response to imperial ambitions. In Augustus’s testy replies to Virgil, we can even see the outlines of a polemic in defense of fascism. “The masses know something of the dangers of their freedom,” the ruler tells the poet; “they know it for a sham freedom whereby they are turned into a frightened, veering, leaderless herd…. The only real freedom is that which is found in the Roman order, in the well-being for everybody, in short—in the state…. This state in itself constitutes freedom, immortal and real; it represents freedom in the reality of the Roman spirit.”

Those who believe that Nazism always announces itself with swastikas and goose-stepping would do well to mull over the words of Augustus, as channeled through Hermann Broch. If fascism rises again to threaten global peace, it will not come in the recycled trappings of World War II but will justify itself as the embodiment of the mass mentality in the centralized power of the state—the perpetrators of violence demanding the public’s allegiance because every repressive action is done for the people’s safety and protection. By the same token, if we hope to halt fascism in the future (or, perhaps I should say, in the present day), we need to stop envisioning it as a neurotic man with a funny narrow moustache and a bad haircut sloping down toward his left temple. When fascist principles rise next time they will come with a smiling face and promise that they are simply prudent measures for the good of the populace. In short, they may look a lot like Caesar Augustus in Broch’s novel.

Forgotten by Posterity

Although the Christian element in this book permeates almost every page, this work has rarely been discussed as a Catholic novel, perhaps because the author’s personal history straddles both Catholicism and Judaism. Broch’s situation in this regard is similar to that of Clarice Lispector, the Brazilian novelist who died in 1977 but has found an enthusiastic posthumous audience in recent years. Lispector married into a Catholic family, rumors circulated about her Christian devotion, and her writings are filled with New Testament allusions and symbolism. But commentators prefer to downplay this side of her legacy. The recent, high-profile biography of Lispector by Benjamin Moser focuses on her Jewish origins and mostly ignores the links to Catholicism. Broch has been dealt with in a similar manner. His Catholicism is even more pronounced than Lispector’s, but he too finds his Christianity forgotten by posterity, not least by Catholic intellectuals. Yet why wouldn’t they want to claim affiliation with one of the great novelists of the 20th century?

Broch, of course, may be partly to blame. His Catholic masterpiece is a daunting work. I consider myself a connoisseur of difficult novels. I have tackled almost all the famous (or infamous) ones, from Finnegans Wake to Infinite Jest. But Broch’s The Death of Virgil makes my short list of especially formidable masterworks. Symbols and meanings can be teased out of it, but only by the most patient and persistent of readers. It is slower going than Gaddis or Faulkner or Pynchon or Proust at their gnarliest. Sentences can stretch on for five or six pages, filled with bold images and esoteric concepts. Indeed, the story often veers into the territory of philosophical and spiritual literature. Imagine if Heidegger had tried to write Being and Time as an experimental novel. That is the kind of density that permeates Broch’s ambitious work.

Broch was not the first to attempt this restatement of Christianity in pagan terms. Kierkegaard, in his brilliantly conceived Philosophical Fragments, manages to describe the essence of Christian theology while ostensibly discussing Socrates. As with Broch, Kierkegaard never allows the name Christ to appear in his text, yet it lurks behind almost every paragraph. That work is virtuoso performance, one of the cleverest bits of misdirection in the history of philosophy. But in The Death of Virgil, Broch makes the same bold move, now in the context of fiction. (Broch, I note in passing, clearly was aware of Kierkegaard, and even refers to him in The Sleepwalkers, published at a time when few outside of Denmark had read the work of the Danish Christian existentialist. A direct line of influence is plausible.)

Yet Broch also has the precedent of Virgil himself to draw on. In one of the most unusual and debated works of Roman poetry, Virgil seemed to serve up a prophecy of the birth of Christ. The poet’s Fourth Eclogue describes the nativity of a boy who will fill the role of savior. The intensely prophetic nature of this poem, combined with its clear promise of a messiah, suggests that Virgil may have drawn on Jewish sources. This poem fascinated medieval Christian scholars, and Augustine went so far as to suggest that the Roman author had been divinely inspired while writing the work, and thus was able to relate truths that he only dimly understood.

Broch had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1909 but retained a strong attachment to the Jewish culture and traditions of his childhood.

Broch no doubt felt a strong personal affinity with Virgil. Like the protagonist of his novel, Broch had complex ties to both Christian and pre-Christian worldviews. Broch had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1909 but retained a strong attachment to the Jewish culture and traditions of his childhood. After his death, family and friends gave him a non-denominational funeral. They knew that he had never left the Catholic faith; but they also recognized his strong allegiance to Judaism and believed that the best way of reconciling these two poles was a secularized rite on the campus of Yale University.

Broch’s conversion to Catholicism brought with it practical benefits but was made out of a genuine spiritual commitment. The depth of his religious conviction can be seen at numerous junctures in The Death of Virgil. Yet the book also tries to establish the validity of Christian principles from a standpoint outside of the faith. And this is precisely why Virgil, of all the figures in literary history, could serve as the perfect avatar for Broch himself.

Virgil’s Christian Readers

Broch had been influenced by Theodor Haecker’s boldly revisionist study Virgil, Father of the West, published in 1930 to commemorate the 2,000th anniversary of the Roman poet’s birth. This work is seldom read today, and has long been out of print in English translation, but exerted a powerful influence on thinkers during the middle decades of the 20th century. We can trace its impact, for example, on T. S. Eliot’s 1953 essay “Virgil and the Christian World.” And even those who disagreed with this view of Virgil felt compelled to respond, as did Walter Benjamin in a detailed assessment. Broch was so swept up by the book that he would, in his own words, “pester” Jolande Jacobi, another Jewish convert to Catholicism and administrator of the Austrian Cultural Association, “for over a year to get Haecker to give a talk. Having read his books, I was expecting great things.”

At this juncture, in 1934, Broch still held out hope that Catholicism could serve as a bulwark against the rise of fascism, especially in Austria, “where we try to make Catholicism play a vital cultural role.” Broch shared Haecker’s view that the Germans had perverted intellectual currents by idolizing “madmen, men who quite simply went mad, and consecrated them, raised men like Nietzsche and Hölderlin to the level of prophets, heroes, saints, and wise men.” Yet the appropriate response was far from clear. Haecker, another convert to Catholicism, was eventually censored and silenced by Nazi authorities. Broch, for his part, soon lost confidence in the efficacy of religion as a political counterforce. He gloomily concluded that “the ideology of National Socialism was impregnable to attack from that quarter…. You can’t stop a landslide and I don’t think this one will be brought to a halt until it has buried the whole world.”

These were ominous but prescient words when Broch wrote them in January 1935. But if Broch lost faith in Haecker’s ability to articulate a response to the political situation, he continued to hold on to the scholar’s interpretation of Virgil, as amply documented by the publication of The Death of Virgil a decade later. During those tumultuous 10 years, spiritual values had somehow triumphed over authoritarian power, against all odds, and this gave Broch a powerful story that he could hand down to posterity.

What were Haecker’s views of Virgil? They were very strange ones, by almost any measure. “Virgil is the only pagan,” he declared, “who takes rank with the Jewish and Christian prophets; the Aeneid is the only book, apart from Holy Scripture, to contain sayings that are valid beyond the particular hour and circumstance of their day, prophecies that re-echo from the doors of eternity, whence they first draw their breath.”

Even the 20th-century novelists most famous for their Catholic affiliations—Greene, Waugh, Percy and others—never put so much prophetic fervor into their works.

I will leave it to others to debate the historical accuracy of this view of the Roman poet. In the pages of The Death of Virgil, however, Broch’s attempt to infuse a pagan worldview with Biblical overtones is powerfully realized. Even more to the point, this work tells us as much about our present and future as our past. It deserves attention today, not just among those who are trying to invigorate the Catholic literary tradition in the 21st century. Any person of conviction torn between religious values and political expediency could benefit from the forceful presentation of this conflict as described in this neglected classic of avant-garde fiction.

Even the 20th-century novelists most famous for their Catholic affiliations—Greene, Waugh, Percy and others—never put so much prophetic fervor into their works. But Broch’s theology, for all its intensity, is transmuted, at every juncture, into poetry and symbol, so much so that not an ounce of straight dogma can be found in the work. Yet, after all, isn’t that the purpose of art? Even a Catholic art cannot settle for mere polemic. But the end result was that great anomaly: the masterpiece of modern Christian fiction that never even whispers the name of Christ. Broch did this in the best way of all: by making the doctrine inseparable from the lived reality of his fictive universe.

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