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The Death of Virgil (Penguin Modern Classics) [Paperback]

Hermann Broch , Malcolm Bull , Jean Starr Untermeyer
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

6 April 2000 0141181621 978-0141181622 New edition
Out of the last hours of Virgil's life and the final stirrings of his consciousness, Hermann Broch fashioned one of the great works of 20th-century modernism, a book that embraces an entire world and renders it with an immediacy that is at once sensual and profound.

Product details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd; New edition edition (6 April 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141181621
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141181622
  • Product Dimensions: 21.4 x 14.9 x 1.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,198,241 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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From the Back Cover

"Broch is the greatest novelist European literature has produced since Joyce, and...The Death of Virgil represents the only genuine technical advance that fiction has made since Ulysses." -- George Steiner

"Hermann Broch belongs in that tradition of great twentieth-century novelists who have transformed, almost beyond recognition, one of the classic art forms of the nineteenth century."

-- Hannah Arendt --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
The Death of Vergil is the strangest, the most demanding and quite possible the most beautiful book I've ever read. The "protagonist" is the dying writer Vergil, and the book is one long passage of almost uninterrupted stream-of-consciousness. But wait, those of you who never had the stamina to get through "Ulysses"! This one has a rythm of narration that is almost musically "catchy", and indeed, the story is deliberately composed as a symphony in 4 parts of varying tempi. What happens in this almost 500 pages long book? Well, Vergil arrives in Brundisium along with Augustus Caesar, who is going to be celebrated at his birthday a few weeks later. He then is carried from the ships to Caesars palace in the city - this is the first part of the book. He then hallucinates through the night, and finds peace in the notion of burning the Aeneid - his masterpiece. This is the second part. Then in the morning he meets friends, then Augustus, and there's a quarrel over the burning of the Aeneid, this is the third part of the book. In the fourth part Virgil dies. The action is limited to this, but the real action is in the head of the aging writer - you are there! And it's frightingly convincing (parts of the book are written in a german prison cell during World War II, the writer thus himself being close to the notion of dying). It took me 3 months to read the book (because i work full time?), and some passages I had to read twice, or thrice, to get in the right mode of concentration. So it's by no means an easy book to read.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A revelation. 16 Jan 1998
By A Customer
Every few years one might come across a book that is so extraordinary that you feel that you have been changed by reading it. This is such a book. The topic is an ambitious one: a meditation on what it means to be human, but Broch brings such a wealth of ideas into his work that at times are full of intense significance and meaning.
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What a novel can and should be 1 Dec 1997
By A Customer
To the point: this work is comprised of some of the most beautiful, profound, and challenging writing I've ever experienced; Joyce included. This is simply a marvelous book. 'Nuff said.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Without doubt, one of the true greats 25 Sep 2012
By JoMo
There is not really too much to add about this book - it is one of the most extraordinary, beautiful and unusual works of literature I have ever come accross. I have read it 4 times now, and am still finding new depths. The translation is similarly first class..
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Amazon.com: 4.8 out of 5 stars  16 reviews
110 of 116 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spectacular.....breathtaking 12 Mar 2000
By D. Roberts - Published on Amazon.com
Hermann Broch began writing this book under extraordinary circumstances as a prisoner in a German concentration camp in World War II. What emerged from that horrifying experience is one of the preeminent literary works of the 20th century.
The book is about Virgil's infamous deathbed request that his magnum opus, The "Aeneid," be burned because it was imperfect. Most of the book is told in a dazzling but recondite stream-of-consciousness mode, but the best section is Virgil's deathbed discussion with Caesar Augustus.
Broch invokes 20th century ideals such as the "authenticity" of art as a mirror to the natural world. We also encounter the dilemma of works of art that are incomplete & not polished completely. Aristotle said that in a perfect art work, every word contributes to the organic whole. Arbitrarily remove or add one word, says Aristotle, and the whole work comes crumbling down. Virgil uses this motif as his justification for wishing his beloved poem burned. Juxtaposed with this paradigm are the pleadings of Augustus that it is Virgil's duty as a Roman citizen to let his poem be read by all the world. After all, the literary excursion was to be Rome's national epic. The scene is, unmistakably, magnificent.
A considerable amount of background reading is required before attempting to take on this work. At a bare minimum, read the entire canon of Virgil, especially the "Aeneid." A workable familiarity of Roman history up until and including Augustus is necessary and a biography of Virgil (I would recommend Peter Levi's) would also be helpful. I am a fairly well-read guy, but some of the allusions went over my head.
The stream-of-consciousness style is interesting, but can make the book rather dense. Many of the sentences go on for pages and pages. The book attempts to capture the free-thought attributes of the machinery of Virgil's mind. An engrossing work of prose.
43 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A poet's stubborn pursuit of scruple 29 Sep 2003
By Matthew M. Yau - Published on Amazon.com
Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil revolves about the poet's wish to burn his masterpiece, The Aeneid, and creates out of his signified keen senses and heightened perceptions a rich vision, with full actuality, the religious, philosophical and political impulses of the time. The novel should be read as an epic poem in four parts (water, fire, earth, air) that parallel to four movements of a symphony in which the manner of the theme and variations of each successive part serves as some kind of commentary and reiteration on the parts that have preceded it.
The book is arduous in reading, strenuous in contemplating the richly lyrical prose. Woven and sifted throughout are reflections and perceptions of Virgil's febrile yet lucid thoughts in such rocking rhythms that illuminate, to the full actuality, the macabre sensation of the drifting journey on which the poet is being carried by the bark of death. Death's signet was graved upon his brow. The epic closely accounts for the last 24 hours of Virgil's life as soon as the near-death poet returns to Rome from Athens. The uninterrupted flow of lyrical speculation begins at the port of Brundisium where the bark docks, lingers in the mental suspension between life and death, between the "no longer alive" and "not yet dead", and ends with the journey to death, to nothingness, to a dimension of non-recollection and stillness.
Truth seems to be the recurring theme. The notion of truth is being illuminated and brought to full elaboration through the repeating insistence of reflections on life, death, memory, knowledge, perception, and philosophy. As the poet approached death, he admits with bitterness and cold sobriety that he has pursued a worthless, wretched literary life. The Aeneid, which is acclaimed by Caesar and to whom it is dedicated, has been a mere indulgence of beauty, self-sufficiently limited to the embellishment of concepts long since conceived, formed, and known, without any novel contribution in it. The truth of artistic inadequacies, lack of perceptions, thirst for superficialities, and egotism yields the decision to mock his works. Despite Caesar's effort to cajole Virgil, the poet comments that he lacks the perception, to which he never takes the first step, and yet nobody has ever attained the knowledge of truth of such perception.
The stream of consciousness technique renders the poet's final hours to the full actuality. In fact, Virgil regards death as the most significant event of his life (perception and knowledge of truth?) and is full of anxiety lest he miss it. His sense of time seems to be warped and each passing second has grown to some immense, throbbing, empty space which is not to be linked. The body and its human qualities are denuded and are stripped to the naked soul with the most naked guilt. For Virgil, death is part of life and the understanding of death enlightens meaning of life. Strong than death and the shackle of time is fate, in which the final secret of time lay hidden. It is for this very secret of time (and death) that the suspense and tension of the book not being thwarted.
The conversations are reproductions of external events and actual dialogues (Aeneid, Georgics, Eclogue, Horace Carmina) and their inclusion into the book's inner monologue (the narrative seems to have proceeded in the third person but soon has discerned that narrative constitutes to an inner monologue made up of Virgil's dreams, reflections, visions, and delusions) gains them an abstract touch. The flow of the book presses on through various tempi according to the degree of Virgil's consciousness. The more headlong the tempo (which usually occurs during Virgil's conversations with his friends, attendants, and Caesar), the shorter the sentence. The slower the tempo becomes, the more complicated the sentence structure (i.e. Part 2 - Fire). Virgil's reflections and musings manifest some interminable, richly lyrical prose that mirrors the dying poet's thoughts and ravings.
The writing also deftly alludes to the religious impulse at the time of Virgil. Talks of the coming of salvation bringer prevail in Virgil's conversations with Caesar, who denies the need of such salvation. In various occasions Virgil forebodes the coming of a savior who will not only live in the perception, but in his being the world will be redeemed to truth, whom will conquer death and bring himself to the sacrifice out of love for men and mankind, transferring himself by his own death into the deed of truth. Virgil's audacious statement signifies the turning point in history, the crisis of the godless era between the no longer antiquity and the net yet of Christianity.
From Broch's own words, nothing is really "reported or perceived" in the book but what "penetrates the invisible web of sensual data, fever visions and speculations." The richness of the writing and its lyrics sharpens the contours of the concrete and brings to full actuality Virgil's musings and memories. It's a strenuous, challenging read that requires undivided concentration. 5.0 stars.
39 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Virgil's dark night of the soul 17 Sep 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
"Burn the Aeneid" Virgil instructs his friends from his deathbed. Broch, as Dante did before him, uses Virgil as a spiritual guide in this exploration of the metaphysical and moral imagination. Here, the dying poet, reflects feverishly, consciously transcending his decaying form into the infinite universe-- and despairs of hope, as his sheltering idealism is confronted with the reality of human existence, the limits and futility of his understanding. Virgil's trust in a civilized humane society, one that, at its source, springs from the individual's seeking of beauty, freedom and wisdom, disintegrates, into one represented by the predations of the mob of the streets of Rome, as does his confidence in the Aeneid, his opus. A dialogue on the fate of the Aeneid ensues between Virgil and Augustus, forming a complex debate on art and government. Virgil defends the purity of the perceived world as metaphor, free of the allusions of art; Augustus proposes the nobility of art as symbol for government. A delicate lattice of oppositions and constructive contradictions braces the book. This is, though, ultimately, a story of the human journey, a struggle with darkness and doubt, reconciliation, and a rise to salvation. The remarkable final section has the celestial translucence of 'Paradiso'. The Death of Virgil is among a handful of true literary masterpieces this century whose reach, that of the entire compass of human impulse, consciousness and conscience, has equalled its grasp. It is a work of intellectual and spiritual adventure. Broch orchestrates an inquiry and fugue, sombre and passionate, into life, encompassed in a sensuous poetic oration-- and Virgil continues to cast his spell on the divine and the aesthetic order, employed by masters to illuminate our deepest perplexities and aspirations.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars beautiful, ravishing 26 Mar 2011
By D. Moulton - Published on Amazon.com
I would actually have to disagree with the reviews calling this book difficult or arduous. I read it very quickly, completely entranced. Don't believe the hype that makes Death of Virgil into Finnegans Wake without the jokes. Whatever else it may be, it is NOT a tome for masochistic professors (I read it on my own time, without its being assigned by anyone other than Hannah Arendt and Elias Canetti). It's a deeply affecting work. Many times throughout the book I had to stop reading to catch my breath, stunned by the sheer beauty of the language and the sense that Broch was taking me perilously close to essential realities that otherwise hardly ever appear in literature (or life for that matter). I'm a staunch atheist, but after The Death of Virgil I was able understand why someone might believe in God. To speak about "spiritual" realities usually means to drivel on in embarrassing cliches. That's decidedly not the case with The Death of Virgil. I would call this a spiritual masterpiece, perhaps the highest compliment an atheist can give.

Not really a novel and not really a poem, this is a work of radical freedom. It opened me up to new possibilities of what literature can do, and unlike a lot of formally innovative literature, this book is by no stretch a work of aesthetic detachment. On the contrary, it takes an unusual form because the traditional forms are not adequate to express what the author means to express. Broch was clearly influenced by Joyce, but he had a moral and spiritual seriousness that the great Irishman plainly lacked.

One of the great novels (for lack of a better word) of the twentieth century.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Loved it... 7 Jun 2009
By William Anderson - Published on Amazon.com
No doubt, it's boring. It's one of those fabulously boring books.

I'm going through my margin notes, looking for why I love this book so much.

First--Virgil wants to destroy his works because he feels he missed the point. He recognized the power of the new love-movement under way. He felt that he was always just sucking up to the Emperor. (In the end, Virgil is well loved for being enough of the new movement, despite the clearly propagandistic side of his work.)

It was a revelation to me that the Axial age (characterized by a softening, a movement away from the brutality of the heroic age) was so Christian in tone, and before Christ.

I later realized that Christianity is Hellenized Judaism. (Got this from a book called, *Early Christianity and Greek Paidea*)

Putting all this together was part of the excitement, for me, in Broch's D or V. Basically, just like the baby boomers got sick of war and (for the most part) rejected it; so with the Romans.

Death of Virgil reminded me of the Horace ode about Pompeius. Pompeius, the poor sucker, goes on fighting in one of the bloody Roman wars. He's almost killed, while Horace himself, who fought beside Pompeius briefly, soon put down his shield, gave up the fight. (He was later pardoned, because he was useful as a poet, and he was high born.)

But there's so much more to this book.

There are leitmotifs. Pg. 101--"knowing" is the leitmotif. The word is planted innocently, and keeps growing and growing in weight and import, until:

"verily man is held into his task of knowing,
and nothing is able to dissuade him,
not even the inevitability of error,
the bound nature of which vanishes
before the task beyond all chance;"

Broch's language (in Jean Starr-Untermeyer's translation, too) is so wonderfully giddy. German culture was in a fabulous inflation that did not end until Hitler was killed in his bunker. And part of this inflation was even in the knowing German/Austrians' forbodings about the ridiculous ending that was in store for the whole thing. (Goethe was the first to forsee this.)

Then "error" is the leitmotif. (pg. 102)

pg. 124-->
"the inadequacy of the earthy symbol be revealed,
the sadness and despair of beauty laid bare,
beauty stripped of intoxication and sobered,
its perception forfeited and itself lost in impercipience,
and with it, the sobered self,
its poverty--,"

How far is this from Emerson's idea of poverty? Broch is wise to so very much of the current of ideas that ran between Goethe and Nietzsche. German culture is ripening so beautifully even as it unravels. This is all viscerally potent (to me, anyway).

Page 127:
"god found himself again in man and man found himself again in the animal,"

Broch is toying with an angle on Nietzsche's idea of the death of god.
This leitmotif evolves in Mahlerian/Wagnerian style--pg. 131:

"god tumbling down into a false-humanity or the man catapulted toward a false-divinity, both lured toward evil, toward calamity, toward the uncreated state of the animal...."

These problems lead to a discussion of beauty and art. (pg. 141)

Around pg. 180, Virgil starts to hallucinate two boys. Lysanius and a slave. They play interesting roles in his dialogue. (When the emperor comes with some literary sycophants, they can't see Lysanius & the slave.)

It is the Lysanius and the slave who speak to Virgil about "the new time arising". Beholding them (Lysanius & the slave), is the act that consummates Virgil's embraced of the new mode of being.

"For you have beheld us, Virgil, and in looking you saw the fetters, weeping the while you looked, you saw the new time arising, saw the beginning-anew that is destined to spring from our tears."

This kills me. I don't need to go on.

I will say that I understand only a small percentage of what Broch is talking about. One is half asleep most of the time while reading this book, but that is a blessing. I know there's always more to take in.

One more bit, about the animals:

"the snowy bull, the luckless Pasiphae, who lingered there beside the cows? Or the bucks stirring about and mounting the she-goats? Pan's midday quiet lay soundlessly over the flowering groves and yet it was already evening, for the fauns had begun their gambols, stamping their hooves, their heavy pahlluses stiffly erect."

This reminds me again of Emerson's, of his lines from Merlin II, "The animals are sick with love, lovesick with rhyme..." These things slay me.
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