The first thing to notice about The Spell is that it is a good, readable story. Hermann Broch is considered ‘very hard to read’, wrote Martin Seymour-Smith in his useful guide, Novels and Novelists. ‘He used most of the Modernist technical devices available to him, but mainly stream of consciousness.’ Broch’s work has often attracted comments like that and they sound, to the general reader, like the kiss of death. Nevertheless, The Spell is as straightforwardly readable – and haunting – as the stories of Walter De La Mare, say, or as Emily Brontë. Secondly, it is a reflection on the largest public event in Broch’s life – the takeover of Germany and Austria by the Nazis, heralding their attempt to conquer the world, using ‘crowd-psychology’. Thirdly, it is uncompleted, though it may not seem incomplete. Broch worked on it for almost twenty years, while completing other work. More than one version of The Spell has been published. One of them is called The Tempter.
The tale is told by a country doctor in the Austrian Alps: his practice covers two villages, the Upper Village and the Lower Village, on the side of Mount Kuppron. He is a city man, consciously affected by his new surroundings: if he were English, he would certainly refer to his neighbours as ‘the locals’ or ‘a little mairn from the village’. He is bland and smiling to these locals, not really knowing them well, sentimental and sympathetic toward their churchmanly or pre-Christian customs. Climbing the mountain with them for their ancient ceremony, the Blessing of the Stone near the Pit of Dwarfs, he patronises the frail local priest who is puffing up the slope. In his doctor-like way, he thinks: ‘I would have liked to help him, but I had neither caffeine nor any other suitable medication with me in my sachet and, in any case, he would have refused to take anything before taking Mass.’
Another stranger comes to the villages, a rather Italianate Austrian with a Gallic moustache. This is Marius Ratti, a cranky sort of workman with ‘pseudomythic ideas about the sacredness of the Earth, the subjugation of the mountain etc’. That is how Broch puts it in one of his summaries of the plot: he adds that ‘the present era’ – meaning the 1930s and 1940s – ‘attempts to compensate for the decline in religious faith by an almost feverish worship of “nature”, on the surface motivated by hygienic, sports-related, ecological or other such rationalisations, though in truth its sources lie much deeper ... ’ At first, the locals laugh at the ecology-crazed Ratti, but gradually they fall under the spell of his rhetoric. He brings in a dwarfish henchman called Wenzel, who drills the local youths in paramilitary fashion. The doctor sees Ratti knocking Wenzel about: ‘It was an odd scene, a featherweight bit of violence, a fluff of a drama, and I couldn’t help laughing out loud.’
Ratti and Wenzel persecute the local representative of modernism. This is Wetchy, a salesman of wireless sets. They call him ‘Wireless Wetchy’. The doctor admits: ‘I, too, couldn’t quite stomach this worthy and diligent little man. It may have had something to do with the variousness of his businesses: equipment representative, insurance agent, salesman of wireless sets ... Bustling dealering which didn’t add up to any real whole, to any true profession which would be under the dictate of a divinely ordered rhythm.’ The doctor is equally snobbish about the low-class Ratti, who wants to do away with machine threshing and persuades the locals that ‘because of the machines too many people have lost their jobs and the wheat prices have fallen as a result.’ The doctor says: ‘Hm, these are Utopian do-gooder ideas he’s picked up somewhere’ – but the more prosperous farmers decide that it is in their interest to support Ratti. We begin to recognise that Ratti is rather like Hitler and the persecuted Wetchy family bears a resemblance to the Jews of Austria and Germany.
Slowly and delicately, everybody becomes demented. There is a traditional local ceremony that degenerates into a pagan sacrifice of a virgin. Gradually the mass hysteria dies away – perhaps. Throughout these events (which last nine months, measured by the birth and aging of a baby) the doctor muses, patronisingly, like a pompous liberal. Sometimes he exclaims at the oddities of the locals: ‘I had to laugh!’ Sometimes he drifts into their ways of thinking, caught by the spell: he has great respect for an old wise-woman, Mother Gisson, who represents good magic (he seems to think) against Ratti’s bad magic. He is strongly affected by the mountain landscape and atmosphere, which he beautifully describes. There is one enormous sentence (a page long, but well-constructed) about ‘the music of the light departing the mountain peaks’ as the doctor contemplates ‘the vesperal valley and its trembling golden and shimmering smile’, which conveys the almost mystical ecstasy into which our narrator is falling. I may say that I read this book while engaged on a lonely high walk above Offa’s Dyke, between Wales and England, occasionally descending to the Lower Villages. (One of my sons tells me that he thought he saw the Devil – the Evil One, the Tempter – while he was walking the length of the Dyke and, when he looked at his map, he found he was passing the Devil’s Cup. These things happen in the high places.) So I was in the right mood to accept the doctor’s mystified surrender to his surroundings. Nevertheless, I felt that the doctor was as futile as the governess-narrator in The Turn of the Screw.
What did Broch, a man of theory, mean this novel to be? Is it an expression of his religion, of his Freudianism, of his politics or of his studies in crowd psychology? If the last-named, is it concentrating on crowds, the crowd-leader or the whole crowd ‘atmosphere’? How shall we tell the dancer from the dance, the Tempter from the Spell? It is time to look at Broch’s life, over the years he spent writing and rewriting it, perhaps changing his mind. He had been a prosperous industrialist, managing his father’s factory until he was 40 in 1927: then he became a professional writer, got divorced and was hard-up. I consulted his old friend, Elias Canetti, who tells me: ‘In 1934/5, when Broch was working on the first draft, he used to speak of it as the Bergroman.’ The mountain novel, I suppose, though some have translated it as ‘the chthonic novel’: anyway, it suggests that the landscape and the atmosphere were dominant in Broch’s mind. Canetti goes on: ‘It had no other title. All his friends called it the Bergroman. He was very much under the impression of Jean Giono then. I don’t think it would be wrong to say that he regarded him as a kind of unattainable model for his book.’ This is interesting, for we think of Giono as an anti-intellectual writer, revering the soil and the nobility of simple people: Broch’s book has, for me, quite a different message.
Broch was arrested by the Nazis in 1938 but managed to reach the United States, via Scotland. When he started the novel, says Canetti, ‘he was not doing any theoretical work on Crowd Psychology. He was writing a novel ... But he certainly had Hitler in mind when writing about Ratti ... It was only later, in America, under the influence of Einstein whom he greatly admired, that he decided to do theoretical work on Crowd Psychology.’ Broch published his ‘Theory of Mass Hysteria’ in 1943 – while still attempting his final version of the Bergroman. Ten years earlier, like most people in Vienna, he had been ‘convinced that there could be no such thing as a science of Crowd Psychology,’ Canetti tells me. ‘He tried very hard to dissuade me from continuing my work’ – Crowds and Power. ‘It was only when I mentioned the word “symbol” that he softened. He misunderstood what I said about Crowd Symbols and assumed the word to have a religious meaning.’
Shall we suppose the Bergroman to have been planned as a religious novel? The version here is called The Spell, translated by Broch’s son from Die Verzauberung, prepared by Paul Lützeler and published in 1976. Another version, published in 1953, was called Der Versucher or The Tempter. There is obviously a distinction to be drawn between the Tempter and the Spell. (It is like the Dostoevsky question – are we to call his novel The Devils or The Possessed? Active or Passive?) Morgan Waidson of Swansea has sent me a learned article about The Tempter, written by Timothy Casey of Galway (in English) for a German scholarly journal. The Tempter was edited and published by Felix Stössinger: German scholars were doubtful whether Stössinger had used the dead Broch’s material appropriately, and whether he had chosen the right title. Some accused him of ‘treating the work as if it were and remained the original “religious” novel’.
Casey did not object to the title, for he saw the book as ‘a Hitler novel’. The name of Marius Ratti ‘recalls Thomas Mann’s anti-fascist novelle, Mario und der Zauberer. However one wishes to qualify the terms, Der Versucher is in some sense a Hitler novel as Mario und der Zauberer is a Mussolini novelle.’ Further, ‘the narration is from first to last tentative – one reason why, with reference to the narrator, the title is apt enough.’ Then, ‘Marius’s role as Versucher is equivocal and indeed the title, sanctioned or not by Broch, is singularly appropriate, for the whole novel is a complex of “tempts” and “attempts” ... The tempter Marius is also a “searcher”, as indeed the tentative, searching attitude of the doctor-narrator is basic to the whole book.’ The German word Versucher seems to have ambiguities different from those of the English word ‘tempt’ (evidenced in the Anglican dispute about translating the Lord’s Prayer). Such ambiguities are important. We might note that Rudolph Hess’s title, Stellvertreter, is said to mean not only ‘the deputy’ but ‘the scapegoat’.
Casey is provoked by the doctor-narrator of The Tempter, as I am by the same character in The Spell. Does Broch expect us to trust or respect this politically useless onlooker, with his irrational regard for Mother Gisson, the wise-woman? Is Broch criticising him, perhaps indulging in self-criticism? Casey has found a letter of Broch’s, written while he was working on Massenpsychologie, which states that he is concerned ‘not with the behaviour of the masses but with the problem of the lost and lonely individual, who seeks mass-contacts’. Perhaps that is how he saw the doctor, as he rewrote the novel.
Paul Lützeler’s biography may be considered dispassionate. He has spent seven years editing Broch’s complete works and he presents a determinedly factual account of Broch’s life, not pressing his own ethical or literary judgments, not expanding on Broch’s love affairs. He says Broch began the novel in 1934, after a stay in the mountains, hoping to make a positive contribution to ‘an age where values are disintegrating’. He was reading books on religion and mythology (from which Lützeler derives his conception of Mother Gisson as the ‘Great Mother’) and also ‘peasant’ novels, like those of Jean Giono. ‘Idyllic Austrian fatherland novels’ were much in vogue, says Lützeler. Broch seems to have been both attracted and repelled by the genre. Before he became a novelist, he had taken an interest in the writings of Carl Dallago: the first article Broch published was a criticism of Dallago and he rebuked him again, in 1914, for his ‘anti-intellectual and irrationalistic approach’. Yet he retained a fascination with his writing. ‘Just as Dallago retired to Tyrolean villages to write his anti-political, anti-urban and anti-intellectual tracts soaked in nature mysticism,’ says Lützeler, so did Broch’s doctor-narrator: he is based, perhaps, on a man whom Broch appreciated, understood and regularly repudiated – a sort of tempter.
Another writer who displeased Broch was Josef Wentner, a National Socialist in favour of union with Germany: he won a prize with his book, In Tyrol’s Holy Land. Broch gave the name ‘Wentner’ to one of the peasants in his Bergroman – the first peasant to succumb to Marius Ratti’s ideology. Broch kept writing and rewriting the book in mountainous areas, enjoying his isolation, while Hitler was gaining ground and winning hearts. In 1936 his obsession was interrupted by law-suits about his family inheritance, involving contention with his brother and his son – the very son responsible for this new translation: they were ‘murdering the book’, said Broch. This son, Hermann Broch de Rothermann, generally called Armand, was by his wife Franziska von Rothermann, a woman of a wealthy, landowning German family in Hungary. When Broch was planning his divorce, the ten-year-old Armand was spending his holidays on his uncle Rudolf’s Hungarian estate. Armand ‘grew accustomed to a lifestyle which was to make him seem excessively extravagant in future’, inclined to ‘revel in the delights of life as a young rake or “Lebebaby”, to use a term popular in the Vienna of the 1920s. He was introduced to Vienna’s night life by his uncle Rudolf.’
Armand is regularly described as ‘workshy’ in Lützeler’s book. He went to Greece in 1934 as representative of a dubious Viennese travel agency which went bankrupt – but Armand lived on in the Greek hotel for some months, representing himself as a man of means. Returning to Austria, he persuaded his father to collaborate with him in writing two stage-comedies, one of them about an adventurer and confidence-trickster, using Armand’s experiences. This was not an altogether cheering diversion for Hermann Broch, who scolded Armand for being ‘an out-of-work con-man’. Canetti tells me that young Armand, in his twenties, ‘seemed very much on his father’s mind: he must be a man of 75 now and knows the importance of his father’s work.’
Hermann Broch managed to leave Austria in 1938, with the assistance of James Joyce. Armand had less difficulty, for his Austrian passport described him as a Catholic nobleman whose main domicile was Athens: his fiancée, Eva Wassermann, had been a dancer at the Casino de Paris in Monte Carlo, and she was one of several Europeans whom Hermann Broch (now in America) managed to help get out of Europe. Hermann’s mother (who was Jewish) would not leave Vienna, so she moved in with Hermann’s mistress, Ea von Allesch – since Ea was ‘a courageous person’ and happened to be ‘Aryan’. If we want to know what Ea was like, we can turn to Canetti’s memoir, The Play of the Eyes:
She was beautiful and it appalled me to think how beautiful she must have been ... She had the head of a lynx, but a velvet one, and reddish hair ... ‘I’m an Adlerian,’ she said, pointing to herself, and, pointing at Broch: ‘He’s a Freudian.’ And indeed he believed almost religiously in Freud ... I don’t know why he introduced me to Ea so soon. He had always known that she wasn’t nice to him when others were present.
Armand did not care for this ‘Aunt Ea’, his father’s mistress. After the war, he sought her out and reported to his father that she had ‘shrivelled to become an embittered shrew’.
In these circumstances, it is interesting to notice that Armand’s translation differs in one way from the Der Verzauberung edited by Paul Lützeler in 1976, which Armand describes as ‘the first and only completed edition of the novel’. Armand has expanded the ‘flashback’ section of the novel, dealing with the narrator’s red-haired mistress in the city, before he arrived in the mountains. Armand takes this material from the second version of the book, since he thinks it offers important ‘insights into the doctor’s personality’ and contains ‘a great many autobiographical elements – possibly more than any other writings of the author’. Whether he means that it concerns Ea von Allesch, I do not know – but, as a reader, I must admit that I found the ‘flashback’ section unnecessary to the story. There was a third version, says Lützeler, which Broch attempted to sell in America: it was slim and compact, primarily for business reasons, to cut down the costs of translation. The terseness led to ‘a greater level of abstraction ... and this one associates with Broch’s idea of “Later Style”.’ Lützeler holds that, ‘like the two previous versions’, this one was ‘intended as both a politically critical and a religious-mythical novel’. Two days before his death in 1951, Broch, still dissatisfied, was trying to arrange a postponement of his book’s publication.
Something should be said about Broch’s race and religion. He was Jewish but not noticeably so. When he went to Scotland in 1938, some of the locals took him for an ‘Aryan’ German and they told him that ‘there would be no unemployment and no danger of war were it not for the Jews.’ Lützeler quotes the letter in which Broch forgivingly reports this horrid story, remarking that the Scots ‘were perhaps just trying to be pleasant and to say what would please a travelling Nazi’. In Vienna the anti-Jewish activities had ‘nauseated Broch so much that he often actually vomited’: he was afraid of being denounced as a Jew, and deliberately hired a craftsman whom he thought might have a grudge against him – to be surprised when the craftsman thanked him, ‘saying that it was extremely decent of Broch, an Aryan, not to forget an old Jewish locksmith in these difficult times.’ This kind of grotesquely ironic experience affected his book – and so did his religion: he had become a Roman Catholic in 1909, with a particular devotion to the Virgin Mary. This may well be connected with the doctor-narrator’s friendly feeling for the mountain people’s churchmanly ceremonies, with the sacrifice of the virgin and with the mysterious reverence offered to Mother Gisson, the Magna Mater. At the time of Broch’s death, says Lützeler, he was believed to be considering returning to Judaism.
He may sound rather an indecisive man. His Bergroman is like a set of Elizabethan playscripts, variant texts or actors’ copies, upon which a determined theatre director can impose his will. Canetti has remarked how vulnerable and receptive Broch was, in contrast to the assertiveness of Canetti, 19 years his junior. ‘He was the first “weakling” I had met: victory or conquest was of no interest to him ... Blindly I admired everything about him ... There is hardly a noble trait that I did not find in him.’ The son, Armand, has worked well to impose a form on the Bergroman – and he has produced a good story in fluent English – but we know there could be other versions. It is a matter of numbers and proportions. Hermann Broch was a man with a large mind, striving for almost twenty years to fit into a small compass very large events involving millions of small-minded people.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.