Mountain Novel, Hitler Novel

D.A.N. Jones

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.

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