Marit Benthe Norheim
The Sleepwalkers (1931-32) is a thesis novel with a vengeance. According to Broch, sleepwalkers are people living between vanishing and emerging ethical systems, just as the somnambulist exists in a state between sleeping and walking. The trilogy portrays three representative cases of ''loneliness of the I'' stemming from the collapse of any sustaining system of values. ''The Romantic,'' a subtle parody of 19th-century realism, takes place in Berlin in 1888 and focuses on the Prussian landed gentry. Joachim von Pasenow is a romantic because he clings desperately to values that others regard as outmoded, and this ''emotional lethargy'' lends his personality a certain quaint courtliness but renders him unfit to deal with situations that do not fit into his narrow Junker code, such as his love affair with a passionate lower-class young woman. ''The Anarchist'' moves west to Cologne and Mannheim in 1903 and shifts to the urban working class. The accountant August Esch, who lives by the motto ''business is business,'' seeks an escape into eroticism when he realizes that double-entry bookkeeping cannot balance the ethical debits and credits in the turbulent society of prewar Germany.
- From In Search of the Absolute Novel by By Theodore Ziolkowski, NYT Book Review, Nov. 3, 1985
Broch’s novel The Sleepwalkers was still informed by one of the leading studies on modern aestheticism, Georg Lukács’ Theorie des Romans [Theory of the Novel]. The essay that Broch integrated into The Sleepwalkers, “The Disintegration of Values”, was inspired by Max Weber’s theory (continued by Niklas Luhmann) of the differentiation and autonomy of partial social systems. In the “Epilogue” of this trilogy Broch inaugurated – at the same time going beyond the diagnosis of disintegration – what Lukács had postulated as the task of the modern novel: to discover the contours of a new cosmology in an age of “transcendental homelessness”. But this aesthetic goal is already undercut in the narrative sections of The Sleepwalkers, for it becomes evident that the three parts of the book were intended as a satirical comment on the very typology that Lukács described in the Theory of the Novel. The social and spiritual disintegration, deconstruction, and fragmentation that Broch created and reflected theoretically and poetically in The Sleepwalkers is contrasted at the end of the trilogy by the attempt to explore new possibilities by way of integration, construction, and totality. Therefore, with this particular work Broch still seems to be anchored in the tradition of Modernism. At the same time he not only described the disintegration of the partial value system, but he also took part in the deconstruction of modern aesthetics by satirizing Lukács’ theory ad absurdum.
- From The Literary Encyclopedia
There is thus a radical difference between The Sleepwalkers and the other great twentieth-century "frescos" (those of Proust, Musil, Thomas Mann, etc.): In Broch, it is the continuity neither of action nor of biography (a character's or a family's) that provides the unity of the whole. It is something else, something less apparent, less apprehensible, something hidden: the continuity of one theme (that of man facing the process of a disintegration of values).
- From Milan Kundera's Notes Inspired by The Sleepwalkers