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Paperback Death of Virgil Book

ISBN: 0679755489

ISBN13: 9780679755487

Death of Virgil

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Book Overview

It is the reign of the Emperor Augustus, and Publius Vergilius Maro, the poet of the Aeneid and Caesar's enchanter, has been summoned to the palace, where he will shortly die. Out of the last hours of Virgil's life and the final stirrings of his consciousness, the Austrian writer Hermann Broch fashioned one of the great works of twentieth-century modernism, a book that embraces an entire world and renders it with an immediacy that is at once sensual...

Customer Reviews

5 ratings

the dreamlike state of dying

This work stands firmly as one of the masterpieces of 20th century literature, and is not to be missed by the thoughtful reader willing to spend some time with a great book. As mentioned by other reviewers, the writing, especially the feverish second part (it's a book of four parts), is dense and can be challenging to get through, though that effort will be well paid by the discussion with Augustus in the third, and the sublime death trip of the fourth and final part. The first part documents Virgil's arrival into burning Rome, and sets up what is to follow. One needn't have read anything by Virgil in preparation for this book, and to the best of my knowledge, Broch, though running from the Nazi's, never spent time in a concentration camp. And, for the curious, Broch's grave is in Connecticut.


That is a feeble translation of Virgil's phrase `plurima mortis imago'. Those three words show a special way he had of using language not as a vehicle for thought but to convey something outside and beyond thought, and it is something that this book seems to be trying to replicate on a large scale. It is not something I find in Milton, still less in the collective folk-poetry of the Homeric epics, and the nearest to it that I can think of might be in Blake. It is not the normal idiom of the Aeneid by any means, but something that gleams through unpredictably now and again, and I am no nearer now than I was 50 years ago to getting an adequate translation of such a line as `Sunt lacrimae rerum, et mentem mortalia tangunt'. This book is hung around the legend that the dying Virgil wanted his incomplete epic the Aeneid burned as being imperfect, but it is about much more than Virgil, or his poem, or even death itself. It is about totality, something completely shapeless, senseless and even immortal - immortal partly because death itself is permanent and cannot be killed or destroyed, partly because there is always, has been always and will be always an infinite universe of what is. The book divides into 4 sections, each named after one of the 4 elements that some ancient philosophers reasoned to make up the world - water, fire, earth and air. This division actually seems to me rather contrived and unimportant to the book, and it is nothing remotely resembling the way the ancients themselves viewed their `elements'. Ovid explains them clearly if we just correct his text to read what he must have been saying `...aer, qui quanto est pondere terrae/pondus aquae leuius, tanto est onerosior igni' - `air which is heavier than fire by the same margin as the weight of water is less than that of earth'. The ancients found exact aliquot ratios like this to be intellectually satisfying, but the last thing this book is about is exactness. In the `fire' section we are engulfed in a drifting mist of ideas, concepts and abstractions, each forever changing its identity and merging randomly into the next. The only connection with fire seems to be that this is where the question of burning the manuscript of the Aeneid first arises. The first section relates the arrival of the dying poet by barge from Greece and has nothing more about water. The third section brings us abruptly back to earth with the dialogue between Virgil and Augustus, who does not want the poem glorifying his new Rome destroyed for very worldly political reasons. The fourth resembles the second in a more pictorial way as the flotilla of boats carrying the characters of the book, losing their identities as they go, sails into the infinite; and air was the one to fill the last slot. At one point I read the phrase `the shadow that is language', and it is worth remembering that this edition is a translation. Translating a work like this is nothing like translating directives on food-labelling or fishe

A poet's stubborn pursuit of scruple

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 hi


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.

Virgil's dark night of the soul

"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.
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