Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Best Book You've Never Read: The Death of Virgil

Steel-blue and light, ruffled by a soft, scarcely perceptible cross-wind, the waves of the Adriatic streamed against the imperial squadron as it steered toward the harbor of Brundisium, the flat hills of the Calabrian coast coming gradually nearer on the left...

Of the seven high-built vessels that followed one another, keels in line, only the first and last, both slender rams-prowed pentaremes, belonged to the war-fleet; the remaining five, heavier and more imposing, deccareme and duodeccareme, were of an ornate structure in keeping with the Augustan imperial rank, and the middle one, the most sumptuous, its bronze mounted bow gilded, gilded the ring-bearing lion's head under the railing, the rigging wound with colors, bore under purple sails, the festive and grand, the tent of Caesar. Yet on the ship that immediately followed was the poet of the Aeneid and death's signet was graved upon his brow.

Thus begins Hermann Broch's beautiful, ponderous, novel The Death of Virgil. Philosopher and critic Hannah Arendt describes the book like this:

The Death of Virgil, one of the truly great works in German literature, is unique in its kind. The uninterrupted flow of lyrical speculation leading through the last twenty-four hours of the dying poet begins when the ship that, in accordance with his imperial friend's desire, should carry him back from Athens to Rome, lies in at the port of Brundisium, and ends with the journey into death, when Virgil has left the feverish, over-articulated clarity of a conscious farewell to live, and lets himself be led through all its remembered stages, over childhood and birth back into the calm darkness of chaos before and beyond creation.

In between the book is filled with beautiful images that comprise a museum of masterpieces. A mysterious street urchin leads Virgil's litter through the back streets and alleys, a Dante-esque journey through the gritty guts of a city. The bird-filled near silence of Virgil's room with the chest containing the manuscript for the Aeneid sitting by his bed waiting. Virgil's conversation with Octavian Augustus that paints one of the most complex, subtle, and complete portraits of power I've ever encountered. There are even moments where the ideas expressed break the syntax of prose and Broch breaks the ideas into verse:

....this was laughter, a constant flight from the haven of refuge, beyond the game, beyond the world, beyond perception, the bursting of world-sorrow, the eternal tickle in the masculine gorge, the cleaving of beauty-fixed space to a gape in the unspeakable muteness of which even the nothing became lost, enraged by the muteness, enraged by the laughter, divine even this:


the prerogative of gods and men was laughter

springing first from that god who recognized himself

springing dumbly-aware from his intuition

from the intuition of his own destructability...

The Death of Virgil presents its challenges. There are long, dense philosophical explorations on the nature of life, death, art, poetry, empire, power, etc. that challenge the attention spans of even the most devoted readers, but the novel is worth the effort. There is good reason for George Steiner to call Broch "the greatest novelist European literature has produced since Joyce." The Death of Virgil is one of the most beautiful books ever written.

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