This is a tough one. Death of Virgil tells the story of emperor Augustus requiring a dying Virgil to leave Athens and surrender the manuscript of the Aeneid before destroying it as a fitting end to pure art. Since the Aeneid glorifies Augustus, it is a struggle between the artistic and the political: for Rome, the Aeneid is the gift that keeps on giving, even after Virgil passes on.
I read the complete Aeneid recently in the Fagles’ translation. If you like history, especially history punctuated by war, death, and destruction, the Aeneid is a valuable historical artifact and at a minimum provides a useful textbook for the teaching of Latin (where they still do that). Otherwise, the story of Aeneas and the founding of Rome is somewhat flat and boring.
But Hermann Broch has taken the tedium of the epic poem and magnified it ten fold in his narrative of the death of the poem’s author. As the Kirkus review suggests:
The work of a gifted, sensitive man, a recapitulation of a life and an age, but it mournfully lacks any lightness or lucidity or even great originality. Appeal to poets chiefly.
Back in ’05 I was in a long-range conversation with a reader from Germany who made several suggestions for reading: Christoph Ransmayr, Friedrike Mayrocher, Elizabeth Mayrocher, Peter Hanke, Both Strauss, and Hermann Broch. I ran out and loaded a new library shelf with a goodly number of books by these and similar authors—even read quit a few—but until this month I had not tackled Hermann Broch’s arguably greatest work, Death of Virgil. Many of these books were described to me as ERZÄHLUNG rather than Romances or Novels. It was explained to me at that time that they were not novels, but inner dialogues.
I’m not sure the “Not” is apropos but there was a whole lot of inner dialogue and words, words, words. I suspect that Erzählung is better thought of as just another sub-form of the novel, like Bildungsroman and Künstlerroman. But no matter what you call it, Death of Virgil was dense, poetic, complex, over-stuffed, and generally boring.
Possibly great but I can’t be sure without multiple readings and at my age and temperament, it ain’t gonna happen. I wonder if it is more engaging in the original German? Luckily I don’t read German.