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Female Heads

John Bayley

27 October 1988
Woman to Woman: Female Friendship in Victorian Fiction 
by Tess Cosslett.
Harvester, 211 pp., £29.95, July 1988, 0 7108 1015 6
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Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century 
by John Mullan.
Oxford, 261 pp., £25, June 1988, 0 19 812865 7
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The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney. Vol. I: 1768-1773 
edited by Lars Troide.
Oxford, 353 pp., £45, June 1988, 9780198125815
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... consciousness has become an absorbing masculine activity, a sex-in-the-head game. It is in the male head that Clarissa scribbles and Molly Bloom muses. For many male novelists, like the Austrian RobertMusil, erotic self-metamorphosis becomes mystical, a kind of religious substitute. The sphinx has her mystery, but in the final and most subtle analysis it is that of having no secret at all. One of ...

A Talent for Beginnings

Michael Wood: Musil​ starts again

15 April 1999
Diaries 1899-1942 
by Robert Musil, translated by Philip Payne.
Basic Books, 557 pp., £27.50, January 1999, 0 465 01650 2
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... spent all the time that remained to him filling out the middle. The Man without Qualities, however, turned gradually into a work that was genuinely, irremediably endless. Somewhere in his forties, Musil developed an incomparable talent for beginnings, and after that he wrote very little else. The results were lengthy and wonderful, whole novels in themselves, but they were, as Musil himself kept ...
16 October 1997
The Man without Qualities 
by Robert Musil, translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike.
Picador, 1774 pp., £40, November 1995, 0 330 34682 2
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The Man without Qualities 
by Robert Musil, translated by Sophie Wilkins.
Picador, 1130 pp., £15, October 1997, 0 330 34942 2
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... to her mother, ‘ladies know what to fend hands against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks.’ The poor have no choice but to end up in novels because they do not read them. Musil has less faith than Hardy in the genre. Rachel’s life slips into a narrative straitjacket without her even knowing how; but the novels that Frau Tuzzi feeds her do nothing to free her from the ...

When three is one

Paul Seabright

20 September 1984
Motivated Irrationality 
by David Pears.
Oxford, 258 pp., £14.95, March 1984, 0 19 824662 5
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... the community of analytic philosophers (and occasionally, subtly, within it) few figures are regarded with quite the mixture of coolness and condescension accorded to the thoroughly rational man. RobertMusil wrote of the wife of a civil servant that ‘what she called “soul” was nothing but a small capital of capacity for love that she had possessed at the time of her marriage. Permanent ...


Jonathan Coe

26 March 1992
Six Memos for the Next Millennium 
by Italo Calvino, translated by Patrick Creagh.
Cape, 124 pp., £5.99, February 1992, 0 224 03311 5
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Under the Jaguar Sun 
by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver.
Cape, 86 pp., £10.99, February 1992, 0 224 03310 7
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The Fountains of Neptune 
by Rikki Ducornet.
Dalkey Archive, 220 pp., $19.95, February 1992, 0 916583 96 1
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Small Times 
by Russell Celyn Jones.
Viking, 212 pp., £14.99, February 1992, 0 670 84307 5
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... wrote Calvino in 1985, the year of his death. Tracing the lineage of the encyclopedic novel through Perec, Mann, Proust and Flaubert, he homes in on the figures of Carlo Emilio Gadda and RobertMusil, two ‘engineer-writers’ who have one quality in common: ‘their inability to find an ending’. Despite his own love of arcana and encyclopedic forms, Calvino’s relationship to this tradition ...

In a Cold Country

Michael Wood: Coetzee’s Grumpy Voice

4 October 2007
Diary of a Bad Year 
by J.M. Coetzee.
Harvill, 231 pp., £16.99, September 2007, 978 1 84655 120 8
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Inner Workings: Essays 2000-2005 
by J.M. Coetzee.
Harvill, 304 pp., £17.99, March 2007, 978 1 84655 045 4
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... over-reading this shift, but it does seem that the more Coetzee’s novels make use of the essay form the more his essays settle into a straight and sober version of the genre. A 1999 piece on Musil, for example, included in Stranger Shores (2001), opens: ‘Born in the autumn years of the Habsburg Empire, RobertMusil served His Imperial and Royal Majesty in one bloody continental convulsion ...
26 October 1989
Foucault’s Pendulum 
by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver.
Secker, 641 pp., £14.95, October 1989, 0 436 14096 9
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The Open Work 
by Umberto Eco, translated by Anna Cancogni.
Radius, 285 pp., £9.95, October 1989, 0 09 175896 3
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... have to find more and more seductive ways of overcoming it. (The most rewarding essay in his little collection The Open Work is on ‘The Structure of Bad Taste’.) One pioneer of Modernist fiction, RobertMusil, remarked that the novel existed in order to destroy kitsch. But also, perhaps, to make the right, the new use of it? The ‘heroism’ of Belbo, like the parenthood of Lia and Casaubon, is not ...

Serious Dr Sonne

Philip Purser

6 December 1990
The Play of the Eyes 
by Elias Canetti, translated by Ralph Manheim.
Deutsch, 329 pp., £14.95, August 1990, 0 233 98570 0
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Yellow Street 
by Veza Canetti, translated by Ian Mitchell.
Halban, 139 pp., £11.95, November 1990, 1 870015 36 3
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... up, re-examined and found wanting in essential seriousness. Wittgenstein attracts only a passing mention, identified as ‘a philosopher, the brother of the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein’. RobertMusil occupies the summit of Canetti’s esteem until he is demoted after a show of petulance at a tactless mention of his archrival Thomas Mann. Herman Broch was Canetti’s great friend at the ...

I’m here to be mad

Christopher Benfey: Robert​ Walser

10 May 2018
Walks with Robert​ Walser 
by Carl Seelig, translated by Anne Posten.
New Directions, 127 pp., £11.99, May 2017, 978 0 8112 2139 9
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Girlfriends, Ghosts and Other Stories 
by Robert​ Walser, translated by Tom Whalen, Nicole Köngeter and Annette Wiesner.
NYRB, 181 pp., £9.99, October 2016, 978 1 68137 016 3
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... Best known​ for his short prose sketches, the idiosyncratic Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878-1956) liked to call himself a ‘craftsman novelist’, cobbling together ‘a long, plotless, realistic story’. He insisted that his varied sketches – prose poems, portraits of ...

Agent Bait

Christopher Tayler: Nell Zink

2 March 2017
by Nell Zink.
Fourth Estate, 288 pp., £14.99, October 2016, 978 0 00 817917 5
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Private Novelist 
by Nell Zink.
Ecco, 336 pp., $15.99, October 2016, 978 0 06 245830 8
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... and in part ambivalence about seeking a mass audience. On top of that, she has a nasty case of belatedness with regard to her favourite writers – they include Dostoevsky, Platonov, Kafka and Robert Walser – and a firm grasp of all the aesthetic and intellectual-historical explanations of Why One Can’t Write Like Tolstoy Any More. ‘This story will be composed in bad English,’ one of the ...
22 May 1986
If not now, when? 
by Primo Levi, translated by William Weaver.
Joseph, 331 pp., £10.95, April 1986, 0 7181 2668 8
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The Afternoon Sun 
by David Pryce-Jones.
Weidenfeld, 214 pp., £8.95, March 1986, 0 297 78822 1
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August in July 
by Carlo Gebler.
Hamish Hamilton, 188 pp., £9.95, March 1986, 0 241 11787 9
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... own, once it is past. We are also disposed towards angry fantasy, the projecting upon someone or something outside ourselves of all that is bad in the world and in us. In The Man Without Qualities, RobertMusil called this process the making of ‘displeasure-images’, and identified it as ‘part of the oldest psychotechnical apparatus mankind possesses’. Together with our tendency to take things ...


Ian Sansom: D.J. Enright

25 September 2003
Injury Time: A Memoir 
by D.J. Enright.
Pimlico, 183 pp., £12.50, May 2003, 9781844133154
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... write,’ which is a profound tribute: it’s certainly better than writing to be read. One of the reasons we enjoy reading Enright is because we want to know what he’s been reading – Pascal and RobertMusil mostly, it seems, towards the end of his life. But then again he read everything. He was omdamniverous. To read Enright reading is to read about history, and literature, and newspaper headlines ...

The crematorium is a zoo

Joshua Cohen: H.G. Adler

3 March 2016
The Wall 
by H.G. Adler, translated by Peter Filkins.
Modern Library, 672 pp., £12.99, September 2015, 978 0 8129 8315 9
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... Großgermanisches Reich’), the subordination of individual autonomy to archetype and allegory, the force of repetition: Adler may have been introduced to these techniques by Kafka, Hermann Broch, RobertMusil or Alfred Döblin, but he mastered them by studying Goebbels and Eichmann and his clerks, whom Adorno called Schreibtischmörder, ‘desk-murderers’. The Nazi bureaucrats were responsible for ...


Neal Ascherson: Scotophobia

5 April 2007
... the core imperial population – the German inhabitants of Austria – began to lose its own identity in the age of rising nationalisms. ‘The Hungarians were first and last only Hungarians,’ RobertMusil wrote in The Man without Qualities, ‘and counted only incidentally . . . as also Austro-Hungarians. The Austrians, on the other hand, were primarily nothing at all . . . there was not ...

His Peach Stone

Christopher Tayler: J.G. Farrell

2 December 2010
J.G. Farrell in His Own Words: Selected Letters and Diaries 
edited by Lavinia Greacen.
Cork, 464 pp., €19.95, September 2010, 978 1 85918 476 9
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... with a teenage daughter; and battles with hordes of cockroaches, modelled on those in his hotel room. ‘How,’ he wrote on 29 March, to make a large novel centripetal instead of centrifugal? Musil does it with the character of Ulrich who, by being uncommitted to anything, acts as the touchstone to all the committed characters around him – yet Ulrich isn’t a cipher as Hans Castorp tends to ...

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