A Talent for Beginnings

Michael Wood

  • Diaries 1899-1942 by Robert Musil, translated by Philip Payne
    Basic Books, 557 pp, £27.50, January 1999, ISBN 0 465 01650 2

Writers in the early part of our century fell in love with the interminable work, the book that seemed infinite. The Cantos, Remembrance of Things Past, The Man without Qualities were all tasks designed to last the writer’s lifetime, and they did. But there are degrees and differences among these projects. The Cantos were a ragbag, as Pound once half-mockingly called them, into which he could throw the contents of his mind in the form of poetry, but they were a ragbag that dreamed of a secret ordering. Remembrance of Things Past was in one sense finished as soon as it was started, the circle of its story complete. Proust 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 saying, only a start.

His essays, he insists, are like someone’s Collected Writings in reverse: ‘opening gambits, idea-stumps’. At one point he was thinking of publishing a book of them called ‘Detours’, and he said of himself that ‘what for me was essential always found a home in something peripheral.’ About a satirical work he was planning in the Thirties, he especially liked the idea that the two volumes ‘do not need to be finished’. In 1940, thinking of The Man without Qualities, he wrote that he felt ‘comfortable and in control’ about ‘matters of detail’ and ‘broader issues’, ‘but as soon as I try to make progress, step by step, toward completing the work I feel I’m lost in a desert without trees or shelter’. Some three years earlier he had said that he

felt unhappy about my botched art, that comes from not being able to allow the manuscripts to ripen; this, in its effect, in terms of what is bequeathed to the world, is beyond the reach of any kind of excuse. Because I do not know what will happen, I weave the same words around every move ... and this is like a thick mixture, carefully applied, though its constituents are just a little different in each passage.

‘Not being able to allow’ seems to mean two things. The manuscripts can’t ripen because ripeness is not for them, would contradict the principle of open, shifting possibilities which is their narrative and philosophical ground. And they can’t ripen because they have already been plucked, published in part, and so are beyond the reach of extensive re-editing. ‘But if only it had not yet been printed, and there was still an opportunity for cutting and tying together.’ Two volumes of The Man without Qualities were printed in 1930 and 1932, representing Parts I and II of the total scheme, and a substantial portion of Part III. Musil later gave 20 more chapters of Part III to the printers and revised them in galleys but then withdrew them. Burton Pike, an eminent Musil scholar and the translator of this material into English, nicely says these chapters ‘were intended to continue’ Part III ‘but not conclude it’. A brief Part IV, ironically called ‘A Kind of End’, was projected but not written. Musil, born in Klagenfurt, Austria in 1880, died in Geneva in 1942. He had left Austria in 1938, the same year in which The Man without Qualities was banned by the National Socialists.

‘I have never taken anything beyond the opening stages,’ Musil writes late in his life, but then adds, with devastating fidelity to whatever it was in him which devalued the idea of completion: ‘I have finished the books that have the scars to show for it’. He is doubtless thinking of his earlier novel, The Confusions of Young Törless (1906), and two collections of stories, Unions (1911) and Three Women (1924). Perhaps also of his plays, The Enthusiasts (1921) and Vinzenz and the Girlfriend of Important Men (1924), and a great many articles and essays. He would like now to finish his great novel, but he has come to regard all finishing as a wounding of what might have been and can no longer imagine an end that wouldn’t also be a wreck. He could finish, we might say, but he can’t want to. And he devises a brilliant, and truly desperate strategy.

It occurs to me, that, if there is any chance of redemption, then it should come not by using these notebooks as a source for what I write, because I shall never be able to bring these thoughts to any conclusion, nor even to a state where they are of significance; I must rather write on the subject of these notebooks, judging myself and their content, depicting aims and obstacles ...

  Title: The Forty Notebooks.

  Attitude: that of a man who doesn’t agree even with himself.

Surely every writer who has ever looked over an old notebook has had a small-time version of this fantasy. These notes aren’t bad, we think. They’re better written, closer to the first instigation or impulse than what we’re solemnly writing now. Maybe they can be part of the work itself; maybe we’ve already written half of it. But of course we don’t all do this with our life’s work.

‘These notebooks’, in Musil’s case, are what we are reading under the title of Diaries. Published in German as Tagebücher, they are sometimes diaries, and said to be so (‘Today I’m beginning a diary’). Sometimes they are said not to be diaries (‘I don’t want here to attempt once more to keep a diary’), and what they always, plenteously are, are notebooks, Hefte. There were 40 of them, and six of them have been lost. The German edition omits a further six for various reasons (because they contain only notes on reading, or draft material for novels, or an index, and one of them is by Musil’s wife Martha). This English edition, admirably translated, is said to offer about two-fifths of what is available in German. Both editions print their selections chronologically, although Musil himself had numbered the notebooks differently, according to thematic preoccupations of his own. Some of them had titles, like ‘Clear-Out’ or ‘The Twenty Works’ or ‘Essays’.

In the notebooks we see Musil getting on with his life and reflecting, insistently, on the turbulent politics of the time he was living through. ‘In the morning the weather was overcast. In the afternoon we went to the cinema.’ ‘On Tuesday we went with Lukács to the café.’ ‘Yesterday before our meal we spent one and half hours walking in the Prater.’ Musil, who himself was soon to serve in the Army, suggests that with the outbreak of war in 1914, ‘psychopaths are in their element, live their lives to the full.’ He notes, sometime after 1933, that ‘executioner posts were advertised in Prague, Budapest, Vienna ... Among the applicants a large number of academics, bank officials, former officers.’ On Chamberlain’s claim to have saved ‘peace morality’, Musil mordantly comments: ‘It is not the role of a statesman to save “peace morality” but rather – if this is what he wants – to save peace itself.’ Hitler, Musil says, is ‘a person who has turned into an emotion, an emotion that can speak’. ‘Those who profess to understand people are so dreadfully blatant,’ Musil remarks, adding: ‘and – they are usually right.’

Musil remembers his parents, old flames, old sensations. ‘I recollect vividly a ... memory attached to smell: that of the chinchilla fur that belonged to my mother. A smell like snow in the air mingled with a little camphor. I believe that there is a sexual element in this memory although I cannot call to mind anything at all that might bear on this. According to the nuance of my memory of the fur it must have been some kind of desire.’

He conjures up moments in his childhood and youth, often with astonishing, bitter clarity, almost as if he were a character in Beckett. ‘The boy’ here is Musil himself.

Walk; field of stubble (I can still remember a stream with willows and ‘dog violets’); the boy five years old at most; had apparently been disobedient and bad-tempered; had gone into the water with his shoes or something of the kind; as punishment, had to go on walking barefoot; some kind of memory that pricks the soles of the feet; at home the solemn punishment. A cane is soaked in water; Papa extraordinarily polite and serious – I believe he was almost weeping when he gave me his warning, and the whole affair was rather elaborate ... The boy did not offer any resistance, Papa simply convinced him. No memory of pain, no screaming out. Probably bit back tears, probably, too, a very mild caning. But what horror!

Above all Musil thinks about his fiction, plans and replans it, writes his way towards it. He worries about ‘the lack of clarity which looms so large in my life’. ‘It is hardly right to call me an unclear thinker, but nor am I a clear thinker. Expressing this indulgently: the capacity to clarify is well-developed, but the mists that obscure what needs clarifying lift only for points of individual detail.’ His staunch moral scepticism brings him insights which feed directly into his novel. ‘Have the ideals of the 19th century ... collapsed? No, it is the human being who has collapsed under the ideals!’ ‘Germany’s collapse was not brought about by her immoral, but by her moral, citizens. Morality was not undermined but proved to be hollow.’ ‘Our period offers an analogy with the religious movements of the 16th century, but here it is non-religious belief that is disintegrating within it.’

The notebooks also underscore the large-scale historical ambition of The Man without Qualities, its attempt to dissect what Musil calls ‘these times’, to make what he describes as ‘an ideological image of the times’. ‘This grotesque Austria,’ he says, anticipating a famous chapter in his novel, ‘is nothing but a particularly clear-cut case of the modern world.’ A clear-cut case of delusion, he means, where a kind of terminal modernity is both denied and suffered. In 1913, the year in which the novel is set, the Dual Monarchy is planning a great celebration for 1918. No one knows war is coming, and with it the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire itself. As Nicholas Spice said, writing about the novel a year and a half or so ago (LRB, 16 October 1997), it is part of its genius to make us almost forget the catastrophe which hangs over it. ‘Almost but not quite: we experience the unreal and troubled somnolence of the characters, but the knowledge of what is to come laps like a blackness at the edges of the imagination.’

‘I want to develop an image of the world,’ Musil writes in the notebooks, ‘the real background, in order to be able to unfold my unreality before it. I observe life since 1880 ...’ The date of this note is around 1919, and Musil’s main endeavour slowly turned into something like the reverse of this programme: the apparent unreality of the indisputably historical world became a background for the alternative realities his characters so passionately sought. A seemingly casual remark tells us much of this story. Thinking of the revolutionaries who also want ‘an “other” human being’, he says he is grateful for their ‘holy ardour’, but then adds: ‘they believe that the new human being is merely an old one who has to be set free.’ Whereas Musil believes ... Much of his late, unfinished writing concerns his own version of the new human being, an unrealised possibility that Musil wants to believe is more than a fantasy. ‘Many things are capable of reality and the world that do not occur in a particular reality or world,’ Musil’s character thinks in one of the posthumously published chapters of The Man without Qualities. ‘Ulrich was not in the least minded to consider ... the world an illusion, and yet it seemed to him admissible to speak not only of an altered picture of the world but also of another world, if instead of the tangible emotion that serves adaptation to the world some other emotion predominates.’ These thoughts occur in the context of a heady romance between Ulrich and his sister Agathe, figures for the new human being. The argument, I take it, is that if practical, adaptative emotions are replaced by others, we do not simply, as it may seem, withdraw from the world. We change it, or it changes with us.

I don’t know how far we can go with Musil down this road, or how far he himself, ever the target of his own irony, believed we could go. But the mode of thinking shown here, what Musil elsewhere calls the gesture rather than the content of the thought, is entirely consistent with his central preoccupations, and invites us to think again about this career which looked, even to its subject, like a vast and exemplary failure.

First, we need to register the weird, addictive pleasure (for some) of reading The Man without Qualities. It’s rather like reading Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. After worrying quite a bit about plot and meaning and when things are going to get moving, you let go and just hang out with the characters, inhabit their world and their arguments and their idiocies pretty much as they do. You begin to read in what Walter Benjamin would call a state of distraction, rather than with your habitual concentration. Instead of being afraid of missing something you start enjoying what may be irrelevant, you lose all track of what relevance might mean. It’s true, as Nicholas Spice says, that you can get bogged down in the book and feel defeated by it, but that’s if you think it might be going somewhere, and if you take its inability even to look as if it might end as a reflection of the grotesque and helpless Austrian Empire which is in turn a reflection of the modern world. I’ve had that feeling, but the experience of my most recent reading was different, perhaps because I was waiting to get bogged down. I found myself saying I would read just one more chapter then quit. Then I read another chapter, and made the same promise. Now I’m all the way into the drafts and variants, and still trying to stop.

It’s true that Musil thought he talked too much, so to speak. Comparing himself with Tolstoy, he says: ‘My particular danger is to get caught up in theory.’ He is ‘depressed about the way the novel is overburdened with essayistic material that is too fluid and does not stick’. And he does get caught up in theory, he does overburden his novel with essayistic material, no doubt about it. But the failure lies not in Musil’s unwillingness to submit to the novel form but in his inability to see that he had already largely invented another genre, where the talk was part of the weather. He did see this of course, intermittently, but the prestige of the full-blown novel still haunted him as it does not need to haunt us. His own idea of what he calls the essay might have freed him from his depression, except that his irony would scarcely have allowed him to accept his escape.

We are reading many things when we read The Man without Qualities: a great unfinished satirical novel, a great unfinished historical novel, a powerful psychological novel which gets lost in a narrative desert, a novel that isn’t great or powerful at all because it cannot bear the weight of its own anxieties. All these are there, although not in equal quantities. But we are also reading a magnificent essay in the form of fiction, like Proust’s Contre Sainte-Beuve, only a lot funnier. An essay, Musil says in the note-books, is the attempt ‘to follow my thinking out beyond the border of those things that, whatever the circumstances, I could justify’. ‘Whatever the circumstances’ is wonderful, an unmistakable sign of the sheer extravagance of the intellectual adventure. A little later Musil writes of ‘the hero of these thoughts’, a person who is neither simply the writer himself nor a delegated fictional character but a kind of semi-fictional short-cut to an idea in the making. The essay, we might say, is the place where thoughts can have a hero – as distinct from novels, where heroes and others just have thoughts. When Musil says that Thomas Mann and others ‘write for people who are there’, while he himself writes ‘for people who aren’t there’, he is being witty and mean and feeling a little sorry for himself. But it is a condition of the invention of a new form that the people aren’t there yet – and in this case, even Musil wasn’t quite there.

Let me briefly illustrate the fun, before I fail to say a last word about the essay. Ulrich’s mistress is a person who ‘could utter the words “truth, goodness and beauty” as often and as casually as someone else might say “Thursday” ’. The chief executive of an Austrian bank has ‘the composed face of a middle-class government minister, in which the hardness of money was at most barely visible somewhere far back in the eyes. His fingers hung down like flags in a calm, as though they had never in their life had to carry out the hasty movements with which an apprentice bank teller counts his cash.’ ‘What use will it be on the Day of Judgment, when all human achievements are weighed, to offer up three articles on formic acid or even thirty? On the other hand, what do we know of the Day of Judgment if we do not even know what may have become of formic acid by then?’ ‘She had nothing but her pride, and since her pride had nothing to be proud about, it was only a rolled-up propriety bristling with feelers of sensitivity.’ There is stuff like this on virtually every page, the reflection of an intelligence faultlessly managing to evoke the grounds of its amusement at the world. The wit does get a little chilly in the long run, and Ulrich, like his creator, has a strange capacity for self-satisfaction alongside his gift for self-criticism. But the writing never stops being funny and illuminating, and we’d be lost if we had to approve of writers in order to keep reading them.

Ulrich is a fully developed character in a novel and the hero of a whole world of thoughts, and he, too, is interested in the essay as a metaphor, derives a way of living from an amalgamation of the literary form with the etymology of the word. ‘It was more or less in the way an essay, in the sequence of its paragraphs, explores a thing from many sides without wholly encompassing it – for a thing wholly encompassed suddenly loses its scope and melts down to a concept – that he believed he could most rightly survey and handle the world and his own life.’

But the essay, for Ulrich, ‘is not a provisional or incidental expression of conviction capable of being elevated to a truth under more favourable circumstances’. It is, although Musil himself doesn’t quite say this, a refusal of this elevation, and a form of fidelity to circumstances (‘whatever the circumstances’) before they change and allow us to rewrite our experience. ‘An essay is rather the unique and unalterable form assumed by a person’s inner life in a decisive thought.’ It will then, if we are lucky, be followed by another unique and unalterable form, and then another, always falling short of the meltdown to a concept.

This is an engaging model, and has all kinds of echoes in modern philosophy and literature, from Wittgenstein and Joyce to Derrida and Calvino. But it has its drawbacks, and Musil is clear about them. An essayist, as Musil calls Ulrich, is not going to be a person of deep commitments – Musil writes of his character’s ‘arrogance, ruthlessness and negligence’ among his other virtues – but we wouldn’t expect him to be. More disturbing is the fact that you can’t tell, when you set out beyond the border of what you could justify, where you will end up or if you will end at all. This is not a reason for not setting out, but it is a reason for thinking twice about the journey, and wondering if you’re the right person for it.

There have been more than a few such essayists, masters of the inner hovering life, but there would be no point in naming them. Their domain lies between religion and knowledge, between example and doctrine, between amor intellectualis and poetry; they are saints with and without religion, and sometimes they are also simply men on an adventure who have gone astray.