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.

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