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Robert Musil Diaries 1899-1941.

Flypaper for ghosts

Robert Musil Diaries 1899-1941. Translated by Philip Payne. Basic Books, 607 pages, $40

Robert Musil was a truculent citizen of a vanished empire. Old Austria may have been defunct after 1918 but in Musil's excoriating imagination it lived on with perhaps even more hectic exuberance than it once had lived. This was not due to nostalgia on his part. To those who questioned him, he spoke of his homeland as of a world that had utterly ceased to exist (post-Habsburg Austria not, apparently, deserving mention--though Musil did argue against the Anschluss). One of his admiring interlocutors, the Swiss historian and diplomat Carl J. Burckhardt, who met Musil in Geneva at the beginning of World War Two, quickly realized that he, and other well-wishers like himself, "had no real inkling of the Double Monarchy that Musil carried in his heart." Burckhardt found it "spooky" (unheimlich) to hear Musil converse of Austria, in its "astounding depth and breadth," as "of something dead." In another sense, however, "Old Austria" remained alive only as long as Musil's magnum opus, the gigantic novel The Man without Qualities, remained unfinished.(1) This, in fact, rather than any practical or technical exigency, seems to me the profounder reason as to why Musil could never manage to bring his great work to completion. To conclude the novel was to screw the coffinlid definitively into place on the world it had summoned up.

To be sure, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was lost merely in actuality. In the imagination, whose frontiers are nothing if not malleable, Musil's shadow empire flourished apace. In an early chapter of The Man without Qualities, Musil distinguishes between "the sense of reality" (Wirklichkeitssinn) and "the sense of possibility" (Moglichkeitssinn). Musil himself seems to have possessed a supremely elastic sense of the possible; this perhaps accounts for the various mutually exclusive endings to the novel that he left among his papers. Conversely, of course, it might be argued that he suffered from a drastically diminished sense of the impossible; even Methusaleh, with ten times his span of years, would have missed the deadline in bringing Musil's novel, as projected, to a close. Before his death in 1942, at the comparatively young age of sixty-two, Musil estimated that he would need another twenty years to conclude his epic. I doubt this. If Musil were alive today, he would still be obsessively adding new chapters, new characters, and further alternative endings to a novel by then too long even to be perused in a single lifetime.

The same strange melange of vehement emotion coupled with dry scientific curiosity that makes his novel so idiosyncratic predominates as well in Musil's diaries, now translated for the first time into English, albeit in much abridged form. In the original German, the Tagebucher take up 1,026 pages and are accompanied by another, even heftier volume of annotations; the new English translation gives us 420 pages, plus notes and commentary, or less than half of what Musil so compulsively jotted down over a forty-three-year period.

At his death Musil's diaries comprised forty notebooks, six of which have since been lost (two others were stolen but had been previously photocopied). Like Kafka, Musil wrote the diaries for his own use; they are genuine working notebooks, in which he recorded drafts of chapters or scenes, plot outlines, stray aphorisms snagged in passing, musings on dreams, autobiographical snippets, frequent notes on bizarre sexual phenomena (there is "a woman who runs an inn in Carinthia and is well known for her intimate relationship with her mastiff"), lists of books read or to be read, descriptions of the natural world, especially sunsets and housefronts, along with numerous serendipitous observations on nearly all imaginable topics. The diaries also served as commonplace books in which Musil excerpted passages from favorite authors. Certain of the authors cited are predictable influences (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche), others less so (Emerson, Maeterlinck). More pertinently, there are many entries that bear on Musil's work in progress, not only The Man without Qualities, but the masterful earlier stories and the plays as well. The diaries also contain sketches and outlines of works Musil projected but never wrote, such as his satire on the Prussian Academy of Sciences to be entitled "The Academy of Pretensionville" (or "Conceit City," as the Diaries render Die Akademie von Dunkelshausen); this is the same Prussian Academy that rejected Musil for membership because he was "too intelligent to be a true creative writer"! We learn as well of an autobiographical work to be called The Archivist, drawing on Musil's unhappy experience as a librarian. After only three weeks in the library of the Technical University in Vienna, he confided to his diary that the work there was "unbearable, murderous" (unertraglich, morderisch). This in turn may remind us, so intertwined are Musil's actual experiences and his fictional recreations of them, of the farcical scene in The Man without Qualities when the boisterous General Stumm von Bordwehr asks for reference assistance in the State Library and is treated to a crash course in library science. There is a parsimony in Musil's art; as the Diaries make plain, nothing went to waste, all could be recycled, sometimes (as we shall see below) over decades.

It is impossible in a brief review to give more than a cursory sense of the riches to be found in these pages. For example, throughout the Diaries the reader comes upon striking aphorisms. Musil was justly proud of these and even compiled a separate collection of his own. Sometimes his pronouncements have a lyrical elegance, as when he notes that "in the hour of misfortune we are seized by a whirlwind that has taken years to weave." (In the German, the perfectly positioned alliteration between "whirlwind" and "weave"--Wirbel and gewebt worden--gives the dictum the force of verse, and the translation echoes this.) His remarks on poetry, about which Musil was unusually acute, often take this laconic form, as when he writes: "What the poem is about is that which can only be expressed in the poem." (So much for literary criticism!) Elsewhere an aphorism appears to be a gloss on an earlier statement. When Musil writes "From everywhere it is just a single step into the metaphysical," he seems to be giving a slight, almost technical twist to the saying by Hugo von Hofmannsthal (one of the few Austrian writers he admired), "Each subject-matter at each point leads to the Infinite."

Alongside bons mots more personal passages emerge. In one entry, Musil writes: "Couldn't sleep until around three o'clock at night. Read Grillparzer's autobiography." (Thereby confirming the use to which generations of well-rested Austrians have put their national poet's Life.) In other sections Musil analyzes himself, on occasion critically. Early on, for example, he notes that "I am arrogant, dismissive, reticent, refined, happy." The last adjective startles but rings true; despite all his hardships Musil seems to have enjoyed and maintained an enviable robustness. Others noticed this and commented upon it; Elias Canetti for one attributed it to Musil's regimen of exercise which he maintained with military discipline to the day of his death. Even about his work, and its apparent failure to win him acclaim, Musil can be surprisingly objective; in the year before his death he comments that his work has not drawn a public because "all my creations fail to say anything like: `Now you simply must listen to this!'" Admittedly, such moments of self-exposure are rare in these Diaries. Unlike Baudelaire, Musil was not one to display his coeur mis a nu. In a grand maxim of 1910 he can proclaim that "the author should only show himself in the formal ministerial dress of his characters." In his Diaries, the cummerbund may be loosened and the ascot unknotted, but Musil remains throughout in "formal dress."

This does not mean, of course, that Musil's Diaries are not alive with human interest, including that which pertains most personally to their author. One reminiscence, of seeing his mother naked when he was eighteen or nineteen, still throbs with the emotion he experienced:
 She must have been at that time a little over 40 years of age and she was
 very white and full and beautifully made. Although to this day it fills me
 with a certain appreciation, far more vivid is the shame-ridden and, I
 believe, angry horror that transfixed me then.

(In reading this we are reminded of the significance that incest assumes in the later parts of The Man without Qualities.)

An especially touching trait, because it reveals a weakness in this otherwise armor-plated individualist, occurs throughout in connection with Thomas Mann. Musil loathed Mann but, as we read, it quickly becomes clear that his loathing was inspired by Mann's success rather than by any particular misdeed. Over the years, Mann comes to fill the role of Musil's "evil twin," for whatever debacle or catastrophe Musil suffers, Mann is sure to be simultaneously enjoying some surfeit of glory, some yet richer accolade. Even when Mann was compelled to exile himself from Nazi Germany, Musil noted with envious wonder, he landed not merely on his feet but garnered ever greater affluence and acclaim; in the late 1930s, the Musils by contrast eked out a hand-to-mouth existence under often humiliating conditions first in Austria, later in Switzerland. The fact that Mann wished Musil well--worse, that he presumed to compliment him--served only to enrage Musil more. The irony in all this was, of course, that Mann was the only living contemporary writer of Musil's rank as a novelist, and both knew this, even if neither would admit it. Mann could not be loftily dismissed like, say, Hermann Broch, whose writings Musil disdained to mention, let alone read (the list of those whose work Musil despised is dismally long and includes Joyce as well). His ambivalence to Mann occurs early in the Diaries; in 1905, he comments of Buddenbrooks that it is "very fine and boring; perhaps an al fresco masterpiece, but boring; in parts, to my surprise, it possesses sovereign power." By contrast, Musil flits only sporadically through Mann's diaries of the time, most often in connection with what Mann delicately termed "troublesome requests," presumably for money or letters of reference.

In his rather mischievous recollections of Musil in The Play of the Eyes, Elias Canetti reports that whenever he was informed that someone had praised The Man without Qualities, Musil's "first question was `Whom else does he praise?'" In the Diaries, Musil permits himself occasional outbursts as when late in life he exclaims, "When I think what successes I have had to watch!" Significantly, by this time he does not include Mann in his list of unworthy successes. Around 1940, after his finances had become more desperate than ever, Musil was heartened by the letters in support of himself he received from the Pen Club in London; among them was a letter from Thomas Mann. Musil comments, "I am touched, particularly by Th. M. to whom I have often been unjust. I am also flattered."

As should be evident by now, this translation of Musil's quite difficult German is not only precise but reads very smoothly too. In addition, the translation and its accompanying apparatus have been keyed to each other almost perfectly; it is an easy matter to move from text to the indispensable annotations. Philip Payne, the translator, has contributed a valuable preface which includes a careful chronology of Musil's life and works. The translation has been edited by Mark Mirsky who also supplies a rambling but perceptive introduction admirably abrim with enthusiasm for Musil and his work. The succinct endnotes elucidate many aspects of the often tangled text and there is a welcome "list of omissions" which not only identifies what has been left out but summarizes the contents of omitted sections. As if this were not enough, there are several black-and-white plates of Musil and his family, as well as a photograph of a manuscript page from one of the original diary notebooks, showing Musil's almost illegible script (and tacitly illustrating why it took Adolf von Frise and his collaborators so long to prepare a complete edition of the Tagebucher). I should add that the book itself has been distinctively and elegantly designed; it is a pleasure to look at and to read.

Sometimes Mr. Payne succeeds too well in turning Musil's German into contemporary English and strikes a false note. To give but one example, the German word Dichtung has no real equivalent in English, but it is certainly not "creative writing," as in the aphorism, "Creative writing is a battle to achieve a higher species of morality." The English term has wholly different associations; it smacks of the writing workshop, a practice Musil would have abominated. The German term properly applies to poetry, but why not "literary creation" or just plain "writing?"

No sooner has Musil delivered himself of a solemn saying than he veers off towards the comical and we are reminded of what a great comic novelist he was; his true predecessor, in my view, was Rabelais who also liked to mingle the essayistic and the farcical, the exquisite and the outrageous. Be that as it may, some of the diary entries are quite funny; for example, under the heading "Boarding-house," Musil describes "a man who always has to whistle when his wife uses the chamber-pot so that the gentleman in the adjoining room doesn't hear it through the connecting door that doesn't shut properly!" Then, as if in compensation, there are intensely lyrical passages, usually of a descriptive nature, which strike the reader as writing Musil undertook purely for its own sake, out of pleasure in language; sometimes these are astute as well as beautiful:
 Windows after sunset. They look as if gold foil has been stuck onto their
 inner surfaces; in some of them this has rucked up and formed little
 waves; others look as if they have been covered with brown packing paper.

At other moments, personal recollections mingle with bizarre descriptive passages, as in the following:
 I recollect vividly a second 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.

Such an association, at once raw and raffine, could only come from a writer whose sensibility took shape under the double eagle of Old Austria.

In this vein, the Diaries contain many entries of an erotic or blatantly sexual nature, some of them related to Musil's interest in the figure of Moosbrugger, the Jack the Ripper figure in The Man without Qualities, others testimony to Musil's own intense curiosity about such matters. Musil was fascinated by young girls whom he often observed from afar and described in intimate detail; and there are passages about such nymphets which would have prompted Humbert Humbert to lick his whiskers.

One of the most horrific things Musil noted seems to have haunted him for years. The observation, made in November 1913, when Musil was in his early thirties, concerns nothing more momentous than flypaper, but is an instance of his omnivorous curiosity about small, seemingly inconspicuous things. (The date may be significant; 1913 is the year in which Musil set The Man without Qualities). In his Diaries Musil writes:
 "Tanglefoot" flypaper: one fly has dragged itself to the edge, two legs and
 the head are free but however far it stretches forward it is caught fast by
 the back part of the body and the other legs. Another sits upright, both
 front legs spread out away from the body in a gesture that resembles quite
 closely the wringing of hands.... They are collecting their strength. Then
 they begin to whir with all their might until exhaustion makes them stop.
 Pause for breath; renewed effort. Like a small hammer their tongue gropes
 out. Their head is brown and hairy, as if made from a coconut.

Musil goes on to compare the trapped flies to "crashed aeroplanes" and to "horses that have broken down and died" and to write that the flies exhibited "infinitely tragic gestures like those of humans."

This observation was important enough to Musil that he incorporated it, eleven years later, in his great story of 1924 entitled"Grigia":
 From one of the many long fly-papers trailing from the ceiling a fly had
 dropped in front of him and was lying on its back, poisoned, in the middle
 of one of those pools that the light of the paraffin-lamps made in the
 scarcely perceptible wrinkles in the oilcloth ... the fly made a few
 efforts, each weaker than the last, to turn over.... When death came, the
 dying fly folded its six little legs together, to a point, and kept them
 straight up like that, and then it died in its pale spot of light on the
 oilcloth as in a graveyard of stillness that could not be measured in
 inches or decibels, and which was nevertheless there.

The flypaper reappears yet again in the first part of The Man without Qualities in a brief passage in which people are characterized as stuck in the quotidian as hopelessly as trapped flies.

Finally, in 1936, Musil included a self-standing piece on the same subject in his inimitable Posthumous Papers of a Living Author (the German title, Nachlass zu Lebzeiten, really is untranslatable). It is as though Musil has been rehearsing for over twenty years on the best way to convey to us a tiny scene of horror under our own eyes. In this magnificent and yet appalling piece, the personification of the writhing flies has been taken even further; they are compared to mountain climbers, to sleepers, to "women who attempt to wrest their hands free of a man's fist." Then they "no longer hold themselves up with all their might, but sink a little and at that moment appear totally human." It is striking and significant that the flies only appear "totally human" as they sink. And is not the depiction of the death throes of a society, a depiction all of Musil's work pursues, analogous to this silent battlefield, this massacre in miniature? The way in which Musil in all his evolving descriptions of the ghastly flypaper attributes human attributes to the struggling flies suggests that for him this was a parable, even a living image, of the doomed world he labored so mightily to describe.

(1) See the February 1996 issue for Roger Kimball's superb discussion, "The qualities of Robert Musil."

Eric Ormsby wrote about Jorge Luis Borges in the November 1999 issue.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Ormsby, Eric
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2000
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