Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Man Without Qualities

I spent far too much time tonight making a pizza to write a proper post, but I can at least share a couple of standout passages from The Man Without Qualities (1930). First, an arresting image from a description of Bonodea, the past and future love of Ulrich, the book's focus (and Robert Musil's stand-in):
She was once again the dear old Bonadea whose curls hung down over her none-too-wise brow or were swept back from it, depending on the dictates of fashion, and in whose eyes there was always something reminiscent of the air rising above a fire.
That sort of piercing image--so perfect as to bring the reader up short--turns up reliably in The Man Without Qualities, and, along with a plethora of aphoristic expressions, completely makes up for the occasional longuers of Ulrich's indecisive overthinking. To be fair, Musil himself seems to know that Ulrich's mental and emotional crises needs a gentle deflation at times. During what Ulrich views as "the worst crisis of his life," which sees him boiling the entire question of his life down to,
A man who wants the truth becomes a scholar; a man who wants to give free play to his subjectivity may become a writer; but what should a man do who wants something in between?
--Musil, while clearly supportive of Ulrich's quest, offers this description:
If one wants to imagine how such a man lives when he is alone, the most that can be said is that at night his lighted windows afford a view of his room, where his used thoughts sit around like clients in the waiting room of a lawyer with whom they are dissatisfied.
And then there's the interleavings of satire, aimed at all sorts of humbuggery and self-importance in the ruling class of prewar Vienna. Here's Section Chief Tuzzi, an official in the foreign affairs ministry:
Tuzzi was laconic on principle. He felt that pun and the like, even if one could not do entirely without them in witty conversation, had better not be too good, because that would be middle-class.
I love the offering of puns as the antithesis of laconicism, as if more expansive conversation doesn't even exist beyond wordplay. Or take this account of Ulrich's Aunt Jane's whispered-about first husband:
He had of course been an artist, although, because of the rotten luck of small-town, provincial circumstances, only a photographer. But a short time after they were married he was already running up debts like a genius and drinking furiously. Aunt Jane made scarifices for him, she fetched him home from the tavern, she wept in secret and openly at his knees. He looked like a genius, with an imperious mouth and flamboyant hair, and if Aunt Jane had been able to infect him with the passion of her despair, he would have become, with his disastrous vices, as great as Lord Byron.
By informing us that Aunt Jane "wept in secret and openly at his knees," Musil transforms what could be straight comedy into something greater, reminding us that what is ridiculous to us remains all too real to those we're chuckling at. He doesn't manage that synthesis as often as Proust, and the various strands of thought in the book overall don't cohere as organically as Proust's themes--but at times he can be both as funny and as perceptive. A book this capacious also has room for occasional flights of beautifully observed visual detail, and I'll close with one. To end a chapter that has seen Walter and Clarissa, married friends of Ulrich, engaged in a brutal verbal battle, Musil essentially borrows a move from cinema, pulling the camera back to reveal the darkening room, suffused with emotion, as the pair quietly feels the unexpectedly renewed power of their union:
Dusk had fallen. The room was black. The piano was black. The silhouettes of two people who loved each other were black. Clarisse's eyes gleamed in the dark, kindled like a light, and in Walter's mouth, restless with pain, the enamel on a tooth shone like ivory. Regardless of the greatest affairs of state occurring in the world outside, and despite its vexations, this seemed to be one of those moments for which God had created the earth.

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