Friday, April 15, 2022

A man with qualities

The Austrian author, Robert Musil, died 80 years ago today. His most famous work and one of the masterpieces of 20th century European literature - The Man Without Qualities - preoccupied him for much of the latter part of his life, but even so was never completed. He was an inveterate keeper of notebooks, only a few of which, though, read like conventional diaries.

Musil was born in Klagenfurt, Austria, in 1880, the only son of an engineering professor. He studied at a military academy and then moved to Vienna university where his father taught. Later in his 20s, though, he went to study philosophy and psychology in Berlin. His first novel, published in 1906 (later translated as Confusions of Young Torless), was a great success.

In 1911, Musil married Martha Marcovaldi, an older Jewish woman who had already been married and had children. From that same year until 1914 he worked as a librarian in Vienna. During the war he served in the Austrian army. After being hospitalised in 1916, he edited an army newspaper, and, subsequently, worked in the defence ministry until he was made redundant in the 1920s. Thereafter, he became a full-time writer, achieving some success with plays.

While trying to write what he hoped would become his masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities, Musil fell into financial difficulties; and, in 1929, he suffered a mental breakdown. The first parts of Qualities were published in the early 1930s (but not in English until the late 1950s and early 1960s). He moved again to Berlin in the early 1930s, and then back to Vienna. In 1938, he and his wife fled to Switzerland, where they settled in Geneva. He died on 15 April 1942. For further biographical information see Wikipedia, New World Encyclopedia, or Jerry van Beers’ website on Musil.

Musil kept notebooks for much of his life, but most of these are not recognisably diaries. They were first edited by Adolf Frisé and published in their original German in the early 1980s by Rowohlt (Hamburg). An English translation by Philip Payne followed in 1998 (Basic Books, New York) entitled simply Diaries, 1899-1941.

The chapters in the published book relate to individual notebooks kept by Musil, the highest numbered one being 35 - but there are not 35 notebooks included in Diaries, nor are they all in numerical order. Furthermore, the notebooks rarely reveal material that looks or reads like a conventional diary. There are some dated entries in some of the notebooks, but, for the most part, the contents resemble a writer’s notes not a diary. According to Mark Mirsky, who wrote an introduction for the English edition, the diaries are ‘angry, at times pathetic, but always thinking, aware, vulnerable’ and, through them, thus, ‘Musil lets us approach him’.

November 1913.
‘Waiting: I look at my work. It is motionless; as if of stone. Not without meaning, but the sentences do not move. I have two hours, in round terms, before I can leave. Every fifth minute I look at the clock; it is always less, not than I had estimated but than I hope - as if by some miracle - it will be. I see for the first time the furniture in my room standing quietly there. This way is different from the way one sees five points as a five in a game of cards. The table, the two chairs, the sofa, the cupboard. This is what it must be like for people without ideas when their day’s work is done. An excess of joyful expectation rises in me. An excess of joy like the end of the day on 24 December before everything gets under way.

Someone is whistling on the street, someone says something, goes on by. Many sounds come at the same moment; someone is speaking, in the upper storey someone is playing the piano; the telephone is ringing. (While I write this down, time tears past.)’

2 April 1905
‘Today I’m beginning a diary; I do not usually keep one but I feel a distinct need to do so now. After four years of diffusion it will give me the opportunity to find that line of spiritual development again that I consider to be properly mine. . . I shall try to carry forward into it “banners from a battle that has never been fought.” Thoughts from that time of great upheaval are to be re-examined, sorted through and developed. One or other of my scattered notes is to be taken up in this process but only when it captures my attention again.’

6 January 1930
‘Since the start of the year I’ve been wanting to write things down. Aim: to record how my 50th year of life turns out! But also, in a quite aimless fashion, to record facts. I have become too abstract and would like to use this method to help me retrain as a narrator by paying attention to the circumstances of everyday life.’

8 February 1930
‘Art has to have an immediate effect! This is one of the most dangerous prejudices. Yet it remains a goal that one constantly tries to achieve. After all, it wouldn’t be difficult to analyze what is required of something to have an immediate effect. The most difficult thing about this is somewhat like a meeting. The immediate impression that some people give is that of peace, sublimity, etc., and this is what is demanded of art. People want to be won over from the very first word, etc. This is not completely unjustified but leads to neglect of books that are demonic, Titanic, (unpleasant) and so forth.’

9 March 1930
‘Yesterday evening I had the following train of thought: I’m correcting a passage in the proofs, get stuck, and note down around 5 variants, none of which pleases me. After a walk, the whole thing - which has already upset me - seems a matter of no consequence, and I feel I’ll probably find the right course without difficulty. The same experience, writ large, when one sets aside a completed piece of work for a few weeks. It is evident that one then looks down upon the work, as it were, from on high. What is the psychological significance of this?

In emotional terms, it means freedom from ambivalence. One had started to be uncertain, beset with a host of little vacillations that eventually made a disproportionate impression - very similar to hesitating for too long before going along a dangerous path. One has, so to speak, subjected the situation to emotional overload. One frees oneself by renouncing the situation?

But it appears that an intellectual process takes effect in the same sort of way. An insight that eluded one in the course of the day may come during the night; or, generally, the way a reflection “sits itself down and sorts itself out.” This even seems to be something physiological, for the same thing happens when one learns new movements. In other words switch the brain to a state of rest; introduce spells of relaxation according to the Kogerer method; take one’s mind off things? But at which point? Make oneself indifferent. Clearly this only works when one has come halfway to achieving something.’

26 August 1930
‘This evening I finished [proofreading] the manuscript of Vol. I [of The Man Without Qualities]’.

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 15 April 2012.

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