Thursday, November 08, 2012

ON THE AVENUES: The sound of Musil.

ON THE AVENUES: The sound of Musil.

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

Regular readers of this column know that at periodic intervals, I enjoy reviewing books I’ve read. They also may have noticed a recent absence of such reviews.

This saddens me. Perhaps my earliest childhood memory is looking at the illustrations in the volumes of our Compton’s Encyclopedias, and trying to teach myself to read. I’ve been reading ever since, and have continued to do so in 2012, albeit less often than I should, and I come before you today readily equipped with excuses as to why this has been the case.

The cruelest irony occurs each spring, when numerous publications release their lists of summertime reading. I scream aloud. Presumably this custom owes to normal readers having the time to take actual holidays and relax, but for me, warm weather brings with the fervent clamor of NABC’s beer and brewery event season, generally set amid the extended daylight of the great outdoors.

Accordingly, opportunities to improve the mind steadily dwindle from the period of May through October. My usual routine during these long summer hours is to stagger to bed, either exhausted or intoxicated, often both, and managing perhaps ten pages before sleep quickly overtakes me.

But nighttime never was the best reading time for me, anyway. I’ve always been a morning person, and my quality cerebral hours occur before lunch. Not unexpectedly, these tend to be taken up with business matters (in addition to the expected boring reluctant capitalist’s minutiae, I remain my company’s chief propagandist) and personal writing. The NA Confidential blog doesn’t lay out itself, and I have ongoing column commitments at Food & Dining magazine and Louisville Beer Dot Com.

After all, you’re fully entitled to my opinion.

In spite of it all, I persevere. Recreational reading has continued when time and coherence have permitted, which brings me to my final qualification: Seemingly, the whole year has been spent reading just one novel: Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities,” which proceeds over the course of two massive paperbacks. The first volume of 700 pages was cracked in June and finished in September, and currently I’m only a dozen chapters from a stopping point in the second one.

In terms of reading, you’re probably already in trouble when books are measured by page counts rather than pleasure or ideas, but there are times when an odometer is a lifeline, because reading Musil’s masterpiece has been akin to bicycling across Siberia without a paddle.


Robert Musil (1880-1942) was an Austrian writer, and “The Man Without Qualities” is his best known work. Amazingly, given its epic length, the novel was not finished during Musil’s lifetime. This means the translation I’m reading may or may not be definitive, because obviously the author was no longer alive to explain his literary intent.

Previous editions of the novel did not include finished chapters withdrawn by the author, and the most recent translation includes these, as well as numerous notes and sketches, which I plan on skipping.

Knowing all this suggests a slight sensation of dread. Will the reader trudge through these many difficult pages, only to find in the end that the identity of the murderer never is revealed?

In Musil’s case the answer is no; fortunately, the murderer’s identity is revealed quite early: He’s an itinerant carpenter named Moosbrugger. Unfortunately, he also is one of at least two dozen recurring characters, the majority of them upper class Viennese, with a few “downstairs” servants thrown in.

As Moosbrugger languishes in jail in late 1913, his story resurfaces periodically as the narrative unfolds, and we get to know these people. They have been brought together for a very important project, planning a gala celebration of their Emperor Franz Joseph’s 70th year on the throne, which slated to occur in 1918.

Of course, we know all too well that this anniversary will not take place. Franz Joseph died at 86 in 1916, halfway through the inexcusable conflagration his empire did so much to initiate, and consequently, the reader’s omniscience colors every perception, as Musil no doubt intended (he began writing the novel in 1921). However, this is not an exercise in nostalgia, with requisite fin de siècle, La Belle Époque or Downton Abbey shadings.

In fact, the one abiding memory I’ll have to keep after reading “The Man Without Qualities” is the clearly delineated contrast between the stilted, convention-bound tradition of the Austro-Hungarian empire at sunset, and the highly modernist sensibility of the characters inhabiting Musil’s pages. There are subtle hints, but no suggestion of the fratricidal tidal wave to come, which will sweep away a glorious but doomed world -- except that it’s not altogether glorious for the novel’s central characters.

Rather, they are immersed in their own interior worlds, seeking to digest supercharged scientific and intellectual advances amid a framework of archaic social norms. The omniscient, again: Much of the empire’s purpose at this point in time is to ignore the advance of knowledge as a threat fully at odds with the archaic, seeing as the archaic is all the glue remaining to hold together disparate elements.

That said, the unlikely focal point of the story is Ulrich, a mathematician and former imperial cavalryman in his early thirties, seemingly paralyzed into inaction, unable to formulate aims or make sense of his station in life.

Ulrich endlessly ruminates, pondering the meaning of existence and his own inability to fathom it. As he does, the machinations of his friends and acquaintances swirl around him, with their hopes and schemes strangely projected onto his meticulously thoughtful amorphousness. Other men look to him as accomplice and ally, both for direction and absolution, and most of the women are interested in him sexually even if little actual consummation is achieved.

Overall, very little actually happens. Is Ulrich a non-catatonic forerunner of Jerzy Kosiński's Chance the Gardener, as immortalized by the actor Peter Sellers in the film version of “Being There”? The answer quite possibly depends on your personal view of Kosiński, who fought numerous allegations of plagiarism during his lifetime.

If Jerry Seinfeld’s eponymous creation was a television show about nothing, then so is Musil’s novel, six decades before. We all muddle through, and the absence of a real point sometimes is the entire point.

Must there even be a point?

No comments: