“Our love, tell me, what is it?” Claudine asks this heavy, direct, honest, complex question in a letter to her husband. She is on a short trip to see her daughter, who was conceived during a brief affair with a dentist, at boarding school but is snowed in at her lodgings. There are so many layers to the philosophical language of Musil’s stream-of-conscious narrative; but the one that stood out to me the most was his reflection on love, and how we experience another person through the self and internalize emotions that are created through this experience.
Musil explores the fact that Love is such a complex human emotion, one that can oftentimes be confused or mixed with pity, nostalgia or physical desire. The opening scene in the book depicts Claudine and her husband as quietly content and presumably in love—enjoying a cup of tea, discussing a book, relaxing in their home. But on her journey, as she leaves her husband behind and encounters another man on her trip she reflects on this love that, up until now it seems, she has not questioned. The translation of such a complex text could not have been easy; Genese Grill’s rendering of Musil was wonderful to contemplate and absorb:
So, they drove on, close to each other, in the deepening dusk. And her thoughts began to take on that softly forward-urging restlessness again. She tried to convince herself that it was just a delusion brought on by the confusing interior stillness of this suddenly lonely amid strangers; and sometimes she believed that it was just the wind, in whose stiff, glowing coldness she was wrapped, which made her frozen and submissive; but other times it seemed to her that her husband, strangely, was very close to her again, and that this weakness and sensuality was nothing more than a wonderfully blissful manifestation of their love.
As she is drawn closer to a man on her journey simply known as the “commissioner” these thoughts of her husband and her love for him as well as her life before her marriage keep flashing through her mind.
She felt that she could never again belong to a strange man. And precisely there, precisely simultaneous with this revulsion towards other men, with this mysterious yearning for only one, she felt—as if on a second, deeper level—a prostration, a dizziness, perhaps a presentiment of human uncertainty, perhaps she was afraid of herself; perhaps it was only an elusive, meaningless, diffuse desire that the other man would come, and her anxiety flowed through her, hot and cold, spurning on a destructive desire.
And when she is alone at night:
And then it came to her suddenly, from out of that time—the way that this terrible defenselessness of her existence, hiding behind the drams, far off, ungraspable, merely imaginary, was not living a second life—a calling, a shimmer of nostalgia, a never-before-felt softness, a sensation of I, that—stripped bare by the terrifying irredeemable fact of her fate, naked, disrobed, divested of herself—longed, drunkenly, for increasingly—debased debilitation. She got lost in it, strangely confused by its aimless tenderness, but this fragment of love that sought its own completion.
Claudine’s thoughts are blurred to the point that I felt they could equally apply to her relationship with her husband, her love affairs before her marriage, or her current situation with the commissioner. This fragment of love that sought its own completion. This last sentence, in particular, has given me much to think about.
I found Claudine’s response jarring when the commissioner asks her if she loves her husband: “The absurdity in this prodding, his assumption of certainty, did not escape her, and she said, “No; no, I don’t love him at all,” with trembling and resolution.” She obviously has some love for her husband, so why tell this lie? The hint to this, I think, comes a few pages later:
And then the cryptic thought struck her: somewhere among all these people there was one, one who was not quite right for her, but who was different; she could have made herself fit with him and would never have know anything about the person she was today. For feelings only live in a long chain of other feelings, holding on to each other, and it is just a matter of whether one link of life arranges itself—without any gap in between—-next to another, and there of hundreds of ways this can happen. And then for the first time since falling in love, the thought shot through her: it is chance; it becomes real through some chance or other and then one holds fast to it.
I felt as though Claudine came to the realization that the “completion” (or “perfection” in other translations) of love is never possible. She never sends that letter I quoted to her husband. She has to learn for herself that if love is not returned—in word, in action, in gesture—it will die out. Sometimes it suffers a long, painful death. But, unless it is tended to and nurtured, it will indeed die out.