In an article for The Kenyon Review in which he discusses the five short works by Musil, Frank Kermode writes, “All have erotic themes and most are concerned with female eroticism and with love as a means to some kind of knowledge.” And “To study the behavior of people in love is, for Musil, is to study the human situation at its quick. Even when there is only delighted animality, or when, as in ‘Tonka,’ there is an avowed absence of love and of intellectual communion, in a milieu of poverty and disease, sex remains the central ground for Musil’s study of the potentialities of human consciousness.”
In “The Temptation of Quiet Veronica” the title character is grasping at thoughts of love, self, connection and sexual desire but her narrative is much more enigmatic, stream-of-consciousness, and fractured than the other story in the Unions collection: “Was this love? It was a wandering in her, something that attracted her. She herself did not know. It was like walking along a path, seemingly towards a goal, with a slow expectation that makes one’s steps hesitate, before—sometime or other—one suddenly finds and recognizes an entirely different path.”
Veronica lives in a boarding house with her aunt and two men, Demeter and Johannes. In her interactions with these two men, there is a constant, subtle tension and eroticism that is woven throughout the short text. The timeframe of the story is also purposely confusing and broken—sometimes Veronica is thinking about events that took place during her teenage years and sometimes she is referring to herself in the present. Veronica keeps alluding to a lost memory which she is trying to recover and believes that her interactions with Johannes might help her recover this memory: “But, beyond this, she could not find the memory, and it unsettled her, and she suffered, because, whenever she believed she was close to it, it was obscured again by the thought of an animal.”
When she is free of Johannes, though, and experiences a sleepless night, she comes closer to her true self and her lost memory. Musil’s language, in Genese Grill’s brilliant translation, is sublime, poetic, philosophical. For me it is the most outstanding part of this extraordinary text:
Soul is something like this when one is on an uncertain quest. Veronica had been afraid of one love her whole dark long life and had longed for another one; in dreams it is sometimes that way, the way she longed for it. The things that happen enter with their whole strength, large and awkward, and yet like something that is already inside one. It hurts, but it is like when one hurts one’s self; it is humiliating, but the humiliation flies away like a homeless cloud and no one is there to see it; the humiliation flies away like the pleasure of a dark cloud…
The symbolism, metaphors and language in this novella demand multiple rereads. As I spend the rest of the spring and the summer making my way through Musil’s writing I will, no doubt, return to this short work many times.