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A Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil

I’ve spent the last couple of days immersed in Musil’s enormous, 1,400 plus, two volume, unfinished Magnum Opus and have been completely drawn in and captivated by his writing.  My reading experience reminds me, so far, of War and Peace, which I devoured the winter before last in a matter of three weeks.  Musil constantly switches his narrative back and forth among different characters, buildings layers of interest through his third person point-of-view.  He starts, of course, with his main character, Ulrich—the very man without qualities—and then gives us portraits of those with whom Ulrich has contact, from the maid of a distant cousin, to a convicted murder in the news headlines,  to important members of the Austrian government.  What makes an epic book like this, and War and Peace, a truly great piece of literature is the level of riveting detailed that is maintained throughout the writing.

Another initial impression I have from reading the first few hundred pages of A Man without Qualities is what a brilliant and amazing wit Musil possesses.  I didn’t quite detect it, not at this level anyway, from reading his shorter works.  The chapter titles, for instance, are cleverly  funny: Chapter 28 is “A chapter that may be skipped by anyone not particularly impressed by thinking as an occupation” and Chapter 39 is “A man without qualities consists of qualities without a man.”

In addition, when Musil is satirizing upper class society, intellectuals and the Austrian bureaucracy he uses bizarre and hilarious metaphors.  “But even at that time, as one got older and on longer acquaintance with the smokehouse of the mind, in which the world cures the bacon of its daily affairs, one learned to adapt oneself to reality, and a person with a trained mind would finally end up limiting himself to his specialty and spend the rest of his life convinced that the whole of life should perhaps be different, but there was no point in thinking about it. This is more of less how people who follow intellectual pursuits maintain their equilibrium.”  Ulrich has had failed careers as a soldier and an academic mathematician and now, while he tries to decide what he should do with the rest of his life,  he accidentally falls into a governmental position.  Ulrich is appointed to the committee that is planning a celebration of the 70th year of Franz Josef’s reign, a committee which has no real goals, no concrete ideas and isn’t quite sure what to call itself.  Musil’s wit reminds me of Dickens whose novel Little Dorrit, in particular,  is mixed with witty and serious commentary on the ludicrous nature of bureaucracy.

But Musil doesn’t go too far with his humor which would make his characters ridiculous and uninteresting.  Ulrich’s existential crisis and his inability to choose a career cause him to do a great deal of thinking and these passages are some of the most philosophical, and profound, of the novel:

Few people in mid-life really know how they got to be what they are, how they came by their pastimes, their outlook, their wife, their character, profession and successes, but they have the feeling that from this point on nothing much can change.  It might even be fair to say that they were tricked, since nowhere is a sufficient reason to be found why everything should have turned out the way it did; it could just as well have turned out differently; whatever happened was least of all their own doing but depended mostly on all sorts of circumstances, on moods, the life and death of quite different people; these events converged on one, so to speak, only at a given point in time.  In their youth, life lay ahead of them like an inexhaustible morning, full of possibilities and emptiness on all sides, but already by noon something is suddenly there that may claim to be their own life yet whos appearing is as surprising, all in all, as if a person had suddenly materialized with whom one had been corresponding for some twenty years without meeting and whom one had imagined quite differently.  What is even more peculiar is that most people don’t even notice it; they adopt the man who has come to them, whose life has merged with their own, whose experiences now seem to be the expression of their own qualities, and whose fate is their own reward or misfortune.  Something has done to them what flypaper does to a fly, catching it now by a tiny hair, now hampering a movement, gradually enveloping it until it is covered by a thick coating that only remotely suggests its original shape.

Some might find a novel with such a philosophical bent tedious, but this type of writing is what draws me to Tolstoy, and Dickens and now to Musil.

My friend and fellow blogger Tony is also reading A Man without Qualities and has an excellent post on the theme of mathematics in Musil that I encourage everyone to also read:


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A Few Thoughts on Hadji Murat by Tolstoy

Even though this final work of Tolstoy’s, not published until after his death, is rather brief, the narrative techniques are similar to his greatest historical novel, War and Peace. The eponymous hero of the book is Hadji Murat, a well-respected, Muslim tribal leader. During the 1851 Chechen revolt against the Russians, Murat helped lead the locals in the charge against the Russians who claimed that they were bringing modern government and prosperity to an archaic, Muslim state. Tolstoy’s story constantly switches back and forth between characters that range from the lowest peasants in the Chechen villages to Prince Nicholas I. This incessant picking up and dropping off of different narrative threads is what causes me to devour his novels. What will happen to the soldier who is shot while on night watch? Which lover will Prince Nicholas choose? And how will Murat meet his tragic end?

Murat is drawn into an argument with Shamil, the leader of the Chechen revolt, and defects to the Russian side when Shamil captures and threatens Murat’s family. Tolstoy portrays both sides as flawed and Murat is caught between two ruthless, cruel and unpredictable dictators. There may be cultural difference between east and west—in dress, religion, social habits, etc. But one thing they have in common is the brutality of an all-powerful despot. My favorite passage in the book is Tolstoy’s description of Nicholas I, which could also just as easily describe many a world leader in the 21st century:

The flattery, continuous, obvious, completely divorced from reality—of the people around him had distorted his vision of himself to such an extent that he no longer saw his own contradictions, did not attempt to reconcile his actions and words with reality or logic or even basic common sense and was quite convinced that all his directions, however senseless, unfair and contradictory they might be, became unreasonable, fair and consistent with each other simply because he had delivered them.


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Aristotle’s Poetics 1448b

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about poetry lately.  In an end-of-semester bout of insomnia last night my thoughts wandered towards Aristotle’s Poetics.  This section, 1448b, is a discussion of the origins of poetry and the Greek word mimesis.  Translation is my own:

There seems to be altogether two natural causes for the origins of poetry.  It is innate for men to imitate and from childhood they differ from other animals in this capability—that imitation is possible and they first form learning through imitation; and everyone takes pleasure in imitations.  The indication of this is carried out in our actions: some things are painful to look at, but if we look at their exact likeness instead we can take pleasure in them—for example, the shape of very deformed wild beasts, or corpses.  The reason for this is that it is not only pleasant for philosophers to learn, but it is similarly pleasant for everyone else to learn, although most people have a shorter experience with this.  People take pleasure in observing likenesses because it comes upon us to learn from and to make inferences about those things we observe—what each thing is like and that this person is like that person:  and if we should happen to see before us the original, it is not the imitation that brings us pleasure,  but its workmanship or appearance or some other such cause.

Needless to say there are so many aspects of this short paragraph to ponder over.



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Drawing is Discovery: Landscapes by John Berger

Study for the Head of Leda. Drawing by Da Vinci. 1505-1507.

I’ve spent the week reading the essays in this collection compiled by Tom Overton which were written by John Berger between 1954 and 2015.  The range of topics that Berger thinks and writes about is, to say the least, impressive.  Cubism, Renaissance Art, the Victorian Conscience and Soviet era aesthetics are a few subjects he covers.  My favorite pieces, however, were the two short essays on drawing.  Berger describes, through personal stories and anecdotes three categories of drawing: those done from memory, those that study and question the visible and those that record and communicate ideas.

There is a more personal and intimate quality to drawing then, say, painting, Berger argues:

“…the lines on the paper are traces left behind by the artist’s gaze which is ceaselessly leaving, going out, interrogating the strangeness, the enigma, of what is before his eyes—however ordinary and everyday this may be. The sum total of the lines on the paper narrates an optical emigration by which the artist, following his own gaze, settles on the person or tree or animal or mountain being drawn. And if the drawing succeeds he stays there forever.”

“For the artist, drawing is discovery,” is how Berger begins his essay “The Basis of all Painting and Sculpture is Drawing.”  He uses a personal story of drawing a nude in one of his very early art classes to, once again, demonstrate the intimacy involved in the act of drawing:

Then, quite soon, the drawing reached its point of crisis.  Which is to say that what I had drawn began to interest me as much as what I could still discover.  There is a stage in every drawing when this happens.  And I call it a point of crisis because at that moment the success or failure of the drawing has really been decided.  One now begins to draw according to the demands, the needs, of the drawing.  If the drawing is already in some small way true, then tese demands will probably correspond to what one might still discover by actual searching.  If the drawing is basically false, they will accentuate its wrongness.”

My first experience with Berger was Bento’s Sketchbook, which includes several of the author’s drawings and sketches.  I am due for a reread and will, no doubt, have a deeper appreciation for his writings and drawings after my experiences with the essays in Landscapes.


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Was this Love?: The Temptation of Quiet Veronica by Robert Musil (trans. Genese Grill)

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.


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