Monday, January 23, 2012

Love and Knowledge

Five Women (Verba Mundi)
Five Women 

“The thought is not something that observes an inner event, but, rather it is this inner event itself. We do not reflect on something, but, rather, something thinks itself in us. ” 
― Robert Musil

This is a collection of stories that reminded me of Joyce's great collection, Dubliners, in the ability of the author to both present a sense of a place in time and the thematic connections with his later work.  Robert  Musil's stories are grouped into two sections, "Three Women" and "Unions". All of the stories are linked by their erotic themes, the nature of love and its relation to knowledge. This is a foreshadowing of one of the themes of his magnum opus, The Man Without Qualities. In this collection the story "Quiet Veronica' explores bestial love, while in "The Perfecting of Love" it is profligate. "Grigia" and "Tonka" present variations on the seduction of a peasant girl, by a man of a higher social class and by a student, respectively. Musil uses these situations to explore deeper in the human consciousness with sex as the central ground of his exploration.
I was impressed with the authenticity of of the settings and the integration of peasant life with the themes of love and death.
"Love ran ahead like a herald, love was made ready everywhere like a bed freshly made up for the guest, and each living being more gifts of welcome in their eyes. The women could let that be freely seen, but sometimes as one passed a meadow there might be an old peasant there, waving his scythe like Death in person." (p 19)
The women in the stories experience love and guilt and the energetic ecstasy of turning points that shake their world. Musil draws fine distinctions like a scientist with a scalpel. The reactions of their lovers, the men with whom they interact are always finely drawn and sometimes deeply incisive.
"Volition, cognition, and perception were like a tangled skein. One noticed this only when one tried to find the end of the thread. But perhaps there was some other way of going through the world, other than following the thread of truth? At such moments, when a veneer of coldness separated him from everything, Tonka was more than a fairy-tale: she was almost a visitation.' (p 110)
All of the stories have obvious autobiographical elements, ties to the personal life of the author, but what stands out is his creative ability to both imagine these characters' lives and bring his intelligence to bear on their situation. The result provides the reader with a wealth of issues to digest, presented in a prose setting that brings the world of turn-of-the -century Austria alive. This is also an excellent introduction to the writing of one of the twentieth century's premiere novelist of ideas.

Five Women by Robert Musil. David R. Godine, Publisher, Boston. 1986 (1965)

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