Tuesday, November 06, 2012

The Subjunctive Novelist

Robert Musil

“Ideology is: intellectual ordering of the feelings; an objective connection among them that makes the subjective connection easier. “Life forms a surface that acts as if it could not be otherwise, but under its skin things are pounding and pulsing.”  ― Robert Musil

The Austrian novelist Robert Musil was born on this day in 1880.   While Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, his unfinished, twenty-year, multi-volume portrait of the Austro-Hungarian society on the brink of WWI, has received the highest critical praise, and admiration from a lot of other novelists, he is little known and seldom read. His own career was filled with disappointments and, despite some newer translations in recent years and a bit more attention from the academy, the disappointments and ironies have continued.  Educated as an engineer, after writing a Ph.D. thesis on Ernst Mach's epistemology he rejected the academy, becoming a philosopher, aphorist, essayist, and writer of novels.

His choice was one that he saw as the best path for him, not the obvious one.
"A man who is after the truth sets out to be a man of learning; a man who wants to give free play to his subjectivity sets out, perhaps, to be a writer.  But what is the man to do who is after something that lies between?" Musil, quoted by Frederick G. Peters, Robert Musil, Master of the Hovering Life (1978)

His life may also be seen as having been lived in the subjunctive mode, much as his hero Ulrich did in The Man Without Qualities.  Jane Smiley included Musil in her literary review of the novel with the following remarks:
"The Man Without Qualities is one of the most prestigious novels of the 20th century; the sort of book no one has read but everyone has heard of. It is well worth reading, even though it is very long, very slow, and was unfinished at the time of Robert Musil's death…. The writing is so precise and the argument Musil makes about Ulrich and his situation so intricate that it is intellectually and aesthetically involving even before it becomes emotionally involving.

The Man Without Qualities requires and rewards patience.  Like most modernist novels, it forgoes plot in favor of ideas, character, and, in this case, many very funny insights into modern life.   Most novels come to seem, while one is reading Musil, rather coarse; most characters, too easily satisfied. The older editions and translations show that Musil is due for a revival in English. It can't come too soon." Jane Smiley, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005)

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