Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Prose Miniatures

Posthumous Papers of a Living Author
by Robert Musil

"you may very well both diagree with and disapprove of your best friends;  indeed there are many friends who can't stand each other.  And in a certain sense, those friendships are the deepest and the best, for without any admixtures, they contain that indefinable essence in its purest form." - Robert Musil, "The Blackbird"

Robert Musil  who was born in Austria is one of my favorite authors. A lifelong journalist and writer, Musil was a war correspondent during World War I. He is best known for his dark, haunting, ironic and Utopian prose style, showcased in his major works, The Man Without Qualities and Confusions of Young Torless.
Posthumous Papers of a Living Author begins with a section called “Pictures,” which features a series of sketches. These include short stories and some observations about things like horses and a village funeral. The writing here, some of Musil’s earliest published work, is polished. These are miniatures that suggest Kafka in a surreal vignette about monkeys; while there are a number of little prose poems. It is easy to dismiss these, but they portray a subtle style that is deeper than it appears. There is a small piece that shows up again in his collection Five Women. And memorable sentences like this from "Maidens and Heroes": "How lovely are you servant girls with your peasant legs and those peaceful eyes, about which you just can't tell, do they wonder about everything or about nothing?"(p 37) Or this from his essay on waking up at dawn: “I discover strange fellows, the smokestacks. In groups of three, five, seven and sometimes alone, they stand up on the rooftops; like trees in a landscape. Space winds around them and into the deep.”(p 19-20)

There is also some very enjoyable fiction: absurd tales, parables, and long narrative jokes. Finally, in “The Blackbird,” the strange, visionary story that ends this collection, Musil discovers how to combine the imaginative and analytical sides of his character. The story is a masterpiece, and the collection is worth owning for it alone. It was the last volume Robert Musil published before his sudden death in 1942. Musil had begun to fathom the impossibility of completing his monumental masterpiece The Man Without Qualities and this volume reveals his shift to a radically different form. Musil observes a fly’s tragic struggle with flypaper, the laughter of a horse; he peers through microscopes and telescopes, dissecting both large and small. Musil’s quest for the essential is a voyage into the minute.

Posthumous Papers of a Living Author by Robert Musil. Peter Wortsman, transl. Eridanos Press, 1987

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