Five Women

by Robert Musil, translated by Eithne Wilkins, translated by Ernst Kaiser
Delacorte, 222 pp., $5.00

The five women are Claudine, Grigia, Frau von Ketten, Veronica, and Tonka. Their stories were first told in Vereinigungen (1911) and Drei Frauen (1924), now splendidly translated in one volume. The book fills the gap in Musil’s fiction between Young Torless (1906) and The Man Without Qualities, unfinished at the author’s death in 1942. But for the existence of Young Torless it would be possible to think of the short stories as experimental work, but Musil’s first novel is such a finished production, such a completely realized thing, that the notion of an experiment in the stories must be rigorously qualified. He was not an apprentice in 1911. It is necessary to say this because in many other respects the short stories are indeed experimental. They are, for instance, moral experiments. Hence they are not only illuminating in themselves but the cause of illumination in The Man Without Qualities.

In the first volume of The Man Without Qualities the narrative voice says of the hero, Ulrich: “There was something in him that had never wanted to stay anywhere, but had groped its way along the walls of the world, thinking: ‘There are still millions of other walls.’ It was this ridiculous drop of Self, slowly growing cold, that did not want to give up its fire, the tiny red-hot core within it.” Musil’s central concern is that drop of Self, ridiculous only if everything else is even more ridiculous. The walls of the world come into the fiction only because the drop must grope somewhere. And The Man Without Qualities is unfinished because there are always millions of other walls. The short stories now available in English are essays in the mythology of self. Their landscape is familiar because it is the landscape of The Man Without Qualities. There is the old rift between man and nature, between motive and action, between feeling and word: let us say, between consciousness and experience. There is the old recourse, irony. And the place is littered with broken images. When Tonka and her lover are sitting at the edge of a wood, a brown butterfly flutters past them, settling on a flower which sways and then stops, “like a conversation broken off.” Tonka presses her fingers into the moss on which they are sitting; “but after a while the tiny blades stood up again, one after the other, row on row, until there was finally no more trace of the hand that had lain there.” “It was enough to make one weep,” Tonka thinks, “without knowing why.” But she might have realized that “Nature consists of nothing but ugly little things that one hardly notices and which live as sadly far apart from each other as the stars in the night-sky.” In Musil himself there is some evidence of a corresponding rift. One result is that tangible, historical things are shamed in the luminous traversing of hypothesis and possibility. Musil would never believe that the fact that a thing exists gives it some…

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