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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 precedence over things that do not. He lived in an arbitrary world, and spent his life making another world, equally arbitrary, along his own lines.

THIS IS his first axiom, the arbitrariness of what is. “In real life,” Ulrich explains to Fischel in The Man Without Qualities, “what happens is always what has no good cause.” In Young Torless the hero says: “Things just happen; that’s the sum total of wisdom.” Lies are as true as truths because events are interchangeable. The vulgar distinction between the indicative and the subjunctive moods is bogus. “It’s all chance,” Claudine says in “The Perfecting of a Love,” as she feels herself yielding to the casualty of events. The snow, the bearded man, the journey, and all the other accidents in that story are an elaborate calculus which, she feels, has nothing to do with her, but she is us victim. The atmosphere of the story is like Strindberg’s Miss Julie, where Midsummer Eve has as much to do with the action as Julie’s education, her parents, or her fiancé. Musil’s characters dangle (in Saul Bellow’s sense) because they see no reason why they should give themselves to one configuration of nature which exists rather than another which doesn’t: All configurations, if they exist, are mere facts, mere coincidences. So the encounter between character and environment which is essential, as Lukacs argues, if the potentialities of an individual are to be realized, never takes place. Character in these short stories, especially in “The Temptation of Quiet Veronica,” is accident. Gottfried Benn speaks of “the perforated self” through which Nature blows, indifferently. Musil is even more deterministic. Action is reduced to motion, things are done because they happen. We are held by habit. When habit is broken, as in a divorce, a vacation, a journey, the rush of possibility takes over, a new set of coordinates moves into arbitrary place, and off we go again. Claudine reflects: “It’s going to happen all over again.” So the vulgar distinction between good and evil is archaic.

In The Man Without Qualities Ulrich implies, during one of his “holy conversations” with his sister Agathe, that the only remedy for dissociation is a great mystical conflagration in which everything will be One. There has already been a lot of talk about the Utopian possibilities, images of the New Man. Sometimes this figure is represented as taking part in a “vast sensuality with which life simultaneously satisfies all the rival contradictions in its boundless and exorbitant body.” But Musil’s later work favors a mystical unity, spectacularly implied in the intimacy of Ulrich and Agathe, augmented by conversational essays on Isis and Osiris. So the short stories are experimental as notes toward a supreme fiction, the fiction that is Man.

MEANWHILE, since mystical conflagrations can be coaxed but not anticipated, Musil’s characters keep themselves going with provisional gestures. Occasionally they silence the moralists by identifying the drop of Self with the Soul, handing over to the mere Body the motives and actions which, therefore, “do not matter.” When Claudine, who loves her husband, gives herself to another man, a meretricious stranger, she assures herself that “fundamentally it did not touch her and essentially had nothing to do with her.” This action, and other actions of the same kind, seem “like a brook rushing along, always away from her, and her only feeling is of sitting quietly on its bank, lost in thought.” Musil’s characters deal with experience by exacting from it a frisson of consciousness. So the mere body goes as it is directed. In “Grigia” the man, Homo, becomes the peasant woman’s lover. “This change that had taken place in him much occupied his mind, for beyond doubt it was not something he had done, but something that had happened to him.” The ethic of the double standard is specified in the later work when Ulrich says: “The soul of the Sodomite might pass through the throng without foreboding, in its eyes the limpid smile of a child; for everything depends on an invisible principle.” But Ulrich invokes this in some distress, because it seems to exude “the sweet, sickly odor of corruption.” Later, however, he brings it back by citing a scientific metaphor: In a field of energy it is the constellation of the events which charges them with meaning, not the events themselves. In another version he implies a vaguely Darwinian ethic. Acts which strike the orthodox moralist as evil are redeemed by serving an evolutionary graph. In “Tonka,” where the poor girl has died as a result of the hero’s ministrations, the story ends: “From that time on much came to his mind that made him a little better than other people, because there was a small warm shadow that had fallen across his brilliant life. That was no help to Tonka now. But it was a help to him.” In these stories every “act” is merely an essay in a world of essays; a supposition, a hypothesis, an experiment: to every trial, its own casual errors. They also serve, upon whom the germ falls. There is something of Joyce in Musil, the Joyce to whom most things were not allowed to matter; and something of Stevens, to whom one war (1939-1945) was merely part of a warlike whole. Clarisse is right: “The Man Without Qualities does not say No to life, he says Not Yet, saving himself up.”

I HAVE TOUCHED upon the morality of Musil’s fiction because one can easily be diverted from this consideration by the style, the word-by-word detail, which is always compelling. In these short stories, as in Young Torless and The Man Without Qualities, Musil moves from one word to the next by the force of a commanding rhetoric: so that the ideas on which the fiction is based gain a certain grandeur from the energy of mind devoted to their cause. If consciousness were the whole of life, were All-in-All, we could have no quarrel with this fiction, only gratitude for its existence. And this would also apply if we were in such need of ideas that all ideas would be equally welcome. Short of this exigency, most of the ideas in Musil are banal. The experimental imagination, for instance, is merely a lust for the Absolute. Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter. Absolute Sound is audible only to the spirit, the soul, in those deemed capable of this experience. Musil’s characters aspire to a morality of the Spheres. Claudine attends not to the words, but to the sound of them. When she imagines herself belonging to some other man, it seems “not like betrayal but like some ultimate marriage, in a realm where they had no real being, where they existed only as music might, a music heard by no one, echoing back from nowhere.” When Musil’s decadence obtrudes, it is normally this lust for the Absolute at work. Often it is a desire to do something utterly alien, and then to take the desire into one’s mind as a new and exotic possession. Claudine again: “What attracted her in the un-intelligible passage of events was all there was in it that did not pertain to herself, to the spirit: What she loved was the helplessness and shame and anguish of her spirit—it was like striking something weaker than one-self, a child, a woman, and then wanting to be the garment wrapped about its pain, in the darkness, alone.” It is never Either-Or, it must be Both. Sometimes it takes the form of a meta-Love, dissolving all strain. In Musil himself it appears as a morbid con-scientiousness; like Torless in his panic about imaginary numbers in mathematics, Musil resents everything for which his imagination is not responsible. His imperious imagination demands to play God.

Again, the arbitrariness of what is: This is an interesting debating point, but little more. It may be worth a minute or two to speculate on the relative value of the tree that exists and the something that doesn’t, as Stevens in “The Snow Man” speculates upon “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” But it is a thin speculation, when all is said. The same applies to Musil’s infinity of hypothesis and possibility: this is merely an academic exercise. The object of the exercise is to give the imagination something to do, short of actually living in the given world. Not yet! Not yet! When Ulrich is asked what he would do if he were God, he answers that he should feel compelled to abolish reality. Meanwhile he plays God by abolishing reality, as far as he can. Again, when he says that “the Good has by its very nature become almost a platitude, whereas Evil is still criticism,” we attend to him not because this is a bright idea but because we are still interested in his saying it. He is interesting for a hundred reasons, but the idea is interesting only because he entertains it.

THERE ARE SOME comic possibilities here. Indeed, given these suppositions, comedy is the ideal form of their deployment, because it discourages the fretful note which is sometimes audible in Musil. One thinks of Borges’s fiction, notably “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote”:

Menard (perhaps without wishing to) has enriched, by means of a new technique, the hesitant and rudimentary art of reading: the technique is one of deliberate anachronism and erroneous attributions. This technique, with its infinite applications, urges us to run through the Odyssey as if it were written after the Aeneid, and to read Le jardin du Centaure by Madame Henri Bachelier as if it were by Madame Henri Bachelier. This technique would fill the dullest books with adventure.

Or Beckett. There are hundreds of hypotheses in Beckett, but they serve a sturdier purpose than essays in possibility. Watt’s hope is “to evolve, from the meticulous phantoms of his former selves, a hypothesis proper to disperse them, as often as this might be found necessary.” Borges smiles at the rush of things, however arbitrary their nature and direction, and teases them with his imagination. They take it in good part. But where Borges is exhilarating, Musil is at once imperious and glum. Beckett’s comedy is possible because he has always taken failure for granted; it is what one starts from. Life is then a matter of passing time which would probably have passed anyway, but while it lasts there are phantoms to be dispersed. There are some hilarious things in The Man Without Qualities, like the first conversation between Diotima and Dr. Arnheim about the Collateral Campaign. But when the idiom of arbitrariness and possibility asserts itself, the tone goes lugubrious, especially when Ulrich is in full spate and the pages come like lectures illustrated by slides. Musil’s terms allow him a wide range of irony, but little nonchalance.

This is the case so long as he takes his terms literally. But the impression persists that his greatest achievements are done in the old-fashioned way. When he writes an essay and attributes it to one of his characters, it is not a bad essay, but it is not remarkable. But when he is seized by the old-fashioned concerns, he writes with great power. The third volume in the English edition of The Man Without Qualities is given to the relationship between Ulrich and Agathe. Character may be a tissue of accidents, but Musil attends to this relationship as if it were of the deepest moment. It is. The style is more forceful than ever, because there is an answering substance. This volume does not try to dissolve the world in hypotheses. What persists is the image of these two people. When Agathe, pondering suicide, walks to the graveyard at the edge of the wood, we are reading great fiction, but its quality is the old quality, it has nothing to do with the World as Idea.

SOME OF THE SHORT stories strike me as elaborate conceits, experimental in a limiting sense. “The Lady from Portugal” is a Gothic tale which cries for Hawthorne as its proper author: or, better, the Kafka of “Metamorphosis.” “Tonka” and “The Perfecting of a Love” are the most successful. It is often said that Musil is such a mindman that his characters are lost in their ideas. In the best of the short stories this is not so. In The Man Without Qualities Clarisse and Walter have more point, perhaps, as functions of Ulrich than as independent characters. Indeed, even with the Collateral Campaign, Moosbrugger, and the rest, there is little impression of a life moving independently of Ulrich’s needs: The popular comparison with Ulysses breaks down at this point if not before. But in the stories the characters are never mere pressure points of the mind. Where a short story fails, it is normally a failure of adjustment, as “Grigia” hurries to an unconvincing end because it should have been a novel. But I keep coming back to “The Perfecting of a Love.” The title is questionable, whether Vollendung is translated as “perfection” or “completion.” At the end, it seems, Claudine’s betrayal of her husband has been worthwhile:

Yet at the back of her mind there was a shadowy memory of something she had once experienced on a day in spring: a state that was like giving herself to everyone and yet belonging only to the one beloved…And from a long way off—as children say of God: “He is great”—she saw and knew the image of her love.

Her love; her husband. But while anything is psychologically possible, the notion that Claudine’s love is enhanced and completed by her affair with the bearded stranger seems to me absurd, however experimental the ethic. But Claudine’s feelings are remarkable. If we could dissociate ourselves from them, we would say that the wretched woman is merely deceiving herself with words, trying to justify her promiscuity by dancing attendance upon it. We would also say that Musil is morally primitive. But the experience of reading the story does not allow for an easy dissociation: It is not a matter of following the feelings, but of wrestling with them as they declare themselves, moment by moment. This may not be the right way to read the story. An “essayistic” fiction may require a reader similarly disposed. But at least it acknowledges one of the inescapable qualities of this fiction, a prodigious stress among the words.

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