In 1924 Robert Musil published a collection of stories entitled Three Women, the spinoff of his work on a novel about the last years of the Hapsburg Empire that began to appear, in installments, in 1930: The Man Without Qualities. For readers daunted by this most essayistic of novels, full of thinking, empty of ideas (because, to its author, it was the mark of a poet to be open to ideas but to hold none), unfinished and perhaps unfinishable, a novel that asks its central question—what Europe is to believe in now that it has ceased to believe in history—in a mode of irony and artifice, Three Women may provide a more convenient introduction to the mature Musil.
The most considerable of these three stories, “Tonka,” draws on an unhappy entanglement from Musil’s own youth (it is remarkable how directly this reserved, ironical modernist transposed the events of his life into his fictions). A young man from a well-to-do Austrian family forms a liaison with a simple Czech girl, Tonka. He takes her off to Berlin, where they set up house together. Then Tonka becomes pregnant. Worse, it appears she has contracted syphilis. The calendar proves her lover cannot be the father, and the doctors insist it is impossible he could have infected her. Yet she persists in her story that she has known no other man. Such is her evident sincerity that her lover asks himself whether there might not be such a thing as immaculate conception (and immaculate venereal infection). But ultimately he lacks the will to believe her. “The woman loved is [not] the origin of the emotions apparently aroused by her; they are merely set behind her like a light…. He could not bring himself to set the light behind Tonka.”
He tends the girl as she grows sicker and uglier, does whatever is called for, in a certain sense cherishes her; so that, after her death, he feels his conscience to be clear, and can even tell himself he is a better person for the experience. Only for an instant does the veil fall:
Then memory cried out in him: “Tonka! Tonka!” He felt her, from the ground under his feet to the crown of his head, and the whole of her life. All that he had never understood was there before him in this instant, the bandage that had blind-folded him seemed to have dropped from his eyes—yet only for an instant, and the next instant it was merely as though something had flashed through his mind.
In this fable, whose unhurried, circumstantial opening seems to mark it as of the tamest German domestic realism, about a girl who, though probably lying, is also innocent, and a man who fails an impossible test, Musil found a perfect vehicle—perhaps, finally, a little too perfect, too schematic—for a constant theme of his: the unbridgeability of the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.