Musil’s Infinities

Intimate Ties: Two Novellas

by Robert Musil, translated from the German and with an afterword by Peter Wortsman
Archipelago, 207 pp., $16.00 (paper)
Robert Musil
Robert Musil; drawing by David Levine

If you like difficult amusements and find yourself with a month or two to spare, I would urge you to try (if you haven’t yet read it) The Man Without Qualities by the Austrian writer Robert Musil (1880–1942). Yes, it’s unfinished (“inherently endless,” as Max Brod said of Kafka’s Amerika), and in its published and translated form takes up the thick end of 1,800 pages, by the end of which its knots have started fraying into experimental variants and the poor author’s frantic Post-its to himself, as Musil introduced further characters, adding new factorial numbers of delays and complications and possible outcomes—but it will change your life. It will teach you patience and relish and tolerance, give you a floaty gait and a long view and a permanent half-smile, and acquaint you with a gentle and rather superior form of suspense that you’ll wonder how you ever managed without. Truly, it’s huge fun and the recent translation by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike is excellent.

It has been plausibly said that “no one has ever read all of The Man Without Qualities.” That is because no such thing exists: it goes beyond what is Gutenberg-possible. Then again, the whole interconnected extent of the bolus (in the German original) makes it a natural for the Internet and hypertext. Call it an omniscript. The new digital edition is said to top 11,000 pages. Musil himself would rather not have published any of it before he published all of it (or whatever he would have chosen to preserve of it), which one can understand, but it didn’t happen that way, and besides, he needed money. The first volume was published in 1930; a second installment, with greater difficulty, and by subscription, in 1932 (this part, give or take, is Agathe); and a third was being readied for publication in 1938 when Musil pulled it. (That same year, the book was banned by the Nazis.)

Since then, publishers have sought to ply readers with some kind of leaner alternative. A kind of Musil-Lite. There might be his first novel, and one financial success, The Confusions of Young Törless (from 1906), set among youths at an Austrian military academy. There might be the three excellent novellas called Three Women (from 1924), especially the very moving Tonka. Or the two books now under review: Intimate Ties, which is a translation, by Peter Wortsman, of Vereinigungen, a book of two novellas that bombed in 1911, and that the author himself later found, except in homeopathic quantities, unreadable; and last and likeliest, Joel Agee’s new translation of those-latter-parts-of-The-Man-Without-Qualities-involving-Ulrich’s-sister-Agathe, and published in a so far English-language-only project as Agathe, or, The Forgotten Sister.

Intimate Ties is one of those regrettable publications that hurts the reputations of everyone connected with it: Musil’s own, the translator’s, and even the luckless publisher, Archipelago. The novellas themselves are very strange: very slow, very interior, minutely analytical,…

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