Saturday, July 5, 2008

Musil on the Novel: The Break from Realist Fiction

Here is Musil on the novel and realist narrative. Its ending note, an invitation to reach beyond 19th Century conventions of time and causality. In the network of human interaction there is not one, but countless butterflies, each beat of a wing sets in motion and alters the course of new migrations, wars, the generation redistribution and destruction of wealth and power, the vicissitudes of love, the shape of family life, the fate alike of individuals and generations. The novelist who sets out to find language for this, this relationship to reality, is compelled to move beyond the 19th Century tropes and their endless reiteration in establishment realist fiction.

From Volume I, The Man Without Qualities, Vol. 1, Vintage International. Translation by Sophie Wilkins. Chapter 122, Going Home. pp 708-709.
...And in one of those apparently random and abstract thoughts that so often assumed importance in his life, it struck him that when one is overburdened and dreams of simplifying one's life, the basic law of this life, the law one longs for, is nothing other than that of narrative order, the simple order that enables one to say: "First this happened and then that happened..." It is the simple sequence of events in which the overwhelmingly manifold nature of things is represented in a unidimensional order, as a mathematician would say, stringing all that has occurred in space and time on a single thread, which calms us; that celebrated "thread of the story," which is, it seems, the thread of life itself. Lucky the man who can say "when," "before," and "after"! Terrible things may have happened to him, he may have writhed in pain, but as soon as he can tell what happened in chronological order, he feels as contented as if the sun were warming his belly. This is the trick the novel artificially turns to account: Whether the wanderer is riding on the highway in pouring rain or crouching through snow and ice at tem below zero, the reader feels a cozy glow, and this would be hard to understand if this eternally dependable narrative device, which even nursemaids can rely on to keep their little charges quiet, this tried=and=true "foreshortening of the mind's perspective," were not already part and parcel of life itself. Most people relate to themselves as storytellers. They usually have no use for poems, and although the occasional "because" or "in order that" gets knotted into the thread of life, they generally detest any brooding that goes beyond that, they love, the ordinary sequence of facts because it has the look of necessity, and the impression that their life has a "course is somehow their refuge from chaos. It now came to Ulrich that he had lost this elementary, narrative mode of thought to which private life still clings, even thought everything in public life has already ceased to be narrative and no longer follows a thread, but instead spreads out as an infinitely interwoven surface.


  1. Okay, so how should or is this 'infinitely interwoven surface' depicted in the novel?

  2. An excellent question.

    One I should take up when I'm rather more composed... euphemistically speaking.

    In the broadest terms, in Musil's refusal (?) rejection (?) of forcing his novel into any recognizable narrative arc: things happen. And suggest in their happening that other things must follow... but they don't. It's rather another succession of other things happening where the casual threads are taken up again and again as suggestions, or expectations, but never fulfilled.

    Like anyone, I'm taken up and transported by a good story... The Life of Pi... what can I say?

    ... but Musil offers us no such satisfaction--propels us at first, by expectation... it looks like there's a narrative here... but it never happens. And yet, it's a wonderfully satisfying read... it returns pleasure more than compensatory for the effort... and there's never near the effort required to get through the Oxen of the Sun in Ulysses!

    Adding, for this reader, the additional pleasure of wondering how he did it.

    Now, for me... like Josipovici--am more a modernist than post, I read for mimesis. And Musil evokes for me--far more than Joyce--the "spirit of the age"... our age... as though he were peering though a glass into the future.

    As though he were channeling in advance ( suspect you won't like this)... Don Delillo... who gets it. More than anyone I've read--the specificity of the dislocations that define us.

    Look, my main efforts go into my own writing.. I make no pretense to critical or theoretical authority--I simply find myself rebelling... refusing to take the time to think through a response your question deserves. I should be ashamed and apologize... but I won't.

    This is hit or miss, top of my head... but it does faithfully represent what happens to me when I read... take it or leave it. And I do stand behind my reading, as someone with more than 50 years of critical reading behind me... as at the least, warranting expression.