The chronicler of transition

Published : Jan 28, 2005 00:00 IST

On Robert Musil, the Viennese writer who got little recognition in his lifetime, and his magnum opus.

PERIODS of rapid transformation both require and bring forth particular artistic expressions, which then speak more eloquently to other periods of similarly extensive change. In our own times, when change and volatility are the norm and millennial notions constantly intrude upon our consciousness, we tend to be especially affected by other writers and artists who can capture both the excitement of novelty and the pain of loss that accompany such change.

This may explain the recent revival of interest in the work of Robert Musil, the Viennese writer who died in exile in Switzerland in 1942 with his work either banned or unpublished, who achieved very little recognition in his own lifetime. His magnum opus, translated as The Man Without Qualities, recently received the tributes of new (in fact, multiple) translations into English and other languages.

It is a huge, often rambling, complex combination of narratives, ultimately unfinished (he was working on it still at the time of his death) and therefore without obvious conclusion. The novel makes for demanding reading, not least because Musil - who was a qualified mechanical engineer with an especial interest in mathematical logic - requires of the reader both rigorous thought and subtlety of interpretation.

Musil is often compared to Marcel Proust, who was possibly the greatest European observer of humanity and society in the last century. George Steiner has called them the only two exceptions among Western authors in the 20th century - the writers of fiction who are also major systematic intellects.

Indeed, there is much in common between the two writers: the sharply cerebral and constantly analytical approach; the vast sweep of long and intertwined narratives peopled with a wide range of disparate characters juxtaposed against one another; the attention to detail and focus on drawing out both the essence and the complexity of personalities; the use of the literary form both as a microscope, examining the minutiae of human relationships, and as a telescope, bringing into focus more general characteristics; and of course, the sheer length of their major works, and their final lack of completion.

But whereas Proust's approach was both encyclopaedic and universal, even philosophical in orientation, Musil's novel is much more historically and geographically specific, rooted in fin-de-siecle central Europe. It captures the turn of the 20th century European society in which church, monarchic state, capitalist enterprise and emergent radical socialism all jostled for supremacy. Musil lived at a time of the breakdown of the Austro-Hungarian empire around the Danube. His imperial homeland was reduced to a small, landlocked agrarian country. The capital Vienna, earlier considered the seat of culture and the home of civilisation, was increasingly rocked by violence and became prey to extremist forces, whose future strength Musil anticipated only too clearly. Musil's novel was clearly an attempt to chronicle the death of Europe - that is, a certain idea of Europe - and its culture.

The consequent flux and search for resolution, the harking back to the increasingly more imagined glories of the past, the predicaments of transition, are captured so brilliantly by Musil that his descriptions of society and personal contradictions in a small and marginal part of Europe one hundred years ago become apt similes for the predicaments of our own times.

Consider this description of the generalised angst of coping with rapid social change: "There is just something missing in everything, though you can't put your finger on it, as if there had been a change in the blood or in the air; a mysterious disease has eaten away the previous period's seeds of genius, but everything sparkles with novelty, and finally one has no way of knowing whether the world has really grown worse, or oneself merely older."

Musil set his novel in the imaginary "Kakanien" - a word formed from "Kaiser", "King", and "caca" (with its lavatory allusions). In this state, the backdrop of the narrative is a fatuous project to celebrate the 17th anniversary of the rule of the incumbent monarch five years hence (that is, in 1918), a project rendered all the more ironic by the reader's knowledge of the events which would sweep away all such activities in waves of war and internal violence.

The committee formed to elaborate this plan becomes the means for creating and developing the interaction of many of the central characters of the novel - interaction that takes not only social form but also political, creative, psychological and even sexual. The project itself and the ideas it generates expose not only illusion and hypocrisy but patterns of social climbing and genuine individual concerns.

This basic plot coexists with a large number of sub-plots of sometimes even greater complexity: the fascination of the elite with the psychopath sex-murderer Moosbrugger, the search for music as salvation on the part of the hero's friend Walter, the restless sexuality of the socialite Diotima, the capacity for ironic detachment and incapacity for action of wealthy intellectuals such as Arnheim, and in the final volume, the hero's complex and many-layered relationship with his twin sister Agathe, with its undertones of incest and recognition of love as "self-love".

Androgynity played an important role in Musil's perceptions, and heightens the emphasis in the hero himself, of the absence of "qualities".

The hero, Ulrich, is the son of a provincial civil servant, who takes a year off from his mathematical studies in order to drift and observe. He ends up accepting the post of general secretary to the "Parallel Campaign", for the celebration of the future anniversary. But the critical thing about him is a refusal to be tied down to any particular identity, or to allow any characteristic of himself to become the defining one. His friend Walter describes him thus:

"His appearance gives no clue to what his profession might be, and yet he doesn't look like a man without a profession either. Consider what he's like: He always knows what to do. He knows how to gaze into a woman's eyes. He can put his mind to any question at any time. He can box. He is gifted, strong-willed, open-minded, fearless, tenacious, dashing, circumspect - why quibble, suppose we grant him all those qualities - yet he has none of them! They have made him what he is, they have set his course for him, and yet they don't belong to him. When he is angry, something in him laughs. When he is sad, he is up to something. When something moves him, he turns against it. He'll always see a good side to every bad action. What he thinks of anything will always depend on some possible context - nothing is, to him, what it is; everything is subject to change, in flux, part of a whole, of an infinite number of wholes presumably adding up to a super-whole that, however, he knows nothing about. So every answer he gives is only a partial answer, every feeling only an opinion, and he never cares what something is, only `how' it is - some extraneous seasoning that somehow goes along with it, that's what interests him."

The elusiveness to identity is both a refusal to seek refuge in established roles and a response to flux, which enables the protagonist to remain an observer. But it also parallels the incompleteness inherent in the novel, which continued to be constructed over decades and ultimately could not be concluded. It is possible, as J.M. Coetzee has pointed out, that the pressure on Musil's fictional Europe of 1914 to carry the additional symbolic weight of the Europe of 1938-1939 proved to be too much to bear, and the tensions between a dying society and one man's attempt to withdraw from it could not be successfully resolved in a unitary denouement.

The open-endedness of the novel has its own advantages, however, and may also more accurately mirror our own societies and transformations. As Ulrich remarks somewhere in the novel, "If there is a sense of reality, there must also be a sense of possibility."

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