Sunday, December 23, 2012

Musil, (Joseph) Roth, and Hammett

David Whish-Wilson got me reading Joseph Roth, and from there it was a short leap to Robert Musil.

The Man Without Qualities (1930-1942) is not a crime novel, but bits of it will interest crime readers (and I haven't even got to Moosbrugger yet):
"THIS man who had returned home could not remember any time in his life that had not been animated by his determination to become a man of importance; it was as though Ulrich had been born with this wish. It is true that such an urge may be a sign of vanity and stupidity; it is no less true, however, that it is a very fine and proper desire, without which there would probably not be many men of importance.

The only snag was that he did not know either how one became such a man or what a man of importance was. In his schooldays he had taken Napoleon for one; this was partly out of youth’s natural admiration for criminality..."
These aren't bad, either:
"It is a fundamental characteristic of civilisation that man most profoundly mistrusts those living outside his own milieu..."
and
"For some time now such a social idée fixe has been a kind of super-American city where everyone rushes about, or stands still, with a stop-watch in his hand."
and
"Like all big cities, it consisted of irregularity, change, sliding forward, not keeping in step, collisions of things and affairs..."
I noticed, too, that Roth and Musil, those acute witnesses to the traumatic birth of modern Europe, make their astonished remarks about the noisy vitality of American cities in precisely the years (1922-1930) when Dashiell Hammett was perfecting hard-boiled crime fiction, an urban-based genre if there ever was one.
*
The Man Without Qualities was on the reading list of a course I took in college on the twentieth-century European novel. How any 18-, 19-, or 20-year old, much less one as callow and stupid as I was at the time, can be expected to appreciate such a book is beyond me. I think Musil was the one author the class never got around to reading. At least I might have been able to appreciate its outrageousness and jokes, as I did for The Confessions of Zeno and Journey to the End of the Night.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

Labels: , , , , , ,

36 Comments:

Blogger R.T. said...

"Urban-based" and "Poisonville" (Red Harvest) seem not compatible in my mind. But I otherwise understand your Hammett comment.

December 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I hate when reporters write "urban setting" rather than "city," so I am embarrassed to have slipped into their pretentious ways. One could argue that Red Harvest fits the era's theme of cities as corrupt.

December 23, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Fair enough. Still, whenever I read _Red Harvest_, I cannot set aside my memories of growing up in a mining town, which was anything but urban. Corrupt and filthy, yes. Urban, no.

December 23, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

I started this sometime when the new translation came out, but got distracted. I think almost all I do remember is Moosbregger, and he's definitely criminal enough to rate discussion here.

December 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And fair play to you, R.T. "Red Harvest" is probably more akin to Westerns than it is to urban dramas. Still, when I think of Hammett, I think more of hia more typical, er, urban settings, notable the San Francisco of "The Maltese Falcon" and of so many of his stories. Of course, that could be because I made pilgrimages to many of those locations after Bouchercon in San Francisco in 2010.

December 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, when did a new translation appear? I think my translation is a version from the 1950s. I still have yet to meet Moosbrugger, so the connections I have seen between Musil and urban, hard-boiled crime fiction have more to do with physical and psychological setting than with out and out crime.

December 23, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

The urban connection is an important ironic factor in crime fiction. In the history of literature, the city has been the archetype setting representing civilization, safety, and all things positive; beyond the borders--ahem--were the forests and wilderness, places of danger and evil.

Early crime writers, I think, built upon those archetypes, with country manors and small villages being dangerous, but cities--the domain from which detectives arrived--were more safe. Somewhere around the 20s and 30s, writers made the ironic inversion.

Perhaps the radical changes of the early 20th century--including the Great War--had a lot to do with that shift in narratives' settings.

I defer to the crime fiction experts on the validity of my theories.

December 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., this passage from Musil, which I've just read today, goes to the heart of your comment:

"But nearer at hand everything was untidy, bare, scattered and as though burnt by acid, as it always is where the edges of big cities go seeping out into the countryside."

December 23, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

A two volume rehaul in 1996, translated by Sophie Pike.

December 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've read references to the Pike translation, but this earlier one seems perfectly readable. What Musilists say about it, I don't know.

December 23, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

I think she had access to some other material. I don't know if it matters or not.

December 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I started to read what looks like a lengthy and informative introduction to my edition, which might have got me interested in textual issues. But I decided to immerse myself in the novel instead. Maybe I'll look for the introduction to the Pike edition. And maybe, if I keep reading books like this and Roth, sometime toward the middle of the 21st century, I'll finally begin to understand the twentieth.

December 23, 2012  
Blogger Dave Whish-Wilson said...

That sounds like a good reading list Peter. I would have liked to have read Celine a little earlier than I did (early twenties), although I certainly wouldn't have been ready for Musil in my late teens...

December 24, 2012  
Blogger Lauren said...

We had The Confusions of Young Torless as undergraduates, which I think is a better option if you want students to actually read Musil.

I took The Man Without Qualities in the original on a long haul flight. London to Sydney and back got me most of the way through it (I read very fast), and then it sat for ages before I finally finished it. It's certainly very interesting, and as you've noted has some great lines, but I prefer fractionally more plot at that length. There's some interesting German audio versions/remixes etc out there - I might revisit the story via them one day.

For this era, to be honest, I prefer Stefan Zweig. (And Karl Kraus if I'm feeling cynical and politically flexible.) Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers covers a similar period and issues, but is one of the hardest works I've ever slogged through. I made the mistake of trying Joseph Roth *after* wading through the above authors, and had simply had enough of the topic. I should try again one of these days.

December 24, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

The Man Without Qualities is terrific (and gets better as it goes along) but maybe you should point out for readers about to rush over to amazon that its about a million pages long and unfinished...

December 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...


Dave, it was a terrific reading list. Kafka, Joyce, and Proust were also on it, along with a seventh author whose name slips my mind.

I took the course my junior year in college, which means I would have been 20 or 21. The professor, then nearing the end of a long career, had followed Celine around when he was young and Celine was older. I later found a biography of Celine that included a hysterically funny footnote about the professor that I can't repeat here for fear of breaking some country's libel laws.

Musil muses so widely on history that most students, in the North America of the last quarter of the twentieth century, would not have been aware of, and so deeply on growing older that I can't imagine young people getting it. Of course, I could be flattering myself that I get it now.

December 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Readers: Adrian's right; The Man Without Qualities is long and unfinished. But I wouldn't worry about that much; just let yourself be carried along by its musings about history and personality and science. You'll love them.

And Musil did give a thought or two to plotting. I finished reading the first of the novel's four "books" last night (the first two are in a single volume, so don't be scared), and Musil ended the book with the brilliant twin cliffhangers of chapter introducing first Moosbrugger the murderer, and then the notion of Austria competing to outdo Germany in celebrating the jubilees of their rulers (Franz Joseph and Kaiser Wilhelm II, respectively). The fate of such a killer hanging in the balance would be enough for most books, but the fate of the old order and of Europe thrown into the bargain? In his leisurely way, it's looking to me as if Musil knew how to create anticipation and suspense. The man could have made a living writing potboilers had fate conspired that he do so.

December 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...


Lauren, I defer to you in matters of Central European literature from when Europe turned upside down. But see my reply to Adrian for a thought on Musil and plotting. I have not read Torless, but I agree that the title alone might make it more attractive to undergraduates. On the other hand, The Man Without Qualities is a compelling title, as well.

All the authors you mentioned have, naturally, come up in my recent reading and are therefore on my radar. I bought a small book of Karl Krauss' aphorisms, and I'm reading Roth's Radetzky March concurrently with Musil and some other books (though Musil has edged the other contenders aside for the moment.) But it's Roth's nonfiction that knocked my socks off and got me started on my current binge. I read "What I Saw" (whose introduction quotes a ruefully prophetic letter from Roth to Zweig), and my copy of "The Wandering Jews" arrived in the mail today. Maybe nonfiction would clear your reading palate. Where should I start if I read Zweig?

December 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I may have erred on the division of The Man Without Qualities; I'm not sure how many books the novel is divided into. But the novel has been published in three volumes, I think.

December 24, 2012  
Blogger Lauren said...

Peter, with Zweig, I'd definitely start with his autobiography (World of Yesterday). And on that non-fictional note, I may well try Roth again, especially since I've been re-reading Elias Canetti for other reasons of late. It does seem a bit unfair to dismiss him based on context (I finished Radetzky March with no enjoyment whatsoever, because at the time one more word about Austro-Hungary would have made me scream. Moderation in all things is not such a bad idea, I suspect, including literature.)

I came at the authors of this period sideways, from music, so my own preferences and knowledge are somewhat on the random side. I first read Franz Werfel because of his wife, and said wife's previous husband. (Actually, I can't be the only one given that Tom Lehrer actually wrote an entire song about Alma Mahler. And rhymed "bauhaus" and "chow-house". Hmmm.) And I read both
Hugo von Hofmannsthal's and Zweig's correspondence with Richard Strauss before I encountered their literary work. Which is enough to make one pretty jaded!

December 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lauren, a friend who tried to comment on this post but could not recommended World of Yesterday as well, so I hope she reads your comment.

I know some of Gustav Mahler's music, which is enough to make me moody yet reconciled to what fate holds for me.

After reading Roth's nonfiction and twenty or so chapters of The Man Without Quality, which are sharp, funny, and direct toward their targets, I can imagine one might grow a bit impatient with the slow, stately Radetzky March

December 25, 2012  
Blogger Lauren said...

To avoid a post the length of Musil's work - a couple of other points.

I'll be interested to know what you think of Kraus. I think his writing's fascinating in context, but I'm not sure how well it's stood up beyond that. (And I don't know which bits have been translated.)

On Torless, it's good, although I tend to view it more with Schnitzler than with Roth et al. (I also think one or two modern novelists who set books in Vienna may have been fractionally over-influenced by it, but that's another story.)

On Man with Qualities and plot: for me, it suffers a bit from what I call Monte Cristo Syndrome (since that's the novel where I first encountered it.) I can see the set up, and it's good, but I get a bit tired following it along the way. Same sort of problem as War and Peace, and Musil doesn't benefit from having an actual ending, as the other two works do. (The new translation includes masses of notes, alternative chapters etc - apparently there were over 10 000 pages of typescript left after Musil's death. Since I've never made it that far in the German edition, I've no idea whether there's an ending lurking there or not. I'd say maybe one day, but in all honestly, probably not.)

December 25, 2012  
Blogger Lauren said...

Mahler's complete symphonies played in the background while reading Musil - I'm not sure if that's a recipe for enlightenment or a nervous breakdown!

(The Lehrer song is very funny. I'd forgotten he also rhymes Walter Gropious with 'copious'.)

I've been reading a very good German crime series set in late 20s/30s Berlin lately, so this series of posts comes at an interesting time. (The author's Volker Kutscher.) I do wonder, though, if the audience's knowledge of what is to come is eventually an insurmountable hurdle for works set in this period. Particularly when the hero's a not-particularly-corrupt cop. I keep having a nasty feeling of "what's the point?" every time a crime is solved.

Anyway, sorry to monopolise your blog. It's the first chance I've had to babble for some time.

December 25, 2012  
Blogger Lauren said...

And it appears I can't spell Gropius. Oops.

December 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lauren, I don't know how I'll feel after a few hundred pages of The Man Without Qualities, but at a few chapters a day, it is a stunning succession of ideas, and then of ideas that question those ideas. And they are important ideas, dealt with much more entertainingly than their gravity would suggest: nationalism, the self, the great-man theory, and so on.

December 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd say Karl Krauss' aphorisms stand up. How well he stands up in context beyond one-sentence length. I can say with respect to context that Musil not only stands up well in context, but he helps make sense of about 150 years of context. I still don't know if I'll finish reading that unfinished book, but I don't have superlatives to describes what a mental stimulant it has been so far.

Monopolize away. You allow for good conversation, and you drive my traffic up at the same time.

December 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And what should I have on my desk at this moment but The Memoirs of Elias Canetti, apparently an old review copy that made its way here some time ago.

December 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I keep having a nasty feeling of "what's the point?" every time a crime is solved.

I missed this pregnant observation when I first read your comment. I agree that that question must loom over any crime fiction set in the German-speaking world. It's probably no accident that two of my favorite German-language authors when it comes to foreshadowing World War II and the Holocaust died in 1938 and 1939: Friedrich Glauser and Joseph Roth. (One of Glauser's novels ends with a chilling radio broadcast.)

December 25, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Non sequitur alert:

Merry Christmas!

December 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Good wishes are always appropriate. A Merry Christmas to you as well.

December 25, 2012  
Blogger Lauren said...

I think the larger problem with my response to Musil might well be that his work wasn't my first encounter with a lot of these ideas, which made the work as a whole harder to get through, even though Musil does express many of the concepts far more elegantly and penetratingly than some of his contemporaries.

It's for a similar reason that I tend not to enjoy much crime fiction set in Germany in the 20s and 30s - I'm too critical a reader, and there's not much background colour left which is genuinely new to me. That's why I was slightly surprised that I found the Kutscher series mentioned above gripping enough to keep me reading past the first book.

With this sort of setting for crime fiction, I'm usually left with two questions: can the crimes be solved before the situation makes conventional justice impossible, and will the hero/heroine be able to save their own neck and that of their associates/friends/lovers? After a certain date, question one resolves itself, which leaves question two as the main factor keeping me reading. (Other readers may differ). But not many characters hold up under that level of scrutiny, and there's a limit to the number of *good* Germans one can plausibly pack into this era.

(Quite apart from the fact that *good* or politically acceptable is a variable concept. Karl Kraus is a good example here - was supporting Dollfuss justifiable or not? But I'm glad you think Kraus still has some value, at least line-by-line.)

Oh, and I'm also very fond of Glauser's work, though I think some things are definitely easier to write from Switzerland.

December 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lauren, perhaps future editions of "The Man Without Qualities" ought to be subtitled "The End of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Traumatic Birth of Modern Europe for Dummies." Such a friendly subtitle might sell a few copies.

What I mean is that for a reader who lacks the experience with the ideas floating around Vienna at the time, "The Man Without Qualities" could serve well as an amiable textbook for a course on the History of Ideas. I like that it's a novel of ideas that delights in poking fun at the idea of ideas.

It appears that Volker Kutscher has been translated into French, Spanish, and Italian, but not English. I wonder if that's something Bitter Lemon Press might be interested in.

December 26, 2012  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

I bought a copy of A Man Without Qualities from the used bookstore where I work many years ago, and I was curious as to why I'd never read it (I know it had been highly recommended by someone whose recs usually push books pretty high up my to-read list.) I just dug it out and it all came back to me: I have volume one but no volume two.

December 29, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It is apparently one of those classics that relatively few people have read. More people ought to ready it.

I am nearing the end of Volume I and will order Volume II.

December 29, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

Kelly, I think you are probably in the ideal situation. You have volume one and can reward yourself with volume two if you ever get there.

December 29, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's what I did, and I ordered Volume 2, which I expect by Wednesday afternoon. That should dovetail nicely with my finishing Volume 1.

December 29, 2012  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home