Monday, December 24, 2012

Robert Musil, Derek Raymond, and some fat guy on the roof breaking into my house

My proto-crime fiction posts, in which I discover antecedents for crime fiction in the world's great literature, are sometimes a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I‘m deadly serious when it comes to The Man Without Qualities. Consider the introduction of Moosbrugger in Chapter 18 of Robert Musil’s great unfinished novel:
"Moosbrugger was a carpenter, a big, broad-shouldered man without any superfluous fat, with hair like brown lamb’s-skin and harmless-looking great fists. His face also expressed good-hearted strength and the wish to do right, and if one had not seen these qualities, one would have smelt them, in the rough-and-ready, straightforward, dry, workaday smell that went with this thirty-four-year-old man, from his having to do with wood and a kind of work that called for steadiness as much as for exertion.

"One stopped as though rooted to the spot, when for the first time one encountered this face so blessed by God with all the signs of goodness, for Moosbrugger was usually accompanied by two armed gendarmes and had his hands shackled before him to a strong steel chain, the grip of which was held by one of his escorts."
That's a lot more effective than the scores of chapters told from inside a killer's head, usually in italic type, that fill contemporary crime novels.

I happened to flip through the opening chapter of Derek Raymond's How the Dead Live recently. That chapter, in which a crowd of bored, restless detectives thoroughly take the piss out of a lecturer who presumes to know how psychotic killers think, would make a nice companion to Musil's Moosbrugger passage. Both confront the salient fact that, for most authors and most readers, the gap between death and killing on the one hand and ordinary experience on the other is unbridgeable, unimaginable, even.

Musil and Raymond embrace the gap and make it part of their stories. Most crime writers, on the other hand ignore it, which is why all those passages from inside the killer's head are so much cheap and showy play-acting, more skillfully executed or less depending on the author's (and editor's) skill with words. It's also why not just Musil, acknowledged as one of the twentieth century's great authors, but also Derek Raymond, is infinitely greater than— well, you know who those writers are.
***
Here's another passage from Musil that I hope you'll enjoy as much as I did:
"She was capable of uttering the words ‘the true, the good and the beautiful’ as often and as naturally as someone else might say ‘Thursday’."
***
And now, it's a quiet night, but I hear strange noises on my roof: whispered orders, the skittering of small feet, the thump of larger ones, someone trying to break in. Time to reach for a shotgun and defend my castle.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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16 Comments:

Blogger seana graham said...

Do you happen to have a chimney? Because if so, you'd better watch out.

December 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

He'd have to have both the girth and the disposition of a weasel to make it down my chimney.

December 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I just linked to a New York Times openion piece through your blog roll. I was delighted to find that the piece said President Obama struck a religious "cord" in a speech. I eagerly wait to see whether the Times will correct its mistake and print my comment pointing it out. I would not bet my Christmas presents on either.

December 24, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

Or a ferret.

That Obama and his newfangled inventions. Come to think of it, a religious cord might be just the thing to send down someone's chimney and snag their loot.

December 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're yanking my chain on "cord."
But if you failed to do so, I;d think you were just stringing me along. Meanwhile, the Times should be shown a rope.

December 24, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

Nah, just spinning a yarn, Peter.

December 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

See? I know when I'm being needled.

December 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It looks like the Times is not going to correct the mistake. I really didn't expect my comment to appear; it could be interpreted as snarky, since it mentioned the paper's having farmed out its wire-service copy editing to a cheeper, nonunion shop. But two comments have now appeared on the piece, mine not among them, and the error remains.

I'm forced to conclude either that the Times' fragile pride or outraged sense of decorum overrides its desire to use English correctly, or that outside experts are exempt from editing.

December 25, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

Oddly enough, I was just watching an Agatha Christie mystery which involved an ingenious use of cord.

December 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So this thread strikes a chord with you.

The one crime novel I remember that includes an ingenious, clever, and very funny use of a knitting needle is Stuart Neville's Collusion, believe it to not.

December 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, the Times corrected its mistake but did not publish my comment. My work done--except that Adrian once said the Times had done the same to him: corrected a mistake but refuse to acknowledge that it had been corrected. Each of us was insufficiently reverent, I suppose.

December 25, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

Well, I'm glad they fixed it, anyway. It does seem odd that they wouldn't acknowledge the initial error, though. Is it just the fluidity of digital media? Kind of a 1984ish thought.

December 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't think digital media's fluidity has much to do with it. I suspect it's more that the New York Times does not like criticism from outsiders. In this case, though, my comment both had a nasty edge and may have hit the Times uncomfortably close to home:

"...he repeatedly struck biblical cords..."

"Cords? Has the Times farmed out its regular copy editing to a cheap nonunion shop, the way it did with its wire service, or are outside experts exempt from editing?"

December 25, 2012  
Blogger Dave Whish-Wilson said...

Re Musil and crime (and more broadly, the human condition), I chose this quote of his to open my first novel:

"And with one foot beyond the frontier I declare myself incapable of going further. For one step beyond the point where we have halted - and we should move out of the realm of stupidity, which is even still full of variety, and into the realm of wisdom, territory that is bleak and in general shunned..."

December 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dave, I am a couple of chapters beyond where Ulrich experiences a vision of Moosbrugger and his judges. I trust that with patience I shall understand the significant of that scene, and of the passage you chose as an epigraph.

December 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dave, I found another passage from The Man WIthout Qualities that would serve as an epigraph to a crime novel, Diotima and Ulrich, in Chapter 101:

"Diotima drew herself up. `Why are you always talking about criminals? Crime seems to hold a special fascination for you. What do you suppose that means?'"

"`Oh, no,' her cousin said. `It doesn't mean a thing A certain degree of excitement, at most. Our ordinary state is an averaging out of all the crimes of which we are capable.'
"

January 17, 2013  

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