From Focus on German Studies, University of Cincinnati
review by Anna E. Baker
Peter Wortsman’s new translation of Robert Musil’s Posthumous Papers of a Living Author provides an excellent and imminently accessible translation of Musil’s concise and ironic prose. AlthoughPosthumous Papers first appeared in print in 1935, this collection of stories, observations and essays written predominantly between 1920 and 1929 remains a remarkable commentary on post-World War I Germany. The very title proclaims its thesis: the juxtaposition of posthumous and living creates an ironic nexus from which Musil’s concept of “cultural pessimism” stems. The pervading thesis of this collection is as defined by Musil is that “man as a culture-consumer is, in an insidious way, dissatisfied with man as a culture-producer” (79). The ironic title underscores the sense of manufactured consumerism that permeates the entire work as well as a decisive reference to Max Brod’s 1931 posthumous publication and editing of Franz Kafka’s works.
Robert Musil is a German-language writer in the truest sense; he was born in Klagenfurt, Austria, in 1880, studied in Berlin and fled the Nazis in 1928 with his Jewish wife to Switzerland where he died in 1942. While some of the essays and stories in this collection stem from the First World War and Musil’s work as a journalist during those years, most were written for various journals and newspapers between 1920 and 1922. Musil’s self-proclaimed “little book” not only reflects the type of audience but the atmosphere in which it was conceived:
To publish nothing but little tales and observations amidst a thundering, groaning world; to speak of incidentals when there are so many vital issues; to vent one’s anger at phenomena that lie far off the beaten track: this may doubtless appear as weakness to some, and I will readily admit that I had all kinds of doubts regarding the decision to publish.
Thus his collection of stories, observations and opinions are a true reflection of the state of German society during the post-war era. Posthumous Papers is divided into four parts entitled “Pictures,” “Ill-tempered Observations,” “Unstorylike Stories,” and “The Blackbird” that depict various aspects of Musil’s theme of cultural pessimism.
Like many of his contemporaries, Musil is an author who defies classification. He is neither an Impressionist nor an Expressionist and even the title of Modernist does not precisely describe his writing style: he is more a sum of all of the above. Many critics have labeled Musil a neo-Romantic by comparing his writings to Edgar Allen Poe’s or E.T.A. Hoffmann’s due to the occurrence of fantastical elements in many of his writings. His story “The Blackbird” exemplifies this neo-Romantic inclination in that the main character undergoes a life-changing experience following three visits from a mysterious blackbird; the first causes him to leave his wife, the second occurs as he narrowly avoids death in the form of an aerial dart, and the third causes the character to see the blackbird as a reincarnation of his mother.
The stories in “Pictures” present a vivid picture if war-torn Europe and it is here where Musil’s exemplary form of Kurzprose (short prose) is best captured. In “The Mouse,” he described a mountaintop bench which, in his eloquent words, has “been abandoned by” (27) the war only to be damaged by a mouse which digs trenches around it. “Monkey Island” is darkly prophetic with the simians on an Italian island creating a concentration camp with the lesser primates being persecuted mercilessly. One of the stories in “Unstorylike Stories” functions as a blueprint for his magnum opusDer Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities) as it tells how a childhood friend of the narrator attempts to adopt a character.
Musil is a master of short prose in that his writings reflect not only his training as both an engineer and journalist, but also the modern post-war and post-Freudian world into which it was conceived. He continues to be compared to the great modern writers of the turn of the century like Kafka, Proust, and Joyce precisely because of prose like that contained in Posthumous Papers. The “Ill-tempered Observations” focus on the rampant cultural consumerism and pessimism Musil finds endemic to modernity. The various observations reflect on the rampant consumerism of post-war Europe by commenting on the purchase of postcards for the sole purpose of conveying personal-exclusivity or the declaration of a beautiful landmark evidence of a manufactured label by a panel of anonymous experts. He even states that the poet had fallen into the abyss of culture consumption and worse, that there are no true poets left anymore.
While Posthumous Papers of a Living Author is not nearly as well known as Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß (The Confessions of Young Törless) or Der Mann ohne Eigenshaften (The Man Without Qualities), it is an excellent example of Musil’s style and approach to Kurzprose. Peter Wortsman provides an accurate as well as a very accessible translation of Musil from the German into English. Musil may claim that “There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument” (64), in his essay “Monument;” however, this work reflects the atmosphere of its inception and the cultural pessimism he perceives at the end of World War I. In that sense, his collection of stories and observations is a monument to the period of time between world wars. Thanks to Wortsman’s excellent translation, generations of non-German speakers will be able to access this fascinating literary and cultural contribution as an integral facet of Musil’s writing and an enriching contribution to his presence on the stage of world literature.