Here’s a working rule of thumb when pondering criticism of Musil: the longer the work, the more divided the opinions. There isn’t much divergence of judgment about Törless or the two plays, for instance, and the exquisite stories in Vereinigungen and Drei Frauen are largely respected if not often really understood. But Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften splits readers into opposing camps; either this colossal novel takes fiction to previously undreamed-of heights of sovereign relativism, relativity, and narrative mastery through non-completability as the final revelation of truth in literary structure, or it fails—though magnificently, despite its brilliant irony—to achieve basic form, to fulfill even the fundamenal requirements of a novel. (Check Doderer on the latter view.)
Maybe the reverse is true, too; the shorter the work, the more nearly unanimous the appreciation. Seldom has Nachlaß zu Lebzeiten been esteemed as less than a rarely elegant, rigorously arranged set of reflections and observations, a book of miniatures capturing with utmost success the passion of Musil’s intellectuality and the rigor of his emotions. As his admiring and competent translator, Peter Wortsman, writes in an afterword to this edition, acknowledging Musil’s many branches of expertise, “ [. . .] each sentence is a poetic treatise unto itself, taking aim like a sharp-shooter’s rifle, whirring like a well-oiled engine, fitted with the perfect balance of a theorem [. . .] and keen psychological insight, the whole capped off with the mysticism of a skeptic” (171). First published in 1936 by Humanitas Verlag of Zurich as a kind of concession in his destitute Swiss exile—a concession made by Musil to his own growing awareness that the nature of his undertaking had made it impossible for him ever to finish Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (hence one reason for the wryly valedictory title of the new book)—Nachlaß zu Lebzeiten unites previously published pieces into a small collection arranged with transparency of form and strictness of sequence from the ironic angle of observation the title suggests.
Small pieces, more than a few of them “occasional” in the best sense (ephemeral, that is), but nothing here is minor, incidental, or worthy of less than at-tentive, serious contemplation. Musil divided Nachlaß—let’s say Posthumous Papers, though—into four sections: “Pictures,” “Ill-Tempered Observations” (a characteristically sardonic bow to Nietzsche and his Unzeitgemäße Betrachtungen), “Unstorylike Stories,” and “The Blackbird.”
These pieces are treasures, the more precious for their small compass. In the midst of beautifully executed sentences, whose rhythms and cadences Wortsman’s fine ear and delicate sense of style lead him to render with skill, a sudden hilarious or heartbreaking phrase can take on the character of high celebration or deep lament, as when the narrator (Musil “himself”?) of “Can a Horse Laugh?” (14-16) tells of once having seen that phenomenon and adds, “Well, it was before the war; it could be that since then horses no longer laugh” (14). The slow cadence of mostly monosyllables works to slow the breath and tug the heart in sorrow as the elegiac point gently accrues toward the end of the sen-tence. The “Pictures” reward contemplative reading and pondering with new insights–the word meant literally–into ordinary people, places, things, and events. One piece is called “Sheep, As Seen in Another Light” (19-20); but everything Musil touches on is “seen in another light” and as if for the first time.
Two of the “Ill-Tempered Observations” appeared in English long ago as “Two ‘Unpleasant Observations’”—Odyssey Review 3, 1 (1963), 213-18, trans. Sigurd Burckhardt—so a comparison with Wortsman’s version is possible here. Wortsman touches Musil’s irony and allusiveness more surely and gently; the echoes of Nietzsche are more clear from the very title on. As for content, the pieces offer satire all the more devastating for being rather quiet, devoid of sarcasm. No writer has ever parodied the sentimentality and cut-rate lyrical pastoralism of Heimatliteratur better than Musil in “Who Made You, Oh Forest Fair . . . ?” (99-105), and the implied skewering of writers like Waggerl or Grogger was an unobtrusively political act in the years of the Ständestaat in Austria or of estab-lished Nazism in Germany. Likewise, “Threatened Oedipus” (106-09) achieves high satire in a few pages, expressing mock-concern that the universal desire to return to the womb might disappear now that women, by not concealing their bodies as they used to, have removed the mystery. No diatribe of Karl Kraus was more effective in demolishing the claims of psychoanalysis, and Wortsman is responsive to every nuance of Musil’s gentle rejection.
Short excursus on “What’s a poor translator to do?” The “Unstorylike Stories” aren’t stories at all, according to the original, which calls them “Geschichten, die keine sind.” By definition, translations fall short, and by nature, translators do the best they can. Wortsman’s heading ingeniously avoids the awkwardness that would necessarily result from anything more “literal.” (Try your own version, dear reader, if at all inclined, and you’ll see what I mean.)
As for the unstorylike stories themselves, what wonderful stories they are! They display a quiet panache and an unerring sense of narrative development hiding behind their apparenance of not being about anything in particular. Here Musil fulfills the dream of so many writers to achieve an oeuvre sur rien. Each piece is unstorylike in a different way, seeming to violate in turn basic principles of sequence or logic only to grow in the reader’s mind as perfectly organized and articulated wholes. “The Blackbird,” a longer story that constitutes the fourth part, is one of those haunting narrations that lingers and lingers without the reader’s quite know-ing why. It’s a fully valid story in itself, but the appreciation articulated by Wortsman in the afterword (176-77) puts into eloquent words the haunting effect of this justly renowned tale.
Posthumous Papers of a Living Author is, in brief, the Musil book for those who don’t like or who at least have their doubts about Musil—a state many more readers are in than will admit it. The balanced arrangement of the whole is matched by the form and structure of each individual piece. No wonder this edition is the third printing in as many decades, a book whose return is welcome and for whose reappearance thanks are due to the excellent Archipelago Books. The volume itself is a bibliophilic delight of typography, layout, and cover work, the kind of volume they proverbially don’t make any more.
This reviewer had occasion to greet this book in an earlier edition, and his praise is undiminished now. Having gathered considerable experience himself as a translator in the meantime, he can only envy the inventiveness and sensitivity of Wortsman, whose renderings of Peter Altenberg also merit praise. This or that quibble is always possible, if not inevitable, for a reason best articulated by Hilde Spiel, who pointed out that the translator is too close to the work, under too urgent constraint to fashion the new version, to entertain many alternate possibilities, doing which would bring his or her work to a stop. The outsider can always see from a distance, and the temptation to kibitz or to play Monday-morning quarterback is overwhelming.
Critics of translation need to remember, too, what Christian Morgenstern pointed out; there are only bad and less bad translations, and the most a translator can hope for is to have his or her version be as little bad as possible. The “something lost” factor is unavoidable, but given that fact, ingenuity in staunching loss becomes a positive virtue, and some translators are legendary for their preservation of nuance and shadings.
Any demurrers from this reviewer would be captious and more a matter of prefer-ence than a statement of anything objectionable. I am as allergic to the use of nouns as adjective modifiers (“A Culture Question”; “Art Anniversary”) as I am to the music of Chopin, for example, but I realize it’s me, as they say; in fact, anything that jars me in these translations (using “that” instead of “who” or “whom” as the relative pronoun for persons) is idiosyncratic, and usage through the last six centuries of English proves me captious and wrong here. I also probably need to find a little fault here or there to compensate for my complete admiration. Unlike certain luminaries, Wortsman does not translate thousands of pages a year from German; he is judicious and selective, and the result shows in prose that can be heard as elegant, in rhythms and balances that really reflect the author’s mastery of style. Who could ever hope to capture the short rhythms of the original title in English? (Again, try it before you judge!) That said, Wortsman provides as efficient and literary a solution as can probably be found, and the rest of his endeavor is admirable.
The third edition in twenty years makes this little volume a kind of classic in itself, aside from the status of Musil’s original. Posthumous Papers of a Living Author has earned the status it enjoys, and it needs to be greeted (again) with enthusiasm. Writing teachers take note—these pure and flawless pieces ought to be the basis of instruction in fiction classes and essay-writing workshops; this book should be known far beyond the specialist area to which it is sadly likely to be relegated. Colleagues, read it with joy and pass it on to the creative-writing professors and anyone else who can appreciate real writing.