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The Qualities of Austria's Man Without Qualities : POSTHUMOUS PAPERS OF A LIVING AUTHOR by Robert Musil; translated by Peter Wortsman (Eridanos Press: $21; 145 pp.) : ROBERT MUSIL by Lowell A. Bangerter (Ungar: $16.95; 144 pp.)

April 10, 1988|Scott Mahler | Mahler is a humanities editor at University of California Press .

The Austrian writer Robert Musil is one of the greatest essayists and novelists of the 20th Century. He is also one of the least well known. His reputation in this country rests chiefly on his monumental three-volume novel, "The Man Without Qualities," a masterpiece of modern literature that combines metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics to explore the possibilities for individual life and for humanity in a world of mass society and technology, with all its daily challenges to the mind, body, and spirit.

Musil's plays, novellas, and essays are far less well known, and until recently, were almost impossible to find in general bookstores. His acclaimed "Posthumous Papers of a Living Author," a collection of mostly satirical essays Musil wrote for various journals between 1920 and 1929, has never before been available in an American edition. The first publication of these masterful, incisive pieces by a writer whose work has been compared to the best of Proust, Joyce, and Mann is surely one of the brightest and most welcome moments of the spring publishing season.

Musil was born in Klagenfurt in 1880 and died in Geneva in 1942, an exile from his native Austria, where his books had been banned by the Third Reich after Hitler annexed the country. Though he received three prestigious literary prizes during his lifetime, Musil never attracted more than a small circle of readers among his contemporaries, and for much of his life depended on the financial support of his friends, publisher, and two Musil Societies that were formed, first in Berlin and later in Vienna. Musil was trained as a mechanical engineer (he invented and patented a device for use in psychological experiments with color perception) and was educated as well in philosophy and mathematics. After the successful publication of his first novel, "Young Torless" (1906), he decided to abandon his technical profession for the career of a writer. Looking back, we can see that Musil belongs to an extraordinary literary generation that includes Karl Krauss, Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka, and George Lukacs, not to mention Carl Jung or Ludwig Wittgenstein.

In the foreword to his "Posthumous Papers of a Living Author," originally published in 1936, Musil wrote that he had chosen to present his "literary effects" while still living so that he could help to establish his legacy "before such a time when (he would) no longer have a say in the matter."

The book contains three sections of essays called "Pictures," "Ill-Tempered Observations," and "Unstorylike Stories." In all of these pieces, Musil "observes human life in the tiny traits by which it carelessly reveals itself." Yet he does not always find these traits in a wholly human world. In a few essays, Musil wanted his contemporaries to see themselves in their individual and collective predicaments as citizens of the 20th Century as insects or animals: as flies stuck to fly-paper, overcome by spiritual and physical exhaustion; as a hierarchical family of monkeys imprisoned on a monkey island in the Villa Borghese in Rome; or as "timid and stupid sheep," an image of the masses that recalls the pictures of mindless, grazing cattle described by Nietzsche, who greatly influenced Musil's thinking and writing.

In almost all of the pieces in "Ill-Tempered Observations," Musil satirizes and criticizes the cultural life of his time. Though written about 60 years ago, these observations are still fresh, alive, and pertinent today. In an essay entitled "Black Magic," he takes a wonderfully humorous and mordant look at the prevalence of kitsch in art, concluding that "Kitsch equals language minus life. Art equals life minus kitsch equals life minus language." And in another piece on artists, he makes the distinction between the "paint-spreader" and the painter, remarking that "if over the course of the years you are compelled to pass through painting exhibitions, then surely one day you are bound to invent the term paintspreader . He is to the painter what the penpusher is to the poet."

Elsewhere, Musil satirizes the "pre-fab poet," a natural (and as abundant then as today) product of an age that, after all, had already engendered the "pre-fab custom-made shoe and the tailor-made suit to fit all sizes." In an essay called "Surrounded by Poets and Thinkers," Musil takes on the opinion that modern writers may no longer be capable of creating works of real substance and suggests "Why not look at it the other way around and consider the possibility that the German reader no longer knows how to read?" Of course the question can be broadened to include other readers as well.

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