by Robert Musil
translated by Peter Wortsman
Undertaken after the succès d'estime of his first novel, The Confusions of Young Torless, the two novellas that make up Intimate Ties marked Robert Musil’s first great critical failure. Denounced as aimless and experimental—the charge of expressionism was bandied about—the collection was a fantastic flopola, and it doesn’t really take a careful autopsy to see why. Suffused with a dreamy eroticism but composed in an ironclad prose, the books are perilously short on the irony that would come to dominate Musil’s magnum opus, The Man Without Qualities. At the same time, though—and this is part of their appeal—their tortured grapplings with the failure of language seem a necessary stepping-stone on the way to the maximalism of Musil’s later work.
Both novellas are experiments in the densening of time, attempts to compress and elaborate a moment until it gleams with a prismatic, diamond-like fulgor. In this way they’re similar to the novels of Virginia Woolf, although they lack the grounding in a firmly realized social setting that helps to structure a book like Mrs Dalloway. Whereas Woolf is constantly returning her needle to the actual, stitching the jeu perlé of her characters’ thoughts to their immediate surroundings, Musil’s novellas subsist on a thinner armature, offering an answer to the question (not that anybody asked) of what exactly happens to a perfectly extended moment when its incidentals have been stripped away. The novellas that make up Intimate Ties are parables of drift, of the chaotic emotional climates of two women struggling to chart the storm-tossed seas within their breasts—they offer psychology, but a generalized one, lightly suited in the garb of life.
The first novella, and easily the better, “The Culmination of Love” follows a married woman named Claudine as she travels by train to visit her daughter, Lilli, who’s enrolled at a boarding school. On the train, Claudine shares a compartment with a charming stranger; knowing looks are exchanged, and roughly one-hundred pages later they sleep together. The muddy, enigmatic thought-process that leads to their coupling is the novella’s central focus. Claudine’s will is a fickle thing, apt to be off somewhere when she needs it most:
She never had a clear consciousness of even the faintest trace of a sovereign self commanding inner restraint in her unhesitating surrender to others. But there was some unacknowledged psychic substrata underlying all these actual liaisons, and even though she had never yet sounded this hidden dimension of her life and perhaps even believed that she would never dig down that deep in herself, in all that happened she nevertheless felt like a guest who, having set foot in a strange house just this once, unreservedly and come what may, surrendered herself to happenstance.
Claudine is a lush for happenstance, longs unconsciously for the old disorder of her pre-married life. Unable to comprehend her desires—whenever she tries, her thoughts disappear suddenly, sinking “as in a soft, formlessly whirling quicksand”—the boundaries of her self become ragged as old lace. The senselessness of chance, the way our lives are knitted together by no more significant thread than time, astounds and fascinates her: “Since feelings only exist in a long chain of other feelings, linked to each other, all that matters is that one moment in life be linked without a gap to another, and there are a hundred ways this might happen.”
The text itself is a slow purl of abstractions, but when Claudine succumbs at last to the stranger’s seductions, we receive a flashing insight. The man, an undersecretary, kisses her and asks if she loves him, but Claudine refuses to play along:
No, I love the fact that I’m with you. I could just as well be seated among the Eskimos. In fur pants. And have long pendulous breasts. And find that attractive. Are there not plenty of other people all there in this world?
It’s the embrace of empty possibility that attracts her, the surfeit of accident in which the steady step-by-stepness of lived experience loses its meaning. It’s not the old libido moriendi, but a lust for formlessness that drives Claudine, and in this way she typifies an essential condition of the modern age that Musil will worry over tirelessly in The Man Without Qualities. At the same time, her longing—to step lightly into another life, to immerse herself in an utterly foreign existence—is a familiar, human one. The great psychological insight of the novella is that it’s precisely Claudine’s married life, the most structured, definite existence she’s ever led, that allows this last encounter to be the ultimate frisson, the strongest disavowal of self she’s yet been able to make.
In the collection’s second novella, “The Temptation of Silent Veronica,” Johannes, Demeter, and Veronica live in a large house owned by Veronica’s aunt. The agonies arising from this unconsummated ménage à trois form the backbone of the story, which is nice, because there’s not a lot of action on display. Long before, as a child, Veronica had had a moment of sexual awakening when lying next to an aroused hound. At one point, Johannes drowns. And that’s about it. In lieu of events, the indeterminate nature of the soul and the constant uprush of Veronica’s innominate feelings once again take center stage. Though Musil’s carefully limned alienation comes on like a dark diapason, “The Temptation of Silent Veronica” lacks a clear signpost, something for the plot to build towards. For Veronica, the “waking soul is a bottomless hollow, billowing up against reality in undulating bubbles of ice,” and counterpoised against this is “the narrowness of her consciousness.” Slung between these two irreconcilable poles, Veronica’s heart thrashes about, beats itself mad, settles on nothing.
Both novellas share a central fault. The ruminations—unable to waft up naturally from a precisely limned psyche, and so never fully inhabited—are imposed on Claudine and Veronica. Against this objection, Musil poses the ultimate unknowability of the heart’s depths, seeming to take in stride the resulting fact that his ceaseless fine-tuning of his characters’ despair becomes so much paint thrown against the wall. A telling comment of Musil’s that the volume’s translator, Peter Wortsman, relates in his afterword is clarifying—Intimate Ties was among the author’s favorite works in his later years, but he only liked to dip into it, settling on passages at random.
Inasmuch as there’s ever one way to read a book, it’s a promising method. Although the images in Musil’s novellas often have a gloomy weight, out of the verbal downpour emerge, every now and then, like lampposts in the fog, a few crystalline phrases. Staring out at a country landscape buried in snow, Claudine ponders “the feverish white shadow play of empty distance.” A line of tea poured from a matte silver pot holds “still in the shaft of light like a twisted, transparent column of soft brown topaz.” A moment of stillness, of a shared gaze between husband and wife, is a “cambering of time.” Although this sort of enchanted lyricism is a rare display, it’s almost enough to make up for the tough-going of Intimate Ties. Beyond that, the collection is probably best viewed as another hole to be struck on the punchcard of diehard Musilites everywhere, if any of them are still kicking around.
—Bailey Trela is a writer living in Bushwick.