Thought Flights: Stories, Glosses, Literary Fragments of Robert Musil
Translated and with an introduction by Genese Grill
Contra Mundum Press, 348pp.
here are writers who draw readers into their magnetic fields so that everything they write is of interest—because the author’s dreams, thoughts, questions, do not simply mirror the reader’s but take him or her through the looking glass into a secret world. Literature in this sense is not an entertainment, but an initiation. The writer may be dead, but the words still hold life and in the case of Robert Musil, whom I know only in translation, it is the electric current of thought that seems to pass from his pages to me—teasing, taunting at times; asking me to accompany him into a zone of danger. There are other great novelists at the end of whose books or stories I have found myself changed, Kafka, Proust, Joyce, Virginia Woolf, come to mind, but I confess that none have exercised the continual hold on me that Musil does. And yet, Musil remains for all his frankness, elusive, perhaps because he often found his own existence and mind so.
If I begin with my own experience of Musil’s hypnotism, it is to explain why Thought Flights, the most recent publication of Musil’s work is such a valuable addition to his published work. The handsome edition of Contra Mundum Press has a long, thoughtful introduction by Genese Grill. She speaks both to the complexity of translating Musil and to the psychology of his prose, particularly in the feullitons, short pieces which make up a significant number of the pieces in this collection. They may seem at first glance as Grill remarks, using a critical phrase of Musil’s like “soap bubbles,” or “shenanigans,” Spielerei, but in fact like his major opus, The Man without Qualities, they attempt to explore “the other condition.” She defines Spielerei in her introduction as, “timeless states hovering between decision and act, like Kafka’s.” I have to admit that as a storyteller it is the short narratives that fix themselves most in my imagination. Musil with a few short strokes gives, a portrait of young girl hovering between childhood and womanhood in the stare of a man fascinated by her; the tale of a young man who lures an older woman, married woman to a room in a country inn, where his game of eroticism turns dizzily from poetry to clichés, to a final madness. The method of the short essays where the unexpected jumps out at us like a jack in the box is operating in these fictions. One can witness Musil setting up the spring of his plots for the longer stories and his unfinished masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities. I have read several of these short narratives before (published in the magazine I edit, Fiction), but joined to others not available before in English they come into a further focus. Thought Flights by bringing together a number of these short pieces makes clear what is not so evident when one reads in isolation a story like “Susanna’s Letter” about a woman watching a man on a train watch her through his monocle—that Musil, the writer as scientist, is deliberately experimenting with what happens as you shift the lens of narrative. So in the brief pages where the author watches the fourteen year old, for a few moments on a streetcar, “Robert Musil to an Unknown Little Girl” and imagines her as a child then as a woman; or the man who sees a pony and begins to tells the story of boys who steal a wagon and pony and in doing so finds a way to glimpse something of what he defines as his soul. We follow what are both narratives and investigations. What Musil is trying to do in these brief stories, reflections, essays, is to question the nature of reality. Like the other important writers of the Twentieth Century who absorbed the idea of Relativity, fiction and the essay are tools to try to understand, or see into a universe that is apprehended as forever shifting. The bantering laughing voice of the “shenanigan,” masks the serious intent of the attempt.
There is of course another way to view Musil’s insights—and writers who have pledged their vision to right the wrongs of this world will relish the political edge of Thought Flights or the sharp eye for Viennese social manners and smugly ignore Robert Musil’s curiosity about “the other” world. Genese Grill’s critical volume on Musil, The World as Metaphor, challenged the conventional portrait of Musil as merely a social realist and detailed the mystical and philosophical influences on his fiction. Thought Flights exemplifies an intuition she articulated in The World as Metaphor, “Musil, although he did not completely reject the existence of a shared, measurable and to some extent repeatable a priori reality, was fascinated by the idea of a magical relation through human action, thought, artistic creation, and the real physical world, a relation wherein what a person does, says, and even thinks, affects and even co-creates a shifting reality.” Whether it is language as in “Talking Steel,” fashion in “There Where You Are Not,” or the taboos of murder and cannibalism, we can observe Robert Musil in this collection searching for clues to his own elusive persona.
The translation has many happy moments when Musil’s laughter is revealed. Among my favorites, is the characterization of an out of work theater director, met accidently in the street, “Human sorrow can collect in the worn-out knees of a pair of pants. His face looked like a cornfield cut with a sickle.” And I would be remiss in remarking on Thought Flights, if I did not mention the careful notes that illuminate the many specific references to individuals and events in the articles and glosses. These provoke one to return to its riddling moments and read them again as I did in “Page from a Diary” where Musil writes to define what flashes between himself and a woman, M, as they recall fragments of childhood and emotions tied to moments that can no longer be experienced since the context for them has vanished. Learning from the notes that M is Martha, Musil’s wife, I realized that he is giving us access to their intimacy, a sense of what passed between them through the medium of stories. To do so is to catch the writer as his thought turns magical in his mind.
—Mark Jay Mirsky
Mark Jay Mirsky was born in Boston in 1939. He attended the Boston Public Latin School, Harvard College and earned an M.A. in Creative Writing at Stanford University. He has published fourteen books, six of them novels. The first, Thou Worm Jacob was a Best Seller in Boston; his third, Blue Hill Avenue, was listed by The Boston Globe thirty-seven years after its publication in 2009, as one of the 100 essential books about New England. Among his academic books are My Search for the Messiah, The Absent Shakespeare, Dante, Eros and Kabbalah, and The Drama in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, A Satire on Decay. He edited the English language edition of the Diaries of Robert Musil, and co-edited Rabbinic Fantasies, and The Jews of Pinsk, Volumes 1 & 2, as well as various shorter pamphlets, among them one of the poet, Robert Creeley. His play Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard was performed at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2007. His latest novel, Puddingstone, can be found on Amazon Books, both in digital and print-on-demand editions.
He founded the journal Fiction, in 1972 with Donald Barthelme, Max and Marianne Frisch, Jane Delynn and has served since then as its editor-in-chief. Fiction was the first American journal to publish excerpts in English from the Diaries of Robert Musil. Subsequently it has published translations of plays and other materials of Musil.
Mark Jay Mirsky is a Professor of English at The City College of New York.