is primarily known for one major work, I go read a smaller work, for a couple of reasons. 1) I almost always like the major work better and well, that makes sense, since it’s the major. 2) I am often worried that when I like a writer, reading their major work will ruin anything else they’ve written. 3) Often the major work is a more challenging text to read.
In this case, it’s all three, especially given that Robert Musil’s major work is like 1800 pages long.
This small collection of stories, originally two books put together to introduce Robert Musil to a large Anglophone audience, contain five mini-epics about women in relationships with men.
I state that in that awkward way because these are not simple constructions around a man and a woman being together. Something about the circumstances of each complicates the overall connection.
“Grigia” – In this story, an engineer is working for a mining company far away from his family. As will happen in at least one of the other stories, he is taken in by the peasant charms of a local woman. You can imagine that this leads to some complications with her life. His selfishness or his thoughtlessness, as happens with lots of stories, destroys her life while merely inconveniencing his.
“The Lady from Portugal” – The set up for this story is so alien to my American sensibility. It involves a man who works as a man-at-arms/guardsman (but in a vaunted way) for a Bishopric. Unlike his compadres, he is married to a young woman from out of the country. She spends all her days away from him until 12 years in he is injured. As he convalesces she better connects with him. As he is healing, his fate is somewhat uncertain because the bishop dies. The company gets a cat, who then becomes very sick, and becomes a symbol of the dying nature of their enterprise.
“Tonka” – Another story in which a promising young man falls for a peasant-like girl from a far off land. In this one, he is Austrian, and a student of great promise, and she is Czech woman. Their subsequent marriage is mostly chaste, and so when she becomes pregnant it begins to complicate matter intensely.
“The Perfecting of a Love” – This story is about a “promiscuous” young woman who cannot seem to settle into her love for a man. She is troubled by her own feelings and by her own behavior and so begins a period of soul-searching to figure out what is going on. It sounds like it could be horrid, and rife with sexism, but because it focuses heavily on her sense of wanting stability instead of her internal chaos and doesn’t treat her like a depraved sinner, it works. This marks the change in the collection from the three later stories which are more like central European “tales” to much more psychological stories about the workings of a singular life.
“The Temptation of Quiet Veronica” – The collection ends with this story about a woman almost literally torn between desire of the mind versus desire of the body. She is trying to decide between two opposing forces in her body represented by the voices of two lovers she seems to be working through which to marry. But because both are strong and she is not simply trying to rationally decide but to allow the decision to emanate through her body to provide clarity, she is torn.
In this collection, there is a kind of fear that captures the hearts of the different men and women, and I would call it the disruption of a teleological view of life. That is, a view of life as a narrative with a beginning a middle and an end. There is a real fear of the disruption of a pre-ordained set of plans. Musil expertly captures how the plans made by a mind are disrupted by those made by the flesh (or heart if you’re being sentimental).