It took a serious enough depression, lasting several months, for me to get past the first fifty pages of The Man Without Qualities and to come to the end of Robert Musil’s project. I did it. I personally know maybe three-four people who managed to read the two thousand pages of the MWQ. What I have to say about Musil in this essay will relate to the reading of the MWQ. Musil, in the act of reading him, is when we’re reading him, is what’s happening when we’re reading him, when we’re inside this book that appears to have been made by no one, to be without a particular author, that suburban house or princely hotel on an avenue in Prague where everything is destroyed by the uprising, and where the uniform destruction of everything has now become the style.
I can say this book was one of the greatest reads I’ve ever had and that it was eminently obscure, illegible and irresistible, that reading it was a mysterious chore, almost insurmountable for most readers, but that, once this chore is accomplished, while the reading sinks in, what rises from it is magical. Deadly dull chapters will blow you away once you’re onto the next.
Musil is also not to be understood. It’s once the reading is done that his writing is edified. The reading of Proust, on the contrary, edifies itself while you’re at it, and as soon as it’s done it becomes a part of his history, his bestiary, his shrine. Perfect it is, and perfect it will stay. Proust resembles himself in every moment, he never looks elsewhere, he sticks to home turf, to Proust. Next to him, Musil is demented, he goes looking beyond his strength. The one that died for literature, that was Musil, not Proust. Proust died of loving himself to the point of sacrilege. Musil died from having not caught, in one go, in one book, and for eternity, the divinely ridiculous illusion of the european nations that they held the secret to the universal understanding of peoples. This was happening in 1914.
It seems to me, we can say that the object of the writer Musil was not only to write, that he’s something else as well as a writer, that he is otherwise also a writer, that writing is not his only concern, that it is what seems irreconcilable to any writing that concerns him, for example, historical truth, the indefinite incidence of any idea whatsoever- whether it has to do with aviation, with the iron mines of Central Europe, or with the rethinking of essayistic writing at the turn of the century. Musil is that too, the attempt at everything, the everything of the world.
His physicality is similarly remarkable. He has a face like a masterkey, it can’t be seen, beheld in the mind’s eye, all his photos appear to be anthropometric, tragic. Because Musil means the insurmountable attempt at writing, the impossibility of doing it, the folly of wanting to. This is the great difference between he and Proust. When I read Proust, I was young, charm let the breeze blow through the sentences and my happiness at reading him never became a nightmare. I had to read Sodom and Gomorrha in eight days, the MWQ in four months. The last chapters of the MWQ after what I’ll call the scene of the telegram of the father’s death are nightmarish, we watch the novel peter out, while Musil, like a slave, tries to find for us a Balzacian ending. The prince André of the MWQ, the prince of nothing, Ulrich, is the hero of our time, more so than the heroes any contemporary novels have proposed.
But we’ll never be finished writing about this madman, Musil, or about ourselves.
Musil makes me want to write, but not like springtime does, not like culture does, not like teaching does, but like I do, like my own fatality does, as though everyone were a writer.
Novelist, playwright, and filmmaker, Marguerite Duras was awarded the Prix Goncourt in 1984 for The Lover. She was also the author of India Song; Destroy, She Said; The Malady of Death; Four Novels; a collection of her journalistic writing, Outside; and a collection of essays, Practicalities. She died in 1996 in Paris.