Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Hermit living in a Novel

I just found this wonderful sentence in some notes Musil wrote around 1914 (thus early on in his conception of his own novel) in a musing about the difference between novels, novellas, and dramas:

Why does no one write a novel of 25000 pages? An ancient forest of a novel, wherein one could live like a hermit lives in God?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Contra Mundum Wants You!

Contra Mundum's newest birth, The Selected Poetry of Emilio Villa
    As you all know, it is extremely difficult in this day and age to keep a small independent press alive, especially one publishing translations of obscure books, like my own current translation/collection of Robert Musil's Small Prose (forthcoming in 2015 with Contra Mundum).
   Contra Mundum Press has a new plan to keep thriving and to keep being able to publish these important works--a plan that would depend on your subscription/donation to the cause for the next three years. In exchange you will get three free books a year and a discount on any other books you want, and the satisfaction of knowing that you are helping keep a small press alive. Since I will be publishing translations of Robert Musil  with Contra Mundum (one every year or every other year for the next 5 or 6 years or so), you can be sure to get free copies of new Musil, as well as many other interesting books.

Here are the official details:

Contra Mundum Press (CMP) is a New York based boutique publishing house dedicated to the value and the indispensable importance of the individual voice. Our catalog includes poetry, literature, drama, philosophy, film criticism and essays. In the future, we intend on expanding it to include works on architecture, music, & other fields.

In order to reach our next stage of development, CMP is currently seeking at least 300 donor/subscribers to promise to commit to offering $100/year to the press for a period of three years. In return, each donor/subscriber will receive three books/year of his or her choice as well as a 15% discount on any other books they wish to purchase.

When achieved, this will generate a guaranteed $30,000 per year for the press and enable it to devote further funds to design, editing, marketing, and to offering needed advances to translators and editors. Some of these funds will also be used to create a new website more in line with the character of the press, as well as to purchase translation rights necessary to further expanding our catalog. This support will also help CMP to establish an even more prominent global presence over the next several years and to further extend its impact.

While it is nothing like an exhaustive account of our projects & critical reception, the following précis indicates the scope & reach of CMP, as well as our development – in the space of 30 months – into an independent publisher whose work has been heralded in the pages of The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, The Paris Review, The Quarterly Conversation, & the Los Angeles Review of Books

As a press that models itself on Goethe’s notion of world-literature, CMP’s focus is global. To date, we have published translations from Sumerian, French, Hungarian, Italian, and German. Additionally, we have published several world premiere books (both by Fernando Pessoa), two bilingual books (French–English; German–English), several multilingual books, and we will also be publishing translations from Turkish as well as other languages.

Since publishing our first book in January of 2012, CMP has received awards from the Hungarian Book Foundation, the French Embassy (Hemingway Grant), TEDA (a Turkish literary foundation), and the Austrian Ministry of Education, Arts, & Culture. Our translators include distinguished and world-renowned figures such as Mary Ann Caws, Tim Wilkinson, and Stuart Kendall as well as new translators like Genese Grill (NEH recipient and the only English-language representative of the International Robert Musil Society) and Dominic Siracusa (recipient of the Raiziss/de Palchi Fellowship for his translation of Emilio Villa).

While many if not most presses do not credit their typographers, CMP has reinstituted the colophon to give such due recognition. Meticulously conceived by Alessandro Segalini, each CMP book is typeset in a clear, balanced, & precise manner and nobly spaced, making them eminently pleasurable to read, beautiful objects in their own right.

The global vision of CMP extends beyond its publications to events staged in New York, Budapest, Berlin, and Karlovy Vary, including a retrospective of Elio Petri’s films curated in collaboration with the Italian Institute of Culture and Arsenal (Institute for Film and Video Art). Most recently, in 2014, our author Josef Winkler was invited to both the Austrian Cultural Forum in NYC and to the PEN World Voices Literary Festival. For a complete list of our publications and further info about the press, download our catalog here:



If you wish to lend us support, payments can be made via Paypal to: info@contramundum.net (those without a Paypal account can still pay via credit card thru the Paypal site), or by sending a check to CMP at:

Contra Mundum Press
P.O. Box 1326
New York, NY 10276

To note some forthcoming highlights, in the fall and winter of 2014 we will publish Fellini’s Making a Film and the first ever translation of Miklós Szentkuthy’s legendary Prae. Some publication highlights of 2015 include Robert Musil’s Short Prose, vol. 1 of the letters of Otto Dix, and Turkish modernist Oğuz Atay’s While Waiting for Fear. We have also agreed to publish the writings of internationally renowned Hungarian-German cinematographer and director Fred Kelemen, who also shot films for Béla Tarr, and are currently negotiating to acquire the rights to a number of books by Jean-Luc Godard.

Contra Mundum Press contramundum.net/

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Schoolboy Gavrilo Princip, who shot Franz Ferdinand on June 28th, 1914, 100 Years ago Today, and the Danger of the Writer

 Here is a passage from Musil's notebooks:

Preface to a Contemporary Aesthetics[1]

[End of 1935 or beginning of 1936]

Princip, the student who, in 1914, with his pistol shots so enraged the venerable Great Powers that they attacked each other, was secretly a Serbian poet, and this was something from which the Great Powers have not recovered to this day; and the man who saw to it, through his spirited, but stubborn and somewhat one-sided attributes, that this War had no end, namely Georges Clémenceau, obviously had a poet living inside him — a poet who didn’t get enough air, who had become rather poisonous and who influenced the politics of his master in the direction of his own prejudices.  I also know of a fairly good light novel written by Mussolini before he came to power one that might be read in any familyand this successful statesman, despite his real fame, is now having a play that he wrote produced.  Is it a surprise that he is every inch an artist, as many of his admirers assert!   The German revolution, further, yielded, soon after its victory, the remarkable phenomenon of the publication of dramas and novels written by many of its leaders and deputy leaders that had not been heard of before — providing an insight that no revolution up to this time has offered.  In a word, one must remind those irredeemably blind people who despise literature that even Nero set Rome on fire once, and this not just because he was mentally ill, as is maintained, but above all because he was a writer.  Their respect for writing will increase if they notice that not only amateur writers, writing dilettantes, but also writers who for one reason or another never fully managed to devote themselves to writing, have set the world on fire.

Compared to them, the real or fully developed writers are not dangerous in any way and, aside from spiritual theft, bourgeois bankruptcy, and offences against public decency, have never done anything serious at all.  The source of restlessness in the kind of people who destroy worlds is transformed in these writers to a quietly burning and nourishing hearth-flame and they make a well-ordered export business out of the adventures of their fantasy.  So if one wants to prevent revolutions, one must encourage the writing of literature; and Germany’s erstwhile revolutionary party, the Social Democrat Party, had actually put that into practice, by placing good novels in all their libraries, while having their librarians warn the workers against reading them, because these writings were nothing but opiates intended to put the revolutionary proletariat to sleep.  It was admittedly a surprising success, for the party of these strictly controlled revolutionaries has been hounded out of Germany, in the most passionate fashion, by a party whose members enjoy the reading of novels to an inordinate degree even if they aren’t the best novels by a party, indeed, whose members even write novels themselves.

It is probably dangerous for revolutionaries to read good books or to admire beautiful pictures.  Science, too, is dangerous for them; they prefer popular science, and attend lectures in educational clubs which provide them with a prospect of solving the world’s mysteries.  The well-known assertion that the arts and sciences flourish in peaceful times can obviously be turned on its head, and is then still capable of demonstrating a relationship between cause and effect; for it is the blossoming of the arts and sciences which makes the times peaceful, insofar as it divests them of something whose loss puts the driving forces of history to sleep.  Nietzsche has already made clear this reciprocal relationship in his comment: “no one can spend more than he has: that is true of an individual, it is true of a people.  If one spends oneself for power, for power politics, for economics, world trade, and military interests — if one spends in this direction the quantum of understanding, seriousness, will, and self-overcoming which one contains, then it will not be available for the other direction.  Culture and the state — one should not deceive one’s-self about this — are antagonists: ‘Kultur-Staat’ [culture-state] is merely a modern idea.   The one lives off the other, the one thrives at the expense of the other.  All great ages of culture are ages of political decline: what is great culturally was always unpolitical, even anti-political.”[2] Remarkably, Nietzsche forgot to include fantasy in the list of shared provisions on which both politics and culture feed, although fantasy is precisely what an adventurer, a creative writer, a politician, an historian, a philosopher and a soldier must have in common and which they must, at mutual expense on the part of these many sides, give one-sided shape to; one could even say that they all must also have a certain level of intelligence in common.  But what does their fantasy amount to if it doesn’t attain to this level?  Are they then devoid of fantasy?  Is their fantasy stupid?  Or do they have a criminal fantasy?  Do they have the fantasy of bad men or that of bad novels? 

Nietzsche, in making his assertion, had decline caused by over-refinement dancing before his eyes and this assertion expresses a basic rule about the division of spiritual energies, which, by the way, tends to be most attractive in its most extreme cases; this is so because in a perfect state there would be no place for the strenuous music of Beethoven, and because conversely politics would have to disappear under perfect cultural conditions.  If one returns, however, to what can actually be experienced, the above observation says nothing more than that a people cannot be simultaneously political and spiritually creative, thus happily arranging for the non-creative people to enjoy the greatest degree of spiritual freedom of action, since it says nothing at all that would contradict the possibility that a people could be, at one and the same time, spiritual and lacking in political creativity.  So we are going to investigate how culture and politics get in each other’s way:  this is how, today, we might begin the preface to an aesthetics.

[1] The following translated by myself. —Trans.
[2] From Twilight of the Idols, sect.  4: What the Germans Lack” -Trans.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Philosophy of a Shoe Factory

I couldn't resist sharing this draft translation of an unpublished Musil gloss on standardization from 1924-1926. It will be part of the collection of pieces I am translating for Contra Mundum Press.

Philosophy of a Shoe Factory

I have the propaganda insert of a daily paper to thank for these ideas; it was as thick and large as a folio volume and concerned itself with nothing but the development of the technology, the organization, the social services, the economic, political, and moral foundations of a shoe factory. It is the largest shoe factory in the world. It fabricates ___. It serves___needs of the world. It employs___workers. It nourishes __people. It is no small thing. Some people would say, such reading is more valuable than a novel. I can’t quite contradict them. But since I love novels, I would first like to look at the shoe factory from this stand point.
We Standardize
For older readers, who grew up before we were standardized, an explanation is required: in industrial terms, standardization means that everything that can be made just as easily alike as differently is made in the same unified way by all factories. That has great advantages, clears away a completely pointless disorder, cheapens and makes life a pleasure. If one wants to change the ink ribbon of a typewriter, one no longer has to search for a store that sells just one type of ribbon, because all typewriters will have ribbons of the same width and length, and if one loses the rubber on a pedal of one’s bicycle, one no longer will find 400 different kinds of pedal rubber advertised at the bicycle shop, among which precisely the one you want is missing, the one that you have in an isolated exemplar on the second pedal. A great number of things are already being standardized, screws, fittings, apertures, armatures, construction parts for pipelines, hospital supplies and laboratory apparatus, tools, luggage, and a great deal more is being standardized, there are commissions  bearing noble names like  Fanok and Dechema, and we stand at the beginning of a great spiritual movement, which the Renaissance will have nothing on.
It should thus be allowed to make a few preliminary predictions about the time when the standardization movement will not only refer to products, but people too. There can be no question but that the standardized person will have many advantages when compared to the unstandardized,  but despite the fact that energetic attempts to attain this goal are underway, unnecessary obstacles still stand in its way. Let us start by asking ourselves, what would the standardized person look like?  He would be interchangeable. Since today all beautiful people are thin here, but fat in the orient, the submission of nature to uncertain diameter can be settled. The same thing can be said of the standardization of specific degrees of height, which the ready-to-wear industry will demand from parents; the Japanese already breed large oily wrestling types alongside the dry-broad-small jujitsu types with special diets.  Man will change by his clothes every quarter of a year, but will always look the same; even that has almost been attained today; the need for luxury can easily be stereotyped by determined levels of workmanship, just like the tax rates, and in a very refined society one’s rank can be symbolized (satisfactorily) by a price tag that reveals that one paid three times as much for one’s suit, even though it is the same suit.
These are simple problems. But aren’t the good person, the moral, the normal, the useful person, are not the ideal patriot, the disciplined ideal party member, the perfect citizen already standardized people?  Visions of the future are herewith opened up for all standardizing institutions. What they already have always done, they will now do with the aid and the unquestioned authority of science and technology.  The current of the times is taking a direction that serves their purposes, the remains of the individual are polished away. Love, this ancient forest of eccentricity, will become an utter embarrassment. Who today can still say “you, only you,” with a good conscience? Everyone knows that the correct formulation is “you, you typical”.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

New Translations of Musil's "Small Prose"

Greetings, Long Neglected Readers,

        Although there are a number of things I have wanted to write about here over the last months (Musil and Wittgenstein; Musil as part of Earnest Modernism), I have been somewhat distracted with a number of projects not least of all the preparation of a manuscript of previously un-translated Musil prose pieces which will hopefully be published by Contra Mundum Press in 2015. In the meantime you may read excerpts from this forthcoming collection in two journals. Fiction Magazine, which published one of these stories in its last issue, will be featuring another 6 or 7 of them in their next issue  (Fiction Magazine www.fictioninc.com/‎); and Hyperion's brand new edition presents three other pieces, along with a number of other fascinating translations (from Szenthkuthy, Lou Castel, Carmelo Bene, and Marina Tsvetaeva, among others).  You may find  pdf's and some other virtual formats at:  http://contramundum.net/hyperion/

In the meantime, here are some teasers. First, the beginning of one of the stories in the upcoming Fiction:

Susanna’s Letter

My dear— I can only recommend to men who have the looks for it that they bandage up one of their eyes; even in love less is more. On our last journey a man who only had one eye sat across from me; the other eye was covered by a black bandage; I assure you, it is melancholy, this black, covered, adventuresome eye, withdrawn from the world; you can tell yourself ten times that this man probably just poked his eye with his dirty fingers, the fantasy doesn’t believe in a catarrh. You can also try to convince yourself, as much as you want (if this state of having one eye really did have a poetic cause), that this poetry of having one eye, from Wotan to Wagner, is merely the kitsch of our brothers’ dueling, or the excuse of our husbands, who, as soon as they arrive in the majestic years and begin to get comfortable, commonly point to Odin’s example, whose wisdom was won at the expense of sensuality. It doesn’t help you at all; the dark eye plays Chopin upon you.

And now an excerpt from one of the stories in Hyperion, "An Inn on the Outskirts," a story that appears in a different and shorter version in the Nachlass section of The Man without Qualities, translated there by Burton Pike. Warning, the full story is somewhat gruesome. But here is a small piece: 
Shortly thereafter there was no sound in the whole house. The light of the candle had not yet found the time to creep into all of the recesses of the miserable room. The strange gentleman stood like a flat shadow at the window, and the lady, in anticipation of the unknown, had sat herself down on the edge of the bed. She had to wait a torturously long time; the stranger did not move from his position. If things had moved quickly up to that point, advancing onward like a dream, now every movement stuck in brittle resistance, not allowing a single limb to loosen. He felt, this woman expects something from him. How dare she?! She expected to see him “at her feet.” He knew, you should now “cover her with kisses.” He became nauseous. Her dress was high-buttoned at the top, her hair artificial: to unbutton it was to unlock the unimaginable vault of a life’s innards, the door of a prison. In the middle there stood a table; on top, the objects of her life; in their slippers, with faces. He looked at them with hostility and fear. She wanted to catch him; her hand pressed his unceasingly towards the latch. In the end all that would be left would be to spring in like a grenade and to tear the wallpaper from the walls in shreds!  With the greatest strain he was finally able to wrest at least one sentence over these obstacles: “Did you notice me right away then, when I looked at you?” Ah, it worked. A fountain of speech overflowed. “Your eyes were like two black thorn apples!” — Or had she said “stars”? — “Your wild mouth—”

Friday, February 7, 2014


Miklós Szentkuthy
In a note in May, David Auerbach recommended I read Miklós Szentkuthy's Marginalia on Casanova, written in the 1930's, but just published for the first time in English by Contra Mundum Press in 2012 in a translation by Tim Wilkinson. David wrote, "More than any other book I've read, I think it reaches for a kind of non-rational (but not irrational) other condition of the sort Musil was aiming for". I got myself the book right away, tried to read it, didn't understand what it was at first, and let it fall behind a pile of other books and whatnot for a while, so that now it looks like I have owned it for about ten years and carried it with me in a war.  It is part of a ten volume work (ranging from the 30's to the 1970's I think) called St. Orpheus's Breviary, each volume of which begins with a portrait of a saint and then turns into a collection of non-linear marginalia on another book, usually an autobiography (other subjects besides Casanova include St. Augustine and Elizabeth Tudor as a girl), which functions as an oblique sort of self-portrait of the author, a search for the self through history, culture, philosophy, and the other.

 Szentkuthy, in a prospectus for the work, writes: "...the work seeks to portray both European history and the vegetative world of nature from an essentially religious, supernatural viewpoint. Although both the lives of the saints, as well as the other figures, famous books, and cultural manifestations of history are, in point of fact, nothing more than different features of  a lyrical self-portrait, the various roles and masks of the author as it were, the work is in essence 'religious', because from love to politics the emphasis throughout is on the battle of the body-politic of God and the body-politic of the world" (293, from the afterword by Maria Tompa). Szentkuthy writes further: "The aim of Orpheus is to find the human ideal and an acceptable lifestyle that a thinking cerebrum and a sentiment in search of happiness can wish for after the broadest possible circle of historical, the most universal religious, and the most profound natural historical experiences. The aim is thus an unmistakable humanist one; it seeks to find the man beyond every variant of cultures, all promise and failure of sciences and mythologies, the most distant periods and far-flung regions, the vast yet nevertheless finite shades of psychology. What remains of the masses of experience left behind? What can be utilized in the future? What is the play of time and what is the indispensable essence and possibly a permanent positive?"(294-5).

What Szentkuthyy does not prepare us for here is his use of language, his imagery, his style. It would be just as much a mistake to reduce him to a social commentator as it would to make Musil one. While Marginalia on Casanova is not a "novel" in any traditional sense, it is definitely a work of poetic force. He does say that in "its goal and method [the project] belongs to the old genre of the Bildungsroman, a novel of a person's formative years, uniting the leading genres of the present day, the essay, and the autobiography in a common big framework" (295), but that again neglects to mention the language itself, and even undercuts the experimental boldness of the non-linear and fragmentary structure of the massive work, which itself instantiates a powerful aesthetic experience . Here are a few of my favorite passages so far:

"19. Love is concealing oneself, secrets, lies, deception in civilization. From it a poet and moralist is able to coin for himself 'tragedy', which is Greek for dotage. For Casanova, however, it is the animating force, the very lifeblood.
    At night, when one's fate hangs on whether or not someone left the key in the lock or hung it up on a nail; when three candles are burning or just one on a balcony; when one has to flatten against the wall in the stairwell and leave the stolen cloak of a stranger on the coat hook; when one has to creep from one room to another along deserted soul passages; well, that is the world where there are two dominants—the lie and the object. Never did lamp, handkerchief, key, candlestick, stocking, sword, hat, seat or plate hold so splendid a triumph as in this trick of atmosphere..."(60).

"One is well connected with Europe's frolicking twins, one of whom is customarily nicknamed 'this world,' the other as 'otherworld'. By 'this world' is understood Nature, stars, & flowers, the big furor of 'elan vital' and the black tic of enthusiastic death, Paracelsian grand demonism of existence— and by 'otherworld' religion, the great mythological review of the gods and their moral shades, the despairing heavenly masks of eternity.

    As one looks at the definition of 'worldly', one knows that — Casanova cannot be familiar with such things, either separately in & of themselves and even less set in antithesis.
    To him 'this world' was not an animated grand nature, but  a street two canals from the Chiesa di SanMoisé, three camellias on the table instead of a lamp, exactly eleven thousand liras and exactly ten minutes to 11; not, not, not 'existence', nor 'time', nor 'freedom'. In just the same way, 'otherworldly' was not an intolerable cargo of myths but at most a temporary shudder, a canalized Masonic hocus-pocus, a wee brooding horror, and that's all — after all, he had the fiery & transparent key of metaphysics in his hands: happiness. Happiness, which never knew, and never will know, the 'worldly' and 'otherworldly', Nature and God, laicism and theology — since only unhappiness makes distinctions, only a cripple 'specifies': joy is unitary, and he found everything within himself. That is why he wrote such symbolically succulent sentences 'Diese metaphysische Kurve erschien mir widernatürlich zu sein....'[This metaphysical curve seemed to me to be against nature; the quotes from Casanova are given in German since Szentkuthy read the Memoirs in a German edition] (61-62).

"When as a prelude to love he gets ready wine from Cyprus and Italian cheese, he has not the slightest intention of flaunting some theatrical, anti-spiritualist gesture— as Toscanini (an undying association in connection with Casanova from the viewpoint of self-torturing rigidity)said, just play exactly what is written in the score, or in other words he is not troubled by any myth of intellectual 'form', so too Casanova only does exactly what is written in the notes of body and nature, neither more, nor less. That mathematical 'point', that algebraically split-off 'just', is the sublime, the Italian, the classical in him : the Florence!
   Eating soaked with good wine is a precondition for success in love, so let's eat and drink if we embark on physical capers; the body has to be brought into good shape, that's all. Here the Cyprus wine is also symbolic: Cyprus is crammed with Venus-underworld tree and boudoir-island associations; how fitting that there it is not a legend, or poetry, but a drink. 'Ciprus':  for that word to have some point it has to hit the stomach. Casanova is able to place myth, thought, and poetry in the composition-steeled orchestra of his world:  there can be only association, only aroma — a thought is a volatile oil, a spice, the hint of a taste, whether a tang of lemon or marjoram: who would be so crazy as to eat a stew of cloves?" (63-64).

It is always a thrill to discover an author whose works had been lost on the other side of  a language border. To think that Musil and Szentkuthy were both once citizens of that same empire of Austro-Hungary, and that they were, at the same time, searching for answers to those perennial questions which, in their time seemed to be quickening to an urgent boil, is at once comforting and disquieting. It makes me wonder how many other voices have been lost altogether and also makes me aware of how much force, genius, energy has ever been directed at these unanswerable urgent questions...and to such tenuous, but nevertheless potently significant avail (like the potency of the above-mentioned cloves,  a spice of thought to season our sensual animal existence).  Musil and Szenthuky are distinguished by their rejection of dualist thinking, and their attempt to find some other reality beyond the 'worldly' and 'otherworldly', beyond empiricism and intuition, beyond the 'ratioid' and 'non-ratioid' (to use Musil's awkward pair). They both were grasping with wide arms and encyclopedic, all-encompassing reach to some explanation and some guiding pattern for how to live in the modern world, balanced as we are like tight-rope walkers upon an impossibly disappearing line of dualism between mysticism and logic, science and aesthetic experience, precision and soul, essence and creative existentialism — a  line that may well turn out to be totally illusory, leaving us walking on air.