Thursday, April 12, 2012


Musil's Death Mask
Sometimes one has the ability to see how very strange things are precisely because one is, oneself, strange. While many Germanists find it odd that Americans interest themselves for German or Austrian literature and think, perhaps, that we could not possibly understand it, it strikes me tonight, after day 1 of the Klagenfurt Musil conference, that an outsider has a special chance to see the surreality of this extraordinary subculture of Musil-researchers and devotees. Not that I am entirely an outsider, since I myself have devoted about 15 years of my life so far to this long-dead genius; but in contrast to, say, Karl Corino (the author of the giant 1000+ Musil biography), who has been so immersed in the details of Musil's life for 40 years that one could almost speak of a parallel existence or at least a sort of Beziehunswahn (literally a madness of associations or relations), I am an outsider. I remember the first time I went to one of these conferences, in 2001, in Saarbrücken, where I got to meet some of the famous names I had only ever seen on book covers or read about inside the books' pages. Corino was there then too, with sunglasses on, as I remember, in the evening in the bar, where he held forth surrounded by admirers, in his deep blasé voice about what Musil was doing at any particular moment of his life, what he did or did not read when, whom he had or had not met, which version of which passage he wrote when and what words he crossed out or misspelled, when he and from whom he contracted syphilis, etc.. At that first conference I met the grandfather of Musil studies, Adolf Frisé, who was in his 90's then. He had actually met Musil when he was a young man, and had spent his whole life and career in attempting to construct and arrange, transcribe and publish the unfinished novel, etc. He was very kind to me and we wrote to each other a few times before he died a few years later. I met his wife a few years ago, also in Klagenfurt. She is a writer, and she read a story based on their marriage, "Scenes from a Marriage," which described, among other things, his Musil-obsession and the way he wrote in tiny handwriting on the back of envelopes, hundreds of envelopes, also suggesting that he had hoped, when he had finished with Musil, to devote himself to his own literary  work, which never really happened, since it was a life-long work. Anyway, the names from the books, from the history of Musil-studies still impress me; a certain academic stardust accompanies them. Today the Herr Strutz was there and I shook hands with Frau Dinklage, a beautiful glamorous woman with platinum blond hair. She asked me if I was the wife of Corino!

In any case, I really don't know how to explain what happened when, after the papers were done for the day, after we ate dinner (I sat next to a charming man from Brünn who runs a literature museum; we discussed Marx, American politics, the meaning of life, getting old, and decided that nothing is in vain; the young men across from us, one who gave a very fine talk today about masculinity in Musil and another who will speak tomorrow about Karl Kraus and Musil, discussed Swiss universities), and after we drank perhaps too much wine, we all went back into the presentation room to hear Karl Corino read his poetry and prose. Walter Fanta introduced him, saying that he had always known him to be someone who cared for the facts, for truth, and that he had been really surprised to hear that Corino wrote poetry. He said he was actually a bit terrified, so much so that he couldn't open the book he had received in the mail. Corino said, coming out of a deep melancholy silence, "to this day?" And Walter didn't answer him. In any case, Corino began to read, with an accordionist playing beautifully in between. he began with a story about Clarisse's "afterlife," that is, after Musil's death. It seemed to me like a dream or a nightmare wherein all the people whom one knows play some strange role. I could only imagine what it must be like to be so totally immersed in someone else's life that even the stories one writes are somehow woven in with his.  One can almost speak, indeed, of it as a parallel life, as if Corino somehow lost or found himself in Musil and as if he no longer really knew what belonged to him and what to Musil; as if he were responsible for Musil, for his whereabouts and thoughts and actions. And since it is also clear that in many ways he does not approve of Musil's behavior and in many ways, despite the hyper awareness of details, may not really understand him, it is sort of like an uncomfortable family relationship: a mixture of envy, resentment, pride, frustration, ownership, identification and distancing. To hear a fictional text, then, written by Corino, with Musil's characters in it, was rather disorienting, extremely disturbing even. And maybe it really demonstrates how much Musil really was distinctly Musil, and not any and everybody else; that, in the end, neither he nor his Ulrich were without qualities or subjective identity; for, the hundreds of drafts and revisions and possibilities and probabilities in Musil's laboratory of the thousand manuscripts could only have been written by him, not by a machine taking all the details and facts into account, only according to his own particular selfhood, authorship, voice. And his healthy, robust, successful twin-brother Corino, who criticized Musil for his neurosis and ambivalence, took the same characters and came up with something different. I am not sure what it was or is. Something with affiliations to Musil, for sure; but somehow something about as foreign from Musil as possible.

How can we help but be influenced, infected even, by someone whose words we are so immersed in? We hope, perhaps, like with all relations, to inherit what we find good on our fathers and mothers, and not what we dislike; but we can't always really chose. And sometimes, try as we might, we feel like children exchanged by the gypsies during the night. But now I hardly know what I am talking about.  After the Clarisse story, Corino read some poems, very seriously, perhaps even beautiful at times, with accordion in between, and ended with a short piece about his favorite object: a death mask of Musil, or, rather, a bronze copy of it, which sits in his garden and seems sometimes to come alive as the wind blows blossoms down, "Breaths of a Summer's Day". Very strange, this life in death, this likeness in difference.

No comments:

Post a Comment