Tuesday, August 5, 2008


'The proverb has it that nothing succeeds like success, and nowadays even an ordinary man of letters is likely to have an inordinate fuss made over him long before he has become a Great Author, when he is still a reviewer, columnist, radio scriptwriter, screenwriter, or the editor of some little magazine; some of them resemble those little rubber pigs or donkeys with a hole in their back where you blow them up.

When we see our Great Authors carefully sizing up this situation and doing their best to mold it into an image of an alert population honoring its great personalities, shall we not be grateful to them? They ennoble life as they find it by their sympathetic interest in it. Just try to imagine the opposite, a writer who did none of the above. He would have to decline cordial invitations, rebuff people, assess praise not as a grateful recipient but as a critic, tear up what comes naturally, treat great opportunities as suspect, simply for being so great, and would have nothing of his own to offer in recompense other than processes going on inside his head, hard to express, hard to assess, merely a writer's achievement of which a time that already has its Great Authors has no great need. Would such a man not remain a total outsider and have to withdraw from reality, with all the inevitable consequences?

This was, in any case, Arnheim's opinion.'

--Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, Pt. II, Chapter 95: "The Great Man of Letters: Rear View"

I've made it to the end of the portion of Der Mann that Musil published in 1930 (725 pages). I'm taking a little hiatus while backtracking to read some of Musil's earlier work. But I've also been taking a little time to familiarize myself with what's been published, in English, on this beguiling and fascinating author. Not much in English exists on him. I don't think his work is forbiddingly Germanic, so it's a curious fact of literary history that he has not been more fully resurrected from the obscurity he had sunk into by the time of his death in 1942. While not exactly the outsider that Arnheim contemplates in the quotation above, it's clear that the kind of writer there being opposed to the Great Author, and to the 'ordinary man of letters,' is a figure much like Musil himself. And that's why he interests me.

It seems a safe assumption that, in Musil's day, Thomas Mann would fit the bill of the Great Author, a colleague whose success Musil resented and envied, not that he could have emulated it had he wished to. Mann was, more than any of that great literary generation born 1870s-90s, a traditional novelist, heir to the Tolstoyan sense of the novel. Almost everyone of note in that generation found that kind of novel 'in crisis' because the times themselves were in crisis. But the greatness of Mann is that he was able to weather those times with a conviction of how the novel, as it was for the 19th century, could still amount to a rational grasp of the inward movement of the times. But I don't mean to pick on Mann, I merely select him because of his pre-eminence as the German novelist of Musil's day. But what really interests me in Musil is not only the extent to which he is an outsider to his own generation, but also the degree to which the world he describes still applies in our day.

In our day, we could say the Great Author is the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, perhaps John Updike, Philip Roth. The authors who have attained a stature and status that lifts them above the productions of mere novelists -- whether the up-and-coming 'greats' or the page-turner-producing bestsellers. The Great Author, as Musil means it, is one who 'everyone who matters' reads, not merely 'anyone.' The Great Author has cornered a certain market -- might, like Morrison, like Mann -- have a Nobel prize, or at least has made the list for consideration at some point. The 'ordinary man of letters,' in our day, strikes me as all those writers ensconced in this or that quality writing program, or influential literary journal, or, as the case may be, celebrated at Cannes or Sundance.

Then there are the writers like Musil ... like Joyce, who never got a Nobel ... like Pynchon, whose novels don't get made into movies. Or like Proust or Kafka who are simply so great that the epithet 'Great Author' sounds like the weak, kitschy advert blurb that Musil means for it to be. Such writers simply defy everything to attain 'merely a writer's achievement.' It could be said that some of the writers I've named set out for such an achievement and what becomes of them -- as Great Authors, as celebrated occasions for readerly infatuation -- is not their business, can't significantly alter what they have achieved in writing. To some degree I do believe that, and I also see that the business of literary criticism is to separate the hype from the achievement, to determine, as it might, what is Great, in the sense Musil means, and what offers that particular kind of challenge that Musil has in mind, as exemplified by his own unfinished masterpiece. But, as he cannily saw, literary criticism isn't really up to that task, which explains the relative silence that still surrounds his achievement. For, in the world of letters as in everything else, we have 'the democratic dodge of replacing the immeasurable influence of greatness by the measurable greatness of influence. So now whatever counts as great is great; but this means that eventually whatever is most loudly hawked as great is also great, and not all of us have the knack of swallowing this innermost truth of our times without gagging a little.'

So that, in effect, the silence around Musil -- relative to the busy scholarly industries that swarm over the oeuvres of his major contemporaries, including the kitschy popular culture investments that make Joyce and Proust poster boys of modernist 'greatness' -- is in keeping with his own proscription of the fate that awaits those condemned to be considered great: 'Before he knows it, the Great Author ceases to be a separate entity and has become a symbiosis, a collective national product in the most delicate sense of the term, and enjoys the most gratifying assurance life can offer that his prosperity is most intimately bound up with that of countless others.' Out of many, one Great Author, in whose works we trust. A fate devoutly to be wished, for some, for others, a supreme irony, or an outright absurdity -- like the Bloomsday celebrations in Ireland where folks try to choke down a pork kidney at 8 a.m. or the efforts of acolytes attempting to activate their Proustian memory banks with the obligatory petite madeleine in tea.

Or is it true what Oscar Wilde said, 'the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about?' And greatness, in the end, is simply inspiring the most interesting talk? If so, Musil has a ways to go before becoming great in this country. But what if the criteria is inspiring the most challenging thought? If so, his greatness is assured and exists in the only place it can be found: on the pages of his book.

No comments: