Flypaper, by Robert Musil and translated by Peter Wortsman
Robert Musil is famous (being a bit generous with that word there for a moment) for his unfinished novel The Man Without Qualities. By all accounts it’s an incredible work. I’m too fond of editors to ever welcome the idea of reading an interrupted book – one that not even the author finished polishing – but I’ve been told that for Musil I should put that prejudice to one side.
Fair enough, but The Man Without Qualities has another barrier besides being incomplete. It’s nearly 700 pages long. That’s a lot to launch into with an author I don’t know.
Enter Penguin Modern Classics with their pocket editions each coming in at around the 60 page mark. Flypaper is a collection of fueilletons, short essays, by Robert Musil. There’s nine of them in this tiny collection, and as an introduction to Musil it’s about as good as it could be. That’s the joy of these little Penguin editions. They cost almost nothing, they’re concise and they’re a tremendous way to try out an author who for one reason or another you might be unsure about investing in.
Each of the nine little pieces in this collection is a small marvel of mercilessly precise observation. The title narrative, Flypaper, consists of a description of a piece of flypaper and the slow death of the flies that land on it. It’s at times hard to read. Partly I admit because I had nightmares about flypaper as a child (someone unwisely left some above my bed at a relatives home, meaning I had a front line view of exactly what Musil describes here. Whether that caused the peculiar horror I still have of the sight of dying insects or whether that fear already existed and so made the flypaper terrible I have no way of knowing). Partly though because Musil takes something as insignificant as the death of a fly and by not looking away invests it with majesty and with a more universal significance.
Here’s Flypaper’s first paragraph, after which it gets much more disquieting:
Tangle-foot flypaper is approximately fourteen inches long and eight inches wide; it is coated with a yellow poison paste and comes from Canada. When a fly lands on it – not so eagerly, more out of convention, because so many others are already there – it gets stuck at first by only the outermost joints of all its legs. A very quiet, disconcerting sensation, as though while walking in the dark we were to step on something with our naked soles, nothing more than a soft, warm unavoidable obstruction, and yet something into which little by little the awesome human essence flows, recognised as a hand that just happens to be lying there, and with five ever more decipherable fingers holds us tight.
Musil then explores the flies ever tiring attempts to free themselves, each miring them more firmly to the paper. He talks of moments of furious struggle, of sudden exhaustion, of the slow despair and futility of a fight against inevitable disability (as wings and limbs become stuck fast) and death.
There is real empathy here, and it is the empathy which makes it so awful. The next, Monkey Island, examines a small island in the heart of Rome. A wide and deep ditch separates the island from the land around it, and on it is a tree and a colony of monkeys none of whom can quite jump or climb that ditch.
This then is the monkeys’ kingdom. Musil’s gaze sweeps over it, from the strongest monkeys who form the royal family of the island to the outcasts who live within the ditch itself. It is a microcosm of us, a point Musil has no need to underline but which cannot be avoided as he shows the social and literal gulf dividing those monkeys who have from those who feed from fallen crumbs.
I won’t describe each essay. They are superbly written. Some, like those first two, draw out uncomfortable truths about our own existence. Some, such as The Painstpreader or It’s Lovely Here are satires, of artistic mediocrity on the one hand and of tourists’ desire to encounter “something that is acknowledged by experts as beautiful” on the other.
The briefest piece, titled Sarcophagus Cover, is a touching description of two ancient Roman sarcophagi that have on them a couple still gazing affectionately at each other through the long centuries. The last, The Blackbird, is a sort of fable different in nature from all that has gone before. Not so much an essay as an example of his fiction, but no less finely crafted. Musil has range.
This next quote is an entire piece, albeit a very short one. I hesitated to quote it, since after discussing Flypaper and Monkey Island there’s a risk of giving the impression that Musil only focuses on the cruel. That’s not true of course. What Musil focuses on is the world.
Fishermen on the Baltic
On the beach they’ve dug out a little pit with their hands, and from a sack of black earth they’re pouring in fat earthworms, the loose black earth and the mass of worms make for an obscure, moldy, enticing ugliness in the clean white sand. Beside this they place a very tidy looking wooden chest. It looks like a long, not particularly wide drawer or counting board, and is full of clean yarn; and on the other side of the pit another such, but empty, drawer is placed.
The hundred hooks attached to the yarn in the one drawer are neatly arranged on the end of a small iron pole and are now being unfastened one after the other and laid in the empty drawer, the bottom of which is filled with nothing but clean wet sand. A very tidy operation. In the meantime, however, four long, lean and strong hands oversee the process as carefully as nurses to make sure that each hook gets a worm.
The men who do this crouch two by two on knees and heels, with mighty, bony backs, long, kindly faces, and pipes in their mouths. They exchange incomprehensible words that flow forth as softly as the motion of their hands. One of them takes up a fat earthworm with two fingers, tears it into three pieces with the same two fingers of the other hand, as easily and exactly as a shoemaker snips off the paper band after he’s taken the measurement; the other one then presses these squirming pieces calmly and carefully onto each hook. This having been accomplished, the worms are then doused with water and laid in neat, little beds, one next to the other, in the drawer with the soft sand, where they can die without immediately losing their freshness.
It is a quiet, delicate activity, whereby the coarse fishermen’s fingers step softly as on tiptoes. You have to pay close attention. In fair weather the dark blue sky arches above, and the seagulls circle high over the land like white swallows.
The phrases there. “A very tidy operation.” The fishermen with their “kindly faces” impaling the worms. The transition from fat life to “squirming pieces” and the tidy convenience of the sand-filled drawers. The fingers that “step softly as on tiptoes”. Marvellous imagery culminating in that final vision of freedom and beauty and utter indifference. To the fishermen the worms are no different to the hooks or the drawers; the gulls are part of their scenery, as they are to the gulls.
I’ve not commented on the translation. Obviously I’m not familiar enough with German to read the original (or I would have), so I can’t say how faithful this is. I can’t say that of any translation really. Still, the language is spare and precise and beautiful and I can’t believe but that Wortsman has done an excellent job here.
The point, as I understand it anyway, of the Penguin pocket editions is to tempt readers to try new writers. For me it’s worked. I’ve tried Musil, who I knew about but was daunted by, and I’m no longer daunted. I plan now to pick up a copy of his short novel The Confusions of Young Torless and that going well I think The Man Without Qualities is looking a lot more enticing than it once did. Well done Penguin.