all the more human

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.


Filed under Austro-Hungarian fiction, Central European fiction, Fueilletons, German, Modernist fiction, Musil, Robert

21 responses to “all the more human

  1. I’ve been looking at a Man Without Qualities, but I read some conflicting things about translations. Know what you mean about 700 pages. I’m about halfway through Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? which is 800 plus.

  2. Excellent review, as always– I love these mini Penguins, this year I discovered Donald Barthelme through them. I also know what you mean re: 700 pages. I’ve become a bit of a lazy reader recently,- and now consider anything that’s longer than 350 pages to be somewhat of a ‘project’, which is a shockingly bad habit that I really need to break.


  3. Looking forward to your thoughts on Drive. I see the film comes out on DVD in the UK in the New Year.

  4. leroyhunter

    I have this on the shelf, along with a few other Penguin shorts, and you’ve really whetted my appetite for it Max.

    I’ve already decided (possibly rashly) to attempt The Man Without Qualities but this collection sounds fine in its own right. It is a great initiative to allow you to have a taster of a writer – my main discovery so far has been Paul Bowles, whom I had ignored previously.

  5. Xmas is nearly upon us so I added this to my Amazon wish list and you never know.

  6. We have the collection “Folio 2€” here that plays the same role as your Penguin edition. I’ve discovered authors thanks to it.

    I like the part with the flypaper. It’s how I see humans: flies stuck on their glued paper named Earth, coming where the others are without thinking of the consequences, getting stuck sometimes, thinking they came freely but didn’t, thinking themselves as free when there aren’t and then realizing that escaping means cutting a part of themselves.

  7. it is ok this book but max you should read man without qualties it is a wonderful book I loved he is without doubt the unsung hero of the time ,all the best stu

  8. Can You Forgive Her? is a classic of his isn’t it Guy? Plus a not at all bad Pet Shop Boys song of course.

    Do Trollope and Hensher fill similar writing niches for you by the way? They feel somehow similar, not having read much of either.

    Drive is brilliant. I’ll probably write more than that for my actual review, but that’s the gist of it in advance. Thanks for putting me onto it.

    Tomcat, I have the same habit, though it’s 300 pages where I start getting cautious. One shouldn’t judge by width, obviously, but one only has so much time so a bit of that can be difficult to avoid. Even sensible.

    Barthelme, I know the name but that’s about it.

    Leroy, I fear The Man Without could be like Gravity’s Rainbow. Brilliant, but no place to start with. The Confusions of Young Torless sounds like a good entry too, 150 pages or so. Still, if you do launch into Man please let me know what you think.

    It’s one of those books I’d rather have on kindle, so as to avoid the need for weight lifting classes to allow me to pick it up and read it.

    Good luck Jim! It’s an excellent stocking filler. But then the whole series is really.

    Emma, it is an incredibly powerful image. The parallels are so clear, but Musil doesn’t beat the reader over the head with them. He/’s good enough not to need to.

    Did you review Man Stu? If so I’d love to read what you thought. Thanks for the recommend.

  9. Both Trollope and Hensher create these social petri dishes and then unleash their characters. Trollope is very much into the foibles of human nature. The Northern Clemency wasn’t funny–although King of the Badgers was hilarious. In that novel, Hensher tended to let his characters squirm a little more than Trollope but there seems to be a definite creative influence.

    Really glad you liked Drive.

  10. Well, that certainly looks interesting – you have certainly selected passages which bring out its qualities! I read the Man Without Qualities when I had to do a long commute to London – my edition is 1130 pages which is probably the longest book I read and I must say, it held my interest throughout. Although Trollope’s books are long I find I race along through them. But you’re used to long books anyway aren’t you.

  11. I thought some copies were over a 1,000 pages. I almost said that but a quick google search suggested it was shorter. If it held your interest throughout that’s no bad sign.

    Regarding long books, actually I usually prefer shorter and anything over 300 pages has me considering whether it merits the length. Obviously some books merit many times that, but plenty can just be a bit bloated. Short books can I admit be just as boring as long ones, since quality and length are unrelated, but they are at least over sooner.

  12. LaurencePritchard


    I started MWOQ (not sure it works as an acronym) a few weeks ago;I managed to pick up the old Picador versions when it was released as three separate books ages ago: perhaps this was go give me the impression that it’s shorter than it actually is, but in fact I’m a bit bored of hunking around enormous tomes especially on public transport (Freedom was particularly cumbersome). So far it’s a lot more readable than i thought, not exactly what you’d call light, but much less heavy-going. And, yes, it is actually quite funny too.

  13. It’s surprising how often once one gets into these books they turn out not to be as daunting as they seem.

    On the one hand it’s an obvious kindle candidate. On the other hand if I have a hardcopy people who visit can see I’m the sort of person who reads Robert Musil (though sadly they probably won’t know who he is).

    Vanity versus comfort. Always a difficult choice.

  14. Pingback: Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth « Book Around The Corner

  15. I didn’t attempt to read the Flypaper quote having also been traumatised in childhood by the death of flies. I have had to skip your worm quote too… so this book is probably not for me.

    Man Without Qualities was recently recommended to me, but the length was never mentioned. Hm. Still, the comments above are encouraging, and your appreciation of Musil’s style carries weight even if I can not stomach the subject matter.

    Despite some serious book envy, I haven’t come across these pocket penguins yet, and it isn’t for want of looking. Too small for short-sighted people to actually find? (Yes, I should have asked for assistance, but the only descriptive phrase that came to mind at the time was ‘mini penguins’ which sounded rather silly.) I suppose with Christmas looming I will be forced to sally forth into one of the neighbouring cities, and a self-interested trip to Waterstones might serve to sugar the pill.

  16. Probably not Sarah. Nobody describes the death of flies quite like Musil. I found it difficult (like you, as described above, I had some rather unfortunate childhood experiences while still very impressionable in that regard).

    The style is excellent.

    Do you have a kindle? The pocket penguins are all on that too.

  17. Pingback: German Literature Month 2011: Author Index « Lizzy’s Literary Life

  18. Should you wonder why you are included in German Literature Month, it’s because Lizzy included all the poeple in her reader who reviewed German Literature also those who didn’t “officially” participate, so I mentioned you.

  19. Cool, thanks. Happy to be included.

  20. Peter Wortsman

    Hello, all. Glad at the lively discussion. You might also like to peruse a couple of new books, just out or soon to appear.
    Peter Wortsman

    And this one as well:

  21. Pingback: “Things that have happened are never over and done with,” | Pechorin's Journal

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