After my cry of protest about modernism (see June 5), my son handed me a short novel by the Argentine writer and translator Cesar Aira. I started reading it “seriously”, the way I had (of necessity) tackled the work of Robert Mucil. But Aira is different. And funny! His sentences scan, though his paragraphs can be awfully long. The plot gains momentum and becomes more amusingly whimsical as it moves along. In the course of an evening, our clueless and isolated hero finds out, to his astonishment, that he has what he takes to write a book/poem. And he does it! The story is full of charming details and sly humor. So I guess I’m OK with modernism!
The Perfecting of a Love by Robert Musil, 1911. This is a short story originally published in a book called Unions.
Why did I read this? I was invited to a seminar for alumni of a friend’s college. The seminars are low key, and if I have nothing to say, that’s OK. I should have realized something was amiss when we were advised to read the selection twice…
This is stream-of-consciousness writing by a man from a female point of view. Risky from the get go. The woman (Claudine) seems almost entirely devoid of will. Claudine has a troubled, promiscuous past, but then finds and marries her “beloved”. Forced by circumstance to travel alone (to visit her daughter at boarding school), she encounters and is seduced by a predatory, almost faceless stranger. Apparently, after an arduous journey, Claudine visits the boarding school and talks with the masters, but never sees her daughter.
Taking the plot literally, some seminar participants simply said that such a woman could not or did not ever exist. Details aside, I found Claudine incomprehensible, so overwhelmed with complex emotions that she was utterly detached from her surroundings.
The writing didn’t help. Long convoluted sentences and strange use of vocabulary baffled me. (The story was translated from German.) Another work by the same author (The Man Without Qualities) is supposed to be the height of literary modernism. It is described as “vast”. Sounds like the last book I would want to read.