In Which We Began Reading As Soon As We Could Write

This is the second in a series. You can find the first part here.


Durable Green

The human being as a social animal would like to achieve distinction from the others, and be praised by them. This is the basis for the preference for virtue.

In middle age the Austrian writer Robert Musil did not last long at any one occupation. Even a short stint as a librarian only unnecessarily served, in his mind, to distract from his duties as a working writer. His relationship with his wife Martha sustained him intellectually and emotionally through the ill health of his father. The following excerpts take place during the early part of the twentieth century, and were translated by Philip Payne.


It was about a woman who runs an inn in Carinthia and is well known for her intimate relationship with her mastiff. In the angry arousal of such an animal there is something that may well stimulate a woman. It is also possible that one feels loathing for men and prefers dogs — such a feeling is possible, precisely with women who love their integrity.


I have just come from Martha’s; on the street the air and the light are like those of early spring. I had the idea that all expression depends on the light — I had seen a coalman in profile. The cheeks dissolving, their colors as if ravaged by the light and then abandoned; forehead, bridge of nose, hair lit from the front (but a diffuse light coming only from over the rooftops) —

I can find no word for the expression of this man’s face.

I enjoy the work that is going quite easily but sometimes, it seems, too easily; I don’t know if it will turn out to be substandard.

I am very irritable, and a single unreflected remark of Martha’s can make me unhappy.


What matters to me is the passionate energy of the idea. In cases where I am not able to work out some special idea, the work immediately begins to bore me; this is true for almost every single paragraph. Now why is it that this thinking, which after all is not aiming at any kind of scientific validity but only a certain individual truth, cannot move at a quicker pace? I found that in the reflective element of art there is a dissipative momentum — here I only have to think of the reflections that I have sometimes written down in parallel with my drafts. The idea immediately moves onward in all directions, the notions go on growing outward on all sides, the result is a disorganized, amorphous complex. In the case of exact thinking, however, the idea is tied up, delineated, articulated, by means of the goal of the work, the way it is limited to what can be proven, the separation into probable and certain, etc., in short, by means of the methodological demands that stem from the object of investigation.


Yet again this dreadful lack of energy and unwillingness to work. (Yesterday afternoon… Take note: a little too quick. You mount me as if I were an animal, how could you. Outside, a Sunday like those in spring.) I am afraid that I shall not have enough time for a vacation, a yearning for that surge of energy that massages away self-reproach. Unpleasant letter from home;  I’m supposed to be in Vienna in mid-September, “on the way home”; when am I to take that break?


Type: very muscular, athletically trained men who are timid.


For three days now in a state of deep depression. I am tired, I sometimes feel dizzy. Above all, I’ve little confidence in the work.

Half-past midnight. Have just come from Martha’s. Have discussed the first half of the work with her and now it’s all right up to that point. Martha promised to come to me around 11 tomorrow. Cholera in Spandau.

Wrote home explaining my opinion about Vienna, telling them I’m going but that I don’t want to go. Emphasized once again that I will not have anything to do with anyone on a social level when I’m there.


Literary people who speak scornfully of the work of their spirit. Kerr: “Literature takes up only a corner of my life.” Set against that: literature is a bold life arranged in a more logical way. It involves the creation or distillation of possibilities. It is fervor that pares a human being down to the very bone for the sake of a goal in which emotion is in an intellectual mode. The rest is propaganda. Or it is a light that originates in a room, a feeling in one’s skin when one looks back at experiences that at other times remain muddled and indifferent.

I have to remind myself how I invariably found all existing literature unsatisfactory from an intellectual perspective. But then all the more subtle and more powerful thinking about what is represented in the work must not take place within the work itself but before the work is written.


Here only the facts are given, the appearance of the street, the station building, the conversation, etc. It is not stated that these things had such and such a mood, but they do have one. The attitude within me was one of soot and strangled sadness, or something of the sort, and then I saw things in that particular way.

The last is a room in an Alpine inn. Whitewashed walls with wretched paintings. Clothes stand, a broad cross with a curving transverse beam, and four hooks beneath. The little bedside cabinet next to the cupboard is in an impossible state of disrepair. Such things invent people. And he becomes sensual; but there is nothing in the whole world with which to satisfy this errant corporeality.


Wherever possible, one ought to let facts speak rather than feelings. This gives rise to a fine dryness of tone: i.e., things that have claim to objective, not just subjective, validity. Perhaps as a way of regulating this, statements that one can prefix with the pronoun “we.”

I was unwell — angina — spent two days in bed and had a temperature for probably a week before that. Perhaps it was precisely this condition that made me more impetuous.

2b8b7cbd5a13fff156bc83e23d1bf17aFrom time to time the little (round) birds let themselves drop down between the branches, and then, behind the glass of the windows and the thin lace curtains, they seem to be made up of cross-stitching. When they sit still one sees, through the small gaps in the curtains, extensive areas of their plumage. One sees their natural colors, bright, quite bright light that sometimes shines on beak or wings, but is somehow subdued, modified in some way for which there is no description.

I don’t want here to attempt once more to keep a diary, but simply to record things that I don’t want to forget.


Walk along the Hauptallee. Martha was in a bad frame of mind and reproached me quite unnecessarily, which left me cold. “You will leave me,” she said. “Then I’ll have no one. I shall kill myself. I shall leave you.” In a momentary state of weakness, Martha slipped far beneath herself to the level of a jealous or neglected woman with a fierce temper. In personal terms, of course, this has no significance for our relationship. But I switched off this reservation, so to speak, and gave myself over to the impressions that would arise if this were a time of disappointment.


Before the storm, the houses are brighter than the sky.

Between the forked legs of the telegraph poles children have set up their swings.

The great plain was overcast with gloomy light.

In the trees, the leaves glitter, or are quite dark. This makes the masses of foliage look rather like a lake when the wind just stirs its surface and tiny waves flash.

The trees are in winter green, a durable green.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s