Notes heard by no one reverberating against nothing

Dear Robert,

Intimate Ties, tr. Peter Wortsman (2019. Original: Vereinigungen, 1911) comprises two novellas centred on repressed sexuality, taboo, and female desire. Both content and narrative style complement each other in their strangeness, so as to create a feeling of disorientation and, ultimately, disgust.

In The Culmination of Love (Die Vollendung der Liebe), thirty-year-old Claudine leaves her husband at home and sets off on a train journey to visit her daughter at a boarding school. She is musing on her past love affairs, when a heavy snowfall forces her to delay her journey and to sleep overnight in a hotel. Overcome by a desire to feel passion once again, Claudine perversely starts to consider infidelity as a twisted way to sanction her love and to consummate her wedding vows: “a state that was like giving herself to everyone and yet belonging only to the one beloved”

In The Temptation of Quiet Veronica (Die Versuchung der stillen Veronika), the eponymous protagonist lives with an aunt. When the novel opens, she is talking with a younger friend, the cerebral, would-be-priest Johannes, about another man, the more sensual Demeter. We have the feeling that the latter somehow threatens their moral conceptions, and that Johannes and Veronica are both attracted to and repelled by him. Then, Johannes leaves, and Veronica believes he is going to commit suicide. She seems to find the highest pleasure in fantasising about Johannes when he is the absent than in actually interacting with him. In this vein, Veronica starts to muse about her inability to consummate relationships with men, as well as about her memories of being erotically attracted to animals as a child.

The two narratives evolve in stream of consciousness, as sequences in a dream, and things seem to happen from the inside out: you are not as concerned with plot as you are with setting a particular mood, and enveloping us in it, like you do with his characters. Reading this book in translation adds yet another layer of strangeness to the whole experience: like trying to transpose a writing style (which is already challenging in its original German) not only to a different language, but also to a different narrative tradition.

Both Claudine and Veronica’s sexualities are equated to animalistic desire and taboo practices: they are both, at once, a combination of the angel and the beast. They are fascinated and tempted by the lust they feel, and, at the same time, they feel disgusted at picturing themselves as subjects of desire: “the only thing that matters is that one should be like the act and not like the person enacting it.”

In a blurring of images and feelings, you further complicate your protagonists’ already nuanced relationship to sex: instead of two conflicting realms, body and mind feed each other as one. The bestial impulses are prompted not by the body but by thoughts, and those, in turn, seem to be as devoid of freedom and choice as a primitive bodily function. The inner monologues make possible not only the characters’ unions with their innermost selves, but also the readers’ intimate ties with those characters. To turn language animalistic, and to turn bestial impulses into thought: the book reads as if you were looking for a literary form precisely for that which has no form and cannot even be expressed in language. As much as you were testing the limits of language in these novellas, you were also probing the limits of what people can do and still consider themselves as human. You seem to be saying: If loyalty is first attested in infidelity, so is humanity in bestiality.

Yours truly,

J.


Paul Delvaux, ‘The Vigil’, 1940

“Do you know the feeling, that all things sometimes suddenly double-up before you, on the one hand complete and perfectly clear as you know them to be, but then on the other hand pale, dimly lit and mortified, as if another presence already had its furtive, stranger’s gaze fixed upon them.” – Robert Musil, Intimate ties

“Then she fancied that she might just as well belong to another, and it did not feel to her like infidelity, but rather like a last betrothal somewhere other than where they were, a realm where they only resembled music, where they embodied notes heard by no one reverberating against nothing. It was then that she felt her being as nothing but a grinding line that dug her under so as to hear itself singing in the tangled silence, in a state in which one moment demands the next and she became what she did – inexorably and inconsequentially – and yet there were certain things that she never dared do. – Robert Musil, Intimate ties


About the book

  • Archipelago, 2019, tr. Peter Wortsman, 208 p. Goodreads
  • Original title: Vereinigungen
  • First published in 1911
  • I read this book for the European Reading Challenge
  • This book was kindly sent to me by Archipelago Books for review.

4 thoughts on “Notes heard by no one reverberating against nothing

    1. Thank you, Karen! I find Musil always challenging, so it’s difficult to say where is a good place to start. These novellas could be a good choice, but I would also recommend “Young Torless” and “Three Women”, or perhaps his diaries…

      Liked by 1 person

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