BOOK REVIEW: Intimate Ties: Two Novellas

by Robert Musil

“…and soon she saw nothing by the never-ending rise and fall of his beard, the bobbing beard of a repulsive billy goat ceaselessly chewing, spitting out a whispered soporific stream of words.”

intimatetiescoverAfter finishing this book, I considered carefully whether to write a review, simply because I found it unrelievedly tedious and unbearably irritating. As a rule, I’m reluctant to post a negative critique unless I’m able to make at least one positive comment, however, after mulling it over, I decided Robert Musil’s second book must have some agreeable qualities or why else go to the trouble of resurrecting it over 100 years after its original publication? I therefore decided it was probably a matter of taste and would likely appeal to others. It deserved a fair appraisal.

Translated from German by Peter Wortsman (he also contributes an Afterword), Intimate Ties (originally Vereinigungen), is in fact two novellas that were first published in 1911. The two stories were declared innovative works by a handful of early Expressionist writers but were vilified by critics as “chapter after chapter of abstract psychoanalyses” of two “hysterical” women presented in “thick patches of fog.”

Worstsman describes the book as “a soul-searching experiment”, written “in the wake of the stunning and popular success of his debut novel, Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß (1906), (The Confusions of Young Törless),” which was later adapted for the big screen as Der junge Törless. He warns one to “read at your own risk” as “those expecting a traditional narrative thread may well be frustrated by the near total absence of signposts and touchstones.”

It wasn’t so much a lack of signposts that frustrated me as the long, convoluted sentences that seemed to go on interminably and lead one down a whinging path to nowhere. Even the author admitted that he could only bare to “dip into one or two pages” at a time. He thought of it as a “verbal collage” but I found his prose pretentious, humourless and rather silly.

The first novella, The Consummation of Love, concerns a married woman’s romantic tribulations (her husband is too busy to join her on a journey) leading to her infidelity. The second, The Temptation of Silent Veronica, is about a troubled, sexually repressed young woman’s traumatic childhood memory of a near brush with a randy Saint Bernard dog and her indecision, bordering on madness, over which of two potential lovers to choose.

Musil’s stream of consciousness narrative attempts to portray the confusion of thoughts and emotions experienced by the women, but he’s no Joyce or Woolf – although, to be fair, he was an early precursor of the technique. His book also has its admirers: the Chicago Tribune called it “funny, sad and true”, and The New York Times Book Review declared it “virtuosic”. So, as I say, much depends on whether one is partial to obsessive, inward narratives that take themselves very seriously.

When first published, Intimate Ties was a commercial flop. Perhaps it will find a more sympathetic readership the second time round.

She never had a clear consciousness of even the faintest trace of a sovereign self commanding inner restraint in her unhesitating surrender to others. But there was some unacknowledged psychic substrata underlying all these actual liaisons…

Many thanks to Archipelago for providing an advance review copy of this title.



Categories:Book Reviews, Translated Literature

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18 replies

  1. The long winding sentences are German specialty, at least from my limited experience 😉 It’s very interesting to read your thoughts on it, Paula! Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t read these two, but Musil does gave a bit of introspective, long-winded style. Yet his Torless book, which you mention, and The Man with No Qualities are rather good. The first is more realist, but he became increasingly modernist thereafter.

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  3. Unfortunately, I haven’t read these novellas, but years ago I was lucky toread The Man Without Qualities; it was brilliant, and I confess that I did not get everything that could be gleaned from its pages. Musil was a writer of penetrating insight: he observed that business people who made a fetish of the ‘free market’ were keen to call on the police or the army if a strike got out of hand. His point, based on his close observation of an empire in decline, is relevant to understanding the second major intervention in Venezuelan politics by the USA since Chavez was elected. The American Empire promotes freedom and national autonomy only so far as those principles do not clash with the interests of major corporations. Once Chavez faced down the US-backed coup in 2002, the Venezuelan administration could only have placated the Americans by abstaining from the nationalisation of key economic sectors. The situation in Venezuela is appalling and can only be resolved by dialogue. Musil is not always recognised as an overtly political writer, but his succinct commentary about the hypocrisies associated with capitalism in periods of transition was acute. It is worth noting that modernists tend to make fewer jokes than postmodernists, but their art tends to be less superficial for that.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent appraisal, Paula. That final quote is somewhat constipated.

    Like

  5. Interesting post, Paula! I’ve not read Musil, though I do want to. But maybe these will not be the best place to start… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh dear, I do love a novella but I’m thinking these may not be for me. That final quote was impenetrable!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Excellent review, Paula! I’ve never read any German authors before, and I most certainly am not going to begin with these novellas.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Debjani. Oh dear, I hope I haven’t put you off German authors completely – there are plenty of fabulous books in translation. Two of my favourites are ‘Perfume’ by Patrick Suskind and ‘The Reader’ by Bernhard Schlink. There are also very many now considered classics such as ‘The Tin Drum’ by Gunter Grass and ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’ by Alfred Doblin – not forgetting Franz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’, of course. I hope I’ve done a little to rectify the damage!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This sounds like experimental literature and I’m not a fan by any stretch. I don’t mind a book breaking with tradition a tad, and I don’t mind reading sometimes being a bit of work, but I draw the line at books that stray so far from normal form that it’s like reading in a foreign language.

    Liked by 1 person

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