Posts tagged ‘Robert Musil’

Aug 1, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 8 – final one in the series: Fallada’s Berlin, Musil’s pointless modernist novel and Laxness’ Independent People – a nice note to end on

This is it, folks. We’ve reached the final blog about a random bookshelf in a random bookcase in a not-so-random house in northeast Scotland.

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann is a cracker. Otto and Anna Quangel are an ordinary couple living in Berlin surviving as best they can in Hitler’s Germany. It is 1940 and World War 2 is in its second year. Their son Ottochen has been killed fighting in France. With their lives turned upside down by Hitler’s fascists Otto decides to do what he can to fight back and embarks on a one-man campaign of resistance.

Otto writes comments on postcards and leaflets, urging people to work slowly, sabotage the factory production that finances Hitler’s military campaigns and generally encourages individuals to do what they can to defy the state. He distributes the postcards around his neighbourhood. It is only a matter of time before this anonymous activism is brought to the attention of the Gestapo – and Otto’s daring defiance enters a new and more deadly stage.

Hans Fallada was the pen-name of Rudolph Ditzen, born in 1893 in Greifswald, Northeast Germany. Fallada comes from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale tradition. The Grimms were arguably the world’s best story-tellers, certainly the most famous – famous, too, for horror often woven into their tales. But nothing imagined by the Grimm Brothers can match the terror experienced in Germany by those opposed to its terrifying totalitarian regime. Fallada has his readers in a cold sweat because it is obvious there will be no happy ending to this tale despite the humour he injects into it. His own life was pretty horrific. A drunk and drug addict Fallada killed a friend in a duel and shot at his wife. Clearly mentally unstable during periods of his life Fallada died suddenly of a heart attack in 1947.

Translator Hofmann is an author in his own right, a poet he has translated the works of many authors, including Joseph Roth and Kafka. Born in Freiburg in 1957 into a literary family who moved from Germany to Bristol and then Edinburgh the adult Hofmann divides his life between Germany and the USA. He received an award for his translation of Hertz Muller’s fabulous novel, The Land of Green Plums – an astonishingly seductive piece of writing. Note to self: add to the growing list of must re-reads.

Back to Alone in Berlin –

The postwoman Eva Kluge slowly climbs the steps of 55 Jablonski Strasse. She’s tired from her round, but she also has one of those letters in her bag that she hates to deliver, and is about to have to deliver, to the Quangels, on the second floor.

Before that, she has a Party circular for the Persickes on the floor below. Persicke is some political functionary or other – Eva Kluge always gets the titles mixed up. At any rate, she has to remember to call out ‘Heil Hitler!’ at the Persicke’s and watch her lip!

Later Inspector Escherich of the Gestapo is visited by his boss, SS Obergruppenfuhrer, Prall. After exchanging Heil Hitlers, Escherich explains he has been thinking about

…the postcard phantom – the “Hobgoblin”, as I like to call him.”

“Oh? Why’s that?”

“No reason. Just thought of it. Maybe because he wants to make everyone afraid.”

Escherich hasn’t the faintest idea how to track down the dangerous postcard hobgoblin who is spreading anti-fascist thoughts among the people – his boss is impatient.

Take that grin off your face, you loon! If something like this comes to Himmler’s attention, all bets are off, and who knows if we won’t meet one day in Sachsenhausen, reminiscing about the good old days when all we did was stick flags into maps!”

A serious topic tackled with a lightness of touch and humour. But . . . but this is grim reading for we know we are learning about actual events and for the Quangels read Elise and Otto Hempel, a working class couple who had taken little interest in politics before Elise’s brother was killed in the war. This one incident altered their lives forever. Their postcard campaign was crude and perhaps did not have much effect other than place their lives in great danger. Hitler’s Germany showed no tolerance to those who questioned it or resisted being a tool of its repressive controls. It was a brave act to do what the Hempel’s did. No-one knew who among neighbours were informers and there were plenty of them. That’s how totalitarian regimes survive – by breeding suspicion, fear and treachery. The inevitable happened and someone identified them. They were arrested, interrogated by the Gestapo, found guilty in the People’s Court and sentenced to death by beheading in March 1943. Fallada was given access to their Gestapo file.

Reading Alone in Berlin one is reminded how easily a country can slip into a totalitarian state through apathy and compliance by ordinary people. It is a whole other matter finding the courage to resist and bring down that state.

That’s another book onto the must read again list.


The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil is a book I’ve never read, nor have I any intention of doing so. Why? It is huge for a start, 1130 pages long. I have aversion to huge books for several reasons – mainly I tend to get bored before the end and they are almost impossible to hold comfortably. According to the publicity speel on the cover I’m missing out on, “A great novel” and “towering achievement” – such is life.

The Man Without Qualities belongs to my husband who has read it. Tell me something he hasn’t read. He bought it with a book token given to him by my late mother, in 2009, (another voracious reader right up to the end of her extremely long life.)

Robert Musil was born in Klagenfurt in Austria in 1880. A scientist/philosopher/military sort of man he turned to novel writing – as one does. This book was threatened with being banned in Germany and Austria and to avoid too close scrutiny by the Nazis Musil emigrated to Switzerland in 1938. He died during World War 2. A completed edition of this book was published in 1978.

Remember Schnitzler from an earlier blog in this series? His Dream Story failed to impress me and I’m beginning to think there’s a trend happening here as far as Austrian writers are concerned. According to the only person in this house who has read it, The Man Without Qualities is a book in which nothing happens. It is a modernist novel and nothing of consequence may be expected. Modernist writing looked to create writing that was different from traditional story-telling. So there is no story. That is the point. If point is not too constructive a description.

On that age-old question: what would you do if you could rule the world for a day? Musil responded, “I suppose I would have no choice but to abolish reality.”

Call me picky but I don’t find that helpful. I suppose it is clever in a smart Alec sort of way.

The first chapter of the book is entitled: “From which, remarkably enough, nothing develops” and it continues in this vein.

The story, such as it is, is set in the aftermath of the First World War and Germany’s crumbling Austro-Hungarian empire.

If there is a sense of reality, there must also be a sense of possibility.”

Don’t you know that every perfect life would be the end of art?”

I bet he was a bundle of laughs to live with.

The book was unfinished at Musil’s death, of a stroke, in 1942. Just where it might have gone and how many pages it would have taken Musil to tell his non-story there is no point in guessing.


And finally, Sjálfstætt fólk – Independent People by Halldór Laxness the pen name of Halldór Guðjónssonan, Icelandic writer and translator from Reykjavik who lived between 1902 and 1998. His translator, James Anderson Thompson, hails from Berwick-upon-Tweed. Thompson travelled to Iceland in 1931 which presumably inspired him, later, to translate Independent People (his only translation of any book and his translation is regarded as the finest of any of the book’s translations into any language.) J. A. Thompson’s apotheosis came with the Laxness novel for his biographies can be dismissive of him as a failed academic and hotelier. Laxness and Thompson worked closely on the translation and Laxness appreciated Thompson’s brilliant effort which took him eight years to complete.

Laxness won the Lenin Peace Prize in 1952, the World Peace Council Literary Prize in 1953, the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 and the Sonning Prize in 1969. Throughout his long life he wrote until struck down with Alzheimer’s disease in the 1980s.

Another long novel although about half the size of the previous one, coming in at 544 pages, it was first published in 1936. Set in rural Iceland it tells of  Guðbjartur Jónsson, known as Bjartur of Summerhouses, a sheep farmer who longs for independence and eventually owning his own farm that he re-names Summerhouses from its original name of Winterhouses. He brings a wife home to Summerhouses. Rosa is already pregnant by another man. She hates Summerhouses and the life she’s expected to live. It’s not a good start to the marriage but that’s the best of it although there is a daughter who softens the heart of Bjartur. Described in the New York Review of Books as not just great but “the book of your life” – some accolade.

In early times, say the Icelandic chronicles, men from the Western Islands came to live in this country, and when they departed, left behind them crosses, bells and other objects used in the practice of sorcery.”

Laxness is referring to Icelandic sagas that told of Irish monks, the Vestmanna or west men,  who spread Christianity up the islands of Scotland and across to Iceland before Norse families arrived in the latter 9th century.  Iceland shared with other island communities a struggle to retain their young people who saw the outside world offering them what they imagined must be better than the life familiar to them.

Take Ragnas of Urtharsel, for instance; how did he fare? He had three sons, all as strong as horses; Their beards had hardly begun sprouting before they were off to sea. One was drowned and the other two finished up in America. And did they drop their mother a line in spring, when their father died? No, not a word; not even a couple of shillings to keep her mind off her sorrow.”

Human beings, in point of fact, are lonely by nature, and one should feel sorry for them and love them and mourn with them. It is certain that people would understand one another better and love one another more if they would admit to one another how lonely they were, how sad they were in their tormented, anxious longings and feeble hopes.”

Having been born in Iceland, Laxness died in Iceland but in-between he travelled the world absorbing ideas but it is his native Iceland that stimulated his greatest works, including Independent People. Curiously a stay in America attracted him to socialism. Laxness’ home is now a museum.

And that, as they say, is that; from What Katy Did to its near neighbour, Independent People. I’ve found delving into the shelf of books stimulating as it has encouraged me to break out of my rather limited choices of reading material and further explore the many books this house has to offer, as first time and repeat reads. I won’t be reading Musil but I’ve already gone back into Independent People, though it will take me a while to get through it.

The initial idea of the exercise, to dip into a different book each day for 5 mins fell by the wayside when I decided to turn it into a blog so I’ve decided to carry on with my daily 5 min reads across the bookshelves without becoming diverted into doing something different in the form of blogging and I won’t be running out of books anytime soon. With the easing of Covid restrictions we managed to divest ourselves of eight boxes of books this week – into the Oxfam book shop. We still have seven bookcases of books stored in the garage and others scattered about the house. I might not be inclined to linger in the garage during winter but it’s a pleasant enough place when temperatures outside are reasonable. Still, I’ll start in the house and I may never make it into the garage at all. Thanks for keeping me company and to those of you who got in touch a special thank you. Enjoy reading whatever your own choices for passing the time/learning/escaping might be. And remember to stay safe.