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Tuesday
Aug162011

Grigia

She seemed to find it acceptable that beyond these mountains there were people whom he loved more than her, whom he loved with his entire soul.

Unsurprisingly now in retrospect, we first meet the title character of this tale almost two-thirds of the way through.  It is even more appropriate that her given name is not Grigia because she is not a real woman in any tangible or biographical regard, but a sensation associated with a time and place.  We have all had such Romantic fantasies, and we have all elected a local representative to serve our interests for eternity.  What distinguishes Grigia from so many other projects of desire and nostalgia is the omniscient narrator’s acumen of feeling, and the odd, revelatory detail that cambers his visions. 

Our protagonist hovers at that allegedly ideal male age, his mid- to late thirties, in an epoch in which life's physical and mental achievements surrendered to darkness by the onset of our seventh decade.  And what he has hitherto achieved does not seem like much.  He married and had one child, but his love for his family “had become divisible because of the child, like a stone on which water percolates, endlessly driving a wedge further into its midst.”  Not knowing how he will spend the summer alone, he retreats to P., an idyllic Tyrolean town at the invitation of an Italian gold magnate by the name of Hoffingott.  For whatever reason, he accepts the latter’s invitation to stay in a host family rather than a hotel.  And it is there that his heightened sensitivities begin to manifest themselves:

There were three things that he liked about this residence.  The beds of an unspeakably cool softness held by a beautiful mahogany frame; a carpet with an unspeakably confused and tasteless design, if a design that was both utterly unfulfilling and foreign; and a rocking chair made of pipe.

Our protagonist, who has the now-ironic name of Homo and stands unequivocably for Everyman, cannot really be considered an artist.  His mind and soul do sublimate in tandem towards the heavens as he contemplates the beauty of the Tyrolean landscape.  But what he perceives as beautiful is not the immortal elegance of a goddess or a soul, but the fleeting youth of a human being.  If he surrenders to the urges that such youth demands, is he richer or poorer for it?

There are other obstacles.  Our protagonist is the classic outsider – loved by one, mistrusted by all, including by the one who loves him.  His trysts with Grigia involve more than a bit of stealth, especially when her marital status turns out to be more complicated than he would have expected.  For that reason, perhaps, are we warned that "one should not delude oneself that nature is anything less than natural ... earthy, angular, poisonous, and inhuman in everything in which man does not impose his will."   To a creature like Grigia, of course, willpower is something reserved for those who believe they actually control their destinies – the ultimate quandary of any Romantic poet.  Importantly, the crooked development of their liaison is never superseded by some appeal to history: hints are strewn as to what the world has come to, and even to the tides in the affairs of certain men of fortune (every so often we are reminded of Hoffingott and his mines).  But in the end, this is a personal story of personal love, and our narrative retraces wounds and dreams, determined like a shark to get at the meat of the matter:

Once upon a time he might have thought that love, in such an inescapable prison, would be as sharp as bites; but he forgot to think about Grigia at all.  She was lost in him or he in her, even if he could feel her shoulders.  Indeed, his world had been so given over to ecstasy that he knew it and yet could not lay his hand on it.  They did not stir for hours; days could have passed and nights; hunger and thirst lay behind them like a leg of a journey completed; they became ever weaker, ever lighter, ever more closed off from one another; they dammed wide seas and awakened small islands.

That our hero will find himself ever the more isolated from reality is inevitable in such a story that alternates lush, almost superfluous detailings of nature with the most abstract of emotional topography.  That he will find tragedy at the end of his days in P. needs no crystal ball or haruspex.

If I have not mentioned the plot, that is because the plot does little to make itself known, the signature of an artist concerned more with expression than resolution.  Those who have not read Musil are missing out on not only one of the great stylists of the German language, but also one of literature's more curious geniuses.  Musil's style is completely inimitable; at times, in fact, Musil himself cannot sustain its weird lushness.  While computerized minds see Musil's mosaics as indicative of 'the Zeitgeist of that turbulent period' and other half-baked nonsense, what strikes the thoughtful reader is how deftly he draws characters without resorting to the moral evaluation typical of a psychological novel.  Musil reads their thoughts but does not judge them; instead, he allows the reader to judge the characters' visions and understand their world through their eyes, a technique that would fail miserably in less capable hands.  There are numerous examples, but one particularly radiant instance will suffice:

There was one tenderly scarlet-colored flower, and this flower did not exist in any other man's world, only in his; thus had God decreed, wholly as a miracle.  There was one place upon the body that was concealed, and no one was allowed to see it; if the body were not to die, then only one person would

Our hero's initial reaction to this epiphany is one of disbelief in the symbols and means of religion.  His heart aches from not being able to see his sick son, and yet he stops responding to his estranged wife's letters, and simply reflects upon what life has brought him to this point, and what it may bring.  His body weakens, as bodies constantly do, and he mistakes the failings of his soul for the creeping shutdown of his organs.  Or maybe it's precisely the other way around. 

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