Robert Musil (1880–1942), born in Vienna, was trained as a mathematician, behavioral psychologist, engineer, and philosopher. During WWI, he served as an officer in the Austrian Army on the Italian front. He died exiled and impoverished in Switzerland in 1942. Author of The Man Without Qualities, Young Törless, and Five Women, Musil is one of the towering pillars of twentieth-century modernism.
Recipient of the 2012 Gold Grand Prize for Best Travel Story of the Year, Peter Wortsman is the author of A Modern Way to Die: Small Stories and Microtales, the plays The Tattooed Man Tells All and Burning Words, the recent memoir Ghost Dance in Berlin: A Rhapsody in Gray, and the forthcoming novel Cold Earth Wanderers. His translations from the German include Heinrich Heine’s Travel Pictures, Selected Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Peter Altenberg’s Telegrams of the Soul, and Tales of the German Imagination: From The Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann, published by Penguin Classics.
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Tangle-foot flypaper is approximately fourteen inches long and eight inches wide; it is coated with a yellow poison paste and comes from Canada. When a fly lands on it – not so eagerly, more out of convention, because so many others are already there – it gets stuck at first by only the outermost joints of all its legs. A very quiet, disconcerting sensation, as though while walking in the dark we were to step on something with our naked soles, nothing more than a soft, warm, unavoidable obstruction, and yet something into which little by little the awesome human essence flows, recognized as a hand that just happens to be lying there, and with five ever more decipherable fingers, holds us tight. Here they stand all stiffly erect, like cripples pretending to be nor- mal, or like decrepit old soldiers (and a little bowlegged, the way you stand on a sharp edge). They hold themselves upright, gathering strength and pondering their position.
This collection of exploratory pieces, short stories, and reflections was originally published in Zurich in 1936. It was the last volume Robert Musil published before his sudden death in 1942. Musil had begun to fathom the impossibility of com- pleting his monumental masterpiece The Man Without Qualities and this volume reveals a radically different aspect of his work. Musil observes a fly’s tragic struggle with flypaper, the laughter of a horse; he peers through microscopes and telescopes, dissecting both large and small. Musil’s quest for the essential is a voyage into the minute.
Musil’s linguistic facility – the merging of aim, manner and result – is virtuosic. He’s such a consummate stylist that after him Kafka may seem immature, Mann chatty, Brecht arch, Rilke precious and Walter Benjamin hermetic. . . . Peter Wortsman’s translation is splendid, succeeding . . . in capturing this author’s unique combination of quizzical authority andaustere hedonism. —New York Times Book Review
Musil’s originality of mind and perfectionism of temperament are evident throughout these pieces, which range from delicately enameled miniature portraits of the natural world . . . to casual yet trenchant little essays and parables on art, culture, kitsch, psychoanalysis, and even feminism. —Christian Science Monitor
What sense might ‘Musilian’ evoke? Perhaps a tense equilibrium between an exhilarating philosophical intelligence and a certain emotional detach- ment; between a powerfully curious imagination and a soldierly stoicism; between a Viennese worldly skepticism and a mystic’s yearning to penetrate to a ‘mysterious second life.’ —Philip Lopate
Funny, sad and true – or rather funny because they are both sad and true – such observations are, to use a typical Musil phrase, a form of ‘daylight mysticism,’ shafts of light in a darkening world. —Chicago Tribune