Jewish World Review Jan. 4, 2006 / 4 Teves, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

Book of the year | It came in the form of an all-points e-mail bulletin from Kane Webb, book lover and fellow columnist here at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, who was doing a piece about people's favorite books:

"What's the best book you read in '05? And why? Doesn't have to be new, just new to you. Re-readings don't count — unless you can make a great case."

Ho boy. Everybody loves to talk about the really great book he's just read, and here was my chance to savor a couple of them again. It wasn't easy picking out just one, but I finally settled on . . . the envelope, please. . . .

Robert Musil's "The Man Without Qualities."

No brief summary can do a great book justice. Page after page, this one strikes deep. Like a diagnosis of cancer. Yet its prose is cool, detached, wry, limpid . . . affecting but never affected.

Actually, I've only read the first volume of the two that make up the book. It's a hefty tome, but the prose flows by as swiftly as a clear mountain stream carrying a sleek canoe . . . straight over a mile-high waterfall.

Like much of Walker Percy, though quite different in style and much else, "The Man Without Qualities" is a description/indictment of modernity. It's a worldly diagnosis of worldliness, a lucid dip into confusion. Underneath its superficial bitterness there lies a deep well of it, dry as a good martini.

How sum it up? Call it a "Remembrance of Things Past" for those of us who have never been able to get into Proust. (Too distant, too precious, too French.) Translated from the German, the tone of this work is Austrian rather than Prussian, which may explain its charm — and its view of the human condition: hopeless but not serious.

Set in Vienna on the eve of the First War, Robert Musil's masterpiece is courtly as only the Viennese can be just before utter disaster hits. It is comic in a tragic way and tragic in a comic way, and personal as a stab wound inflicted by a stranger. (Why do people say, "Don't take this personally" when there's no other way to take some things?)


Click HERE to purchase for volume 1.

Click HERE to purchase for volume 2.

"The Man Without Qualities" is about a particular time and place, but it could be about any time and no particular place just before a fall.

Robert Musil was born in 1880 in a provincial Austrian capital in time to watch European civilization begin to dissolve around him, then shatter. He resigned from the Army to pursue a career in journalism, G-d help him.

Then, still worse, he chose to devote his life to this masterwork, which won him the usual rewards: disappointment, poverty and a general lack of recognition. The whole catastrophe.

Recognizing his genius, some of the same famous authors he despised, and whose success he doubtless envied, like Thomas Mann, formed Musil Societies to keep him and his work alive. That must have been the deepest cut of all.

In 1938, the year of the Munich pact, with his books about to be banned in both Austria and Germany, Musil got the message and fled to Switzerland, where he would die in 1942 — the year in which all seemed lost. Everywhere.

The first complete edition of "The Man Without Qualities" would not appear in German till 1978. It was supposed to have been a trilogy, but the third volume never completely materialized. The moral of the story: Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys or authors.

And yet Musil distilled from Europe's decline and fall into barbarism a book whose unblinking clarity and wry irony still exhilarates. As long as someone can describe despair so well, there is hope.

And now for the runner-up: Robert Alter's daring translation of the wondrous Five Books of Moses. And it really is a translation, not an explanation. It brings the original to life in another language, rather than going beyond the text to make the Bible relevant, up-to-date and dumbed-down . . . in short, contemporary. And un-eternal, that is, un-biblical. In every generation there are those who would seek to reduce the timeless to their time.

The first example of Robert Altar's art is his stunning translation of the unique Hebrew phrase in the first chapter of Genesis, tohu vabohu, a description of the world before it was created. He translates the phrase not as "without form, and void," which has always had a scientific, legalistic sound to my ear, but as "welter and waste."

Perfect. That phrase preserves not just the meaning but the echoing sound of the original. You can almost hear the wind whistling through the eternal emptiness and futility. It's the music of the spheres before there were spheres, when there was only . . . welter and waste.

Other biblical scholars have called Alter's translation "a masterpiece," "a work of heroic scholarship" and "forceful, lucid and haunted by the rhythms of the original." There is nothing revised or standard about it, thank G-d. Its freshness, its directness, reawakens the old-new wonder at The Book. It is, in short, literature. If not always reverent, it is always in awe of the original. You'd think it was inspired.

As for the best old book re-read after many a year, mine was "Anna Karenina." I liked it well enough as a young man, and of course fell in love with Anna. But this time, the accuracy of its social analysis stunned, and this older if not wiser reader felt a new pity for all the characters, however unsympathetic, even the cold husband and the heedless lover. All are caught up in their different prides and lusts. And fickle ideals. Caught up, that is, in their humanity.

Nothing makes a great book greater like a little experience (a polite term for years of wear and tear) on the part of the reader.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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