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Of Musil and his Translator: An Interview with Genese Grill

By Joseph Schreiber.

Photo credit Suzanne Levine

3:AM Magazine: Most people will know Robert Musil from his masterpiece The Man Without Qualities. Could you situate the writings in Theater Symptoms in relation to that work, both chronologically and thematically?

Genese Grill: The material collected in Theater Symptoms was written between 1921 and 1929. Musil published the first volume of The Man without Qualities in 1930, the second in 1932, and withdrew the third from press amid the chaos of the Nazi Anschluss with Austria in 1938.  Earlier versions and alternate plans for the novel go back as far as the early post-WWI years, and Musil was still working on the great unfinished novel on the day of his death in 1942. It is rightly considered his life’s work, but he took his other works seriously as well and even mused on what he would do after the novel would be finished; for example, he still considered his play, The Utopians, his major work, even after having published the first volume of the novel. The Utopians (included in a new translation in this volume) and the accompanying farce, Vinzenz and the Mistress of Important Men (first translated into English and anthologized in this collection by me), are both extraordinary distillations of the themes one finds in the novel: questions about how to live a motivated and ethical life, what is authentic and what superficial, the nature of truth(s), love, reality, etc. And these same concerns are all threaded through the reviews and theoretical writings on drama collected in this book.

The critical work explicitly articulates the ways in which Musil conceived of art’s social role as a vital aesthetic experience that should impel internal exploration and transformation. For Musil, all criticism was art and all art, with the possible exception of lyric poetry, was in some sense criticism. This volume begins with searching and witty reviews of contemporary plays, delightful and sophisticated writing about the nature and role of art in society, theoretical essays on  the social, aesthetic, political, and ethical nature of theater (and thus of all art in its vivid relationship with all of life), and concludes with a treasure trove of plays and play fragments that embody and test the ideas explored in the critical writing. The novel is, of course, also an open experiment in Musil’s poetics and ethics, but, perhaps because of the more palpable tension between thought and action on stage, between artist and audience inherent in theater, or simply because of the shorter length of the texts, the juxtaposition of the plays and the criticism allows us to experience the connection between theory and praxis much more immediately. I hope that by reading the whole volume from start to finish, a reader will feel the “live” current of energy that rushes back and forth between Musil the critic and Musil the artist. I hope that in so doing readers will come to a deeper understanding of why Musil felt that art and ethics were one.

3:AM: The writings in Theater Symptoms contain similarities with Adorno’s critique of the “culture industry” and Brecht’s writings on the social role of theater, but have important differences. Could you explore that for us a little?

GG: In his reviews and essays, Musil anticipated the discourse usually attributed to Adorno and the Frankfurt School, leveling, in his own terms, scorching and insightful critiques of what would later be called “the culture industry”. He diagnosed the “symptoms” of a diseased cultural body, tracing them to the deleterious effects of advertising, journalism, and commodification on both the creation and “consumption” of art. He explores the historical background to the socio-cultural problem, traces manifestations of it in particular plays and theater companies, and singles out exceptions to the degraded rule. He also posits possible alternatives to the shallow, disengaged palaver of much popular entertainment.  In many ways, his call for a theater that would “shatter” the preconceptions of bourgeois audiences is very close to some of Brecht’s pronouncements and techniques, for example, Brecht’s advocacy of the “alienation effect,” which aimed to interrupt the allegedly soporific and escapist nature of a bourgeois art in order to activate revolutionary consciousness. Musil’s dramatic theory was, however, more in line with Adorno’s more complex aesthetic theory than with Brecht’s political theatrics. While Brecht’s shattering was a preliminary step, a sort of clearing the field of false consciousness in order to replace it with a new ideology (that of Marxism), Musil’s shattering lay the heart bare, without providing any new secure place to stand. His is a shattering that holds open both void and possibility, never succumbing to a premature or simple closure. This is a vital distinction, especially in today’s discourse, because Musil’s stance (akin to Adorno’s) affirms the primacy of an irreducible aesthetic and ethical openness in the face of the imminent dangers of ideological rigidity and Totalitarian Party discipline.

3:AM: Theater Symptoms is your third (and final?) translation of Musil’s writings for Contra Mundum, following the experimental stories of Unions (2019) and the varied collection of Thought Flights (2015). Could you tell us a bit about those writings and how Theater Symptoms fits into this trio?

GG: Thought Flights is largely made up of material that I chose from Musil’s literary remains, all of which had not previously been collected together or published in English translation. It contains prose poems, short stories, and feuilleton pieces published in magazines during Musil’s lifetime, and also unpublished fragments. Unions is a collection of two early experimental stories, “The Completion of Love” and “The Temptation of the Quiet Veronica,” which had been included in previous English translations in a collection called Five Women, but which had originally been published as a separate volume by Musil in German. The stories are challenging, both in their prose style and in their subject matter, and the previous translation had not, I felt, lived up either to the poetic or the conceptual challenges. Theater Symptoms, like Thought Flights, is a collection of material not previously collected together, most of which has not previously been translated into English; thus, it is also a case of a curation, or the creation of a unique sort of “edition”. Theater Symptoms turned out to be a greater challenge in its own way than either of the other two books, largely because of my discovery of a great wealth of fascinating material that had not previously been translated, and because it involved immersing myself in less-familiar aspects of Musil as well as in the whole rich milieu of the 1920s European theater world. The book grew and grew, sort of on its own, and, even though I had thought that I knew Musil very well already after decades studying and translating him, the material brought me into contact with new aspects of his thinking, different sorts of moods, different faces of Musil. The tone and style of the reviews and critical writing is, of course, often quite different from the literary material in the other two books, but even in translating the very poetic plays and play fragments there were new colors, new rhythms to approximate. Thanks to Rainer Hanshe’s impassioned and quixotic work at Contra Mundum, I have been able to get these three books out into the world. And there will, gods and goddesses willing, be more.

3:AM: What have been the challenges, joys, and surprises of translating Musil?

GG: The greatest challenge in translating Musil is also the greatest joy. And both the challenge and the joy are embodied in the third noun of your question: “Surprise”. Musil is a writer at war with what he calls “congealed metaphors”—clichés, received ideas, “dead words”. The freshness of the words, the images, and the sentences’ syntax is as important as the ideas they carry, and a translator must always resist the temptation to replace his surprising arrangements with common phrases or more conventional concepts. This aesthetic of surprise is important not only when it comes to the creation and experience of the “literary” aspects of the writing;  it is also vital to his philosophical stance, which may be explained in part by his “utopia of the next step.” This core concept of Musil’s affirms that an action, idea, or event can only be judged by what it brings in its wake. A word, too. One must suspend judgment in an almost unnatural way sometimes, and allow the words their ambivalence and ambiguity. In critical writing, one normally expects to find certain things (writers, works of art, ideas) definitively judged as good or bad, say, but with Musil one finds that sometimes it is difficult to tell where precisely his carefully considering axe is falling, because the very care often means that he himself resists absolute closure. The translator, who in every case is faced with the challenge of choosing one of many varied nuances of a particular word, in the case of Musil, has fewer guideposts than normally available. Another challenge—perhaps a less joyful one—is that the German language can carry much more, in terms of complexity and length, than English can. As Burton Pike noted in his afterword to his translation of “The Posthumous Papers” of The Man without Qualities, Musil “often writes on a level of semi-abstraction that is meaningful and focused in German but that only produces indigestion in English, the most ruthlessly concrete of languages”. I can only hope that I have rendered the German into an English that approaches Pike’s masterful translation of Musil’s sparkling prose.

3:AM: For those who have not read Musil but are considering doing so, why should they embark on such an epic journey?

GG: If you care about the fate of the modern human being out on his or her own plank (to use an image from The Utopians), floating in an unfathomable sea of lonely uncertainty and endless possibilities, you will want a mind like Musil’s—equipped as it is with multiple discourses of literature, philosophy, mathematics, physics, psychology, anthropology, and mysticism—as  your guide in navigating our increasingly unmoored times. If you believe in the power of art, in the unfathomable power of combinations of words, forms, rhythms, and dynamics to approximate internal and otherwise untranslatable states, you will revel in Musil’s mastery of the metaphor and his surprising and revelatory use of language. If you glean that the first problem (alienation, a search for shared meanings, crises of language and belief) can best be grappled with by immersion in art, that art, in other words, may help us to approximate some understanding of ourselves, each other, and our world, you will want to read Musil. And he is also extremely funny.

3:AM: Thanks so much Genese! What’s next for you, aside from a well-deserved break?

GG: Well, among other things, I am working on two essays, more or less influenced by my many years of “living” with Musil’s mind. One is on the question of moral certitude and the general idea of “the Good”—how or why one might be a “good” person. The other is an essay on morphologies: i.e., on the possible relationships between the shapes of things and their meaning(s). The latter essay touches on German Romanticism, Naturphilosophie, Anthropological Structuralism, Language, Mythology, and Art, and, in terms of Musil, is related to his thinking about conceptualization and his fascination with questions of how we know the world.  The former essay is, in part, directly inspired by Musil’s 1937 lecture, “On Stupidity,” given in Vienna a year before the Anschluss, which dared to equate a dangerous stupidity with the thoughtless and often brutal arrogance associated with fascism and which derided an assumption that truth might be simple and easily graspable. The inquiry on morals is connected, also, at its edges, to the essay on morphology, because according to some thinkers, from Plato on, the long, arduous road to knowledge (and knowledge of “the Good”) is thought to run directly along the path of Beauty. Maybe you are sorry you asked! The whole dive into unfathomable complexity is, perhaps, a clever subterfuge to try to escape the horror show of contemporary politics, the culture wars, and the reality of the pandemic—a sort of intellectualizing in the face of deep anxiety and distress. But the joke is on me; they circle, as everything does in the end, right back to our current problems—just as Musil’s thoughts, during the years 1921-1929, are directly relevant to today’s approaching storms.

 

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Genese Grill is a writer, translator, scholar, and artist. Her latest translation of Robert Musil’s writing, Theater Symptoms: Plays and Writings on Drama, will be published by Contra Mundum Press on December 8th. She is the author previously of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s “The Man without Qualities”: Possibility as Reality (Camden House, 2012) and translator of two other collections of Musil’s writing, Thought Flights (Contra Mundum Press, 2015) and Unions (Contra Mundum, 2018). Her literary essays, translator introductions, and scholarly writing have appeared in The Georgia Review, Numero Cinq, Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics, The Missouri Review, The Rupture, On the Seawall, and elsewhere. She was the winner of the 2015 Edward J. Smith Editor’s Award for Non-fiction and a MacDowell Fellow. She lives in an 1840’s farmhouse in rural Vermont, where she is trying to write a novel about anachronistic aesthetes and ecological anarchists.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Joseph Schreiber is a writer and editor from Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 8th, 2020.