A writer with qualities
Many people reread their favourite books - often, even. There must be a few, like me, who would rather not because the first read, like a pleasant memory, might be linked to a time, mood and place. It is a melancholy experience to pick up a work you loved and not respond to it in the same way.
The Man Without Qualities by Austrian Robert Musil (1880 to 1942) is considered by some the most important German-language novel of the 20th century and rated along Ulysses by James Joyce. Not that the two works have much in common beyond stature, scale and density. Joyce's masterpiece is hard to follow, Musil's just tough to take in since it has such an intricate plot and so many ideas.
There are more people who own Musil's tome, one of the lengthiest novels in all literature and unfinished as well, than have read it, says the official site on the author. I've read it three times - didn't finish the first time, I must admit, but made it halfway through the second of the three volumes, or two-thirds of the 1 264 pages in the original English translation published by Picador Classics. With the next and the third attempt I made it to the abrupt, yet satisfying ending.
Let me try to explain why I keep going back to this book – and say in advance that I'm not entirely sure.
Musil deserves a biopic. He was an intelligent, fascinating, versatile man who seemed capable of anything. The son of an engineer with a noble title awarded by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he was a short, but strong teen who turned into a good wrestler. His parents couldn't control him and picked the inevitable solution of sending him to military school. Afterwards he rattled off an engineering degree and invented a chromatometer while working on his debut novel, Young Törless, inspired by the horrific military school years.
When he got bored with engineering, he did doctorates in psychology and philosophy and then decided to become a full-time writer. To support himself, he worked as a librarian and later edited a literary magazine until World War I began and he joined the ranks. During the war he met one of his heroes, Franz Kafka.
Volumes one and two of The Man Without Qualities appeared in the early 1930s. Musil withdrew 20 chapters from the second and didn't use them again. Volume one sold out and got positive reviews. But all in all Musil felt underappreciated, even after a nomination for the Nobel Prize.
When the rise of the Nazis forced him to flee Berlin with his Jewish wife, he settled in Vienna and then spent the last of his 62 years in Switzerland. He died of a stroke while doing his strenuous daily routine of exercises. Only eight people turned up for his cremation. Since his works were so long repressed by the Nazi regime, he was almost forgotten until the English translations of his novels and short stories in the 1950s sparked new interest.
Musil's greatest book got the unfair reputation as one of those classics best left to literary geeks and scholars.
The Man Without Qualities follows former mathematician Ulrich, a man who won't live up to society's expectations and doesn't want to be defined by anything. “I believe all our moral injunctions are concessions to a society of savages,” he says.
Ulrich becomes involved with a plan to commemorate Emperor Franz Joseph's 70 years on the throne, sitting with the rich, the noble and the powerful in a salon, discussing a doomed event and an empire on the brink of collapse. Meanwhile, the drawn-out trial of psychotic killer Moosbrugger fascinates the idle classes and Ulrich's childhood friends, the artistic couple Walter and Clarisse. She is frustrated with her husband and thinks Ulrich can unleash qualities in himself – or in her? – by doing something for Moosbrugger.
Musil's greatest book got the unfair reputation as one of those classics best left to literary geeks and scholars. The writing is as precise as you would expect from a mathematician, but not clinical. Everything is delivered in realistic, humorous prose that effortlessly carries the full philosophical weight of Musil's ideas.
The characters are unforgettable - the portrayal of Moosbrugger, for instance, is considered one of the finest ever of a murderer. Walter and Clarisse with their endless duels - the intellectual versus the artist - are very entertaining. Ulrich is an almost comical anti-hero as he tries to reach a reality beyond good and evil – or a middle ground between the scientific and the mystical.
“Layer by layer art strips life bare,” wrote Musil. The Man Without Qualities is a book with a rich, unfinished life of its own, one you can read as slowly or quickly as you like, mulling over some thoughts, skimming over others, making of it what you will. It is a mesmerising look at culture, love, compassion, cruelty, logic and all things that play a part in defining us.
I want to read it again.
a forgotten french master
Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev had a brain almost double the size of the grey globe between the ears of French Nobel laureate Anatoly France - another quite interesting fact from an episode of QI. As much as I enjoyed Turgenev, it offended me slightly that presenter Stephen Fry said he was very much the greater writer. Not thanks to the sizable noggin, of course.
So the Nobel in Literature is just another award – or not really, since it's a great way to discover writers you might not have heard of otherwise. But there are some on the list who have been branded unworthy by revisionists and critics - and France is one of them. At the famed English bookshop Shakespeare & Co in Paris I tried to buy any of his books in translation (seemed appropriate), but nobody there had even heard of him.
France was a poet, novelist and journalist who lived from 1844 to 1924. His father had a Paris book shop, Librarie de France, from which Anatole later took his surname. After his studies he worked there until he got a job as librarian to the French senate.
France wrote some odd stuff for a Nobel noble. A lot of it was essays and discourses on topics of his day, like the renovation of Paris landmarks. The official motivation for his 1921 award was “in recognition of his brilliant literary achievements, characterized as they are by a nobility of style, a profound human sympathy, grace, and a true Gallic temperament.” For a quick sample, look up a page of his most memorable quotes and you'll find biting sayings like: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread” or charming sayings (from a man with a turbulent romantic life) like: “You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, to work by working; in just the same way, you learn to love by loving.”
His best novels were top-sellers back then and all his writing had an effortless, disarming grace. I found myself reading even the prose that was so bound to its time and context that I had no idea what it was about. His first novel, an instant success, was The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard, about a sceptical old scholar bewildered by modern life. In the satyrical allegory The Island of Penguins the birds become human after a near-sighted abbot accidentally baptises them.
His most rated novel was The Revolt of Angels in which the main character's celestial guardian joins the revolution of angels. It must have been part of the reason why his entire oeuvre was put on the Prohibited Books Index by the Roman Catholic Church (he considered it an honour).
After his death in 1924 he was dismissed as a derivative writer who lacked real imagination, but most of these sideswipes came from clerics and political opponents who hated his mocking of the church and highbrow society. Unfairly, that opinion stuck and these days probably none but devoted Francophiles or scholars would bother to read him. But the wit, compassion and social insights of his important novels are well worth discovering.
The pride of Norway
The main picture on his English website shows a lean man with a shaven head and a goatee, wearing a hoodie and staring into the camera with an amused glint in his eye. Jo Nesbo could well have been a tough detective himself. Instead he is Norway's favourite crime writer and his Detective Harry Hole series has been translated into 40 languages, winning several awards and international acclaim. Michael Connelly and James Ellroy are among his fans.
He was born in Oslo in 1960. His mother was a librarian and his father, who loves reading, told the kids stories every afternoon. Jo enjoyed scaring young friends with made-up ghost stories, but his passion was soccer until his pro career was cut short by a knee injury. After a stint in the army he got a degree in economics and formed a heavy rock band, Di Derre (Them There), which became very popular. After some time in the limelight he dropped out and visited Australia with a laptop in his hand luggage, commissioned to write a book about a band on the road. What he really wanted to write about, though, was murder and love. At the end of the 30-hour flight he had detective Harry Hole in his head.
Harry Hole (pronounced like holy) is 1,94 metres tall, in his late forties, loves music and drink (though a little too much), is obsessive about his cases and mistrustful of authority. He takes a grim view of the world, but still has a capacity for love and a surprising sense of humour. He is an instantly likeable and unforgettable character. As for the author, he seems like the perfect celebrity guest for your dinner table – charming, modest and deeply involved in charitable work like child literacy projects in Africa. One of his novels, Headhunters, was written to raise money for this cause.
Some people don't mind but others like to read a series in order. That's been a problem with Jo since the first and second Harry Hole books have only been published in translation recently. Now you can start at the beginning with The Bat and Cockroaches. Then comes The Redbreast, which opens with such a bang that it feels like a beginning. If you buy e-books, you'll find it with the next two, Nemesis and The Devil's Star, as a bargain omnibus entitled The Oslo Trilogy.
It looks like the popularity of Scandinavian crime stories, also with TV series like The Bridge and The Killing, is more than a passing craze. No matter how long it lasts, Harry Hole will be an enduring figure in the crime thriller genre.
Inspector Montalbano series
The tasty mysteries of Andrea Camilleri
Take a slice of fresh farm bread, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with coarse salt and ground pepper. Go outside, sit against the side of a house like a kid and take a bite. Savour it. A crime story by Andrea Camilleri is a simple, sensational pleasure much like that. Especially if you can imagine sitting in blazing sun against a crumbling farm house wall on the island of Sicily.
Camilleri's beloved detective, Salvo Montalbano, visits family in one of the books and has some bread the way he used to as a child. He's still a food lover who will dodge appointments and turn off on dusty roads to try a good restaurant. Sea food is his passion and when a storm keeps the fishing fleet stranded in the harbour, he despairs at the prospect of eating something from the freezer.
Montalbano has a temper, maybe a national trait, and a few colleagues he simply can't stand, one of them a grumpy pathologist who handles all his cases. His police team is a colourful bunch who have to accept that he'll always keeps them one step behind in his investigations. Murders in his part of the world often have sinister connections to organised crime or corrupt officials and sometimes your standard “body of a naked girl found…” can turn into a political nightmare.
Montalbano's lover lives on the mainland. Her visits often end in disaster because Salvo is preoccupied or called out for a new case. That's enough to convince her marriage won't work, though both are in their fifties already. Even when tempted to within an inch of his moral life, Montalbano doesn't cheat on Livia - at least not until the eight or ninth book in the series and then feelings of guilt nearly kill him.
Montalbano gets older, thinks about it, feels it, dreads it. Not that the books are guy lit for middle-aged men. They're bright, light and funny, with often gob-smacking twists and always a few subtle comments on modern Italy.
Camilleri was born in Porto Empedocle, Sicily, in 1925. As a kid he often saw his mom's cousin Luigi Pirandello, but the great man's presence didn't seem to make an impression on him. He studied literature and then film-making in Rome and spent his working life there as a highly rated TV producer and theatre director. His other career as a best-selling crime writer started 15 years after his first book. The print of 100 000 copies was sold out in two days and the next batch lasted only three more. That was in 1992 and now Montalbano is known around the world in nine languages, as well as on Italian TV. So far 12 novels have been translated in English, starting with The Shape of Water, and more are lying in his award-winning translator's in-tray.
It's hard to believe a man in his eighties can write a book as dramatic and gripping as August Heat, one of the latest translated Montalbano novels. But there it is — and no mystery fan should pass it by.