Monday, March 30, 2020

Big Ironies with Musil, Roth, Mann, Tanizaki, and Gide - he says nothing but stupidities, speaking loudly, wrongly, and incessantly, all day long

Lately I have read a number of novels that depend on Big Historical Ironies.  The Big Irony is a big part of the point of the novel.  I mean “irony” in a simple sense – “I know, you know, the author knows, the characters do not know.”  As for “big,” I mean something like the line at the end of the last paragraph of The Man Without Qualities, the first volume published in 1930: “It was a fine day in August 1913” (tr. Sophie Wilkins).

The reader of September 1913, encountering that line in some other story, would not think much of it, but the reader of 1930, the Austrian reader, is immediately engulfed in a shadow that never lifts.  And Musil rubs it in, puffs it up.  Much of the action of the book takes place in a committee that is planning a jubilee celebration for the 75th year of the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph, in 1918.  The themes they pick are “Emperor of Peace” and the “Global Idea of Austria.”  Musil is not being subtle.  He wants Huge Irony.  The Biggest Irony.  He seems to want his reader to wince frequently.

Franz Joseph died in 1916, while the whole notion of an Emperor died in 1918.  There was also a major war.  The non-Austrian reader of 2020 may have to look up the former, but surely few readers pick up The Man Without Qualities who do not read “a fine day in August 1913” and think “Oh no.”

In The Radetzsky March (1932), Joseph Roth moves his cavalry officer protagonist to the frontier, right in the middle of the bloodlands, just in time for the war.  Occasionally, in a barracks scene, Roth notes that everyone in the room will be dead in a few months.  When war is declared, a bolt of lightning strikes the house where the officers are having a party.  Big, big, big irony, and no hiding it.

Thomas Mann began The Magic Mountain (1924) before the war.  The joke was on him, this time.  He did not know, and then he knew, and once he knew, there was really only one way for the novel to end.

I will save Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters (1946-8) for the next couple of days, but I am pretty sure that the same kind of Big Irony is at the center of that novel.  Look at those publication dates, then guess when it is set.

André Gide creates the same kind of effect in what passes for real life, in his Journal for summer 1914.  For context, first, The Vatican Basements has just been published, and Gide’s journals often take an odd turn post-book publication; second, Gide is realizing that his recent trip to Turkey was mere tourism and thus not going to give him anything to publish; and third, it is June 1914 and he reads the newspapers.  However, in the Journal he utterly suppresses #3 and writes extensively about his attempt to turn a foundling starling into a pet.

I had tried to put him in a cage, but he would die there; letting him have the freedom of the room, he dirties everything; within ten minutes, he leaves it does not matter where little liquid and corrosive droppings.  I give him bread crumbled in milk mixed with the yolk of a hard-boiled egg to eat, or some little earthworms, of which he is fond.  He flies form the table to my shoulder as soon as he sees me return.  (June 22, tr. mine, is it ever)

The experiment of keeping the starling in the house only lasts a couple of days.  On July 3, Jean T. arrives for a long visit.  He is a little boy who is related to Gide somehow.  Journal entries now alternate between the sparrow and the boy, who drives Uncle André insane.

I believe him to be intelligent; very intelligent even; but he says nothing but stupidities, speaking loudly, wrongly, and incessantly, all day long… (July 5)

All of this culminates in the amazing sitcom-like episode where little Jean the Menace locks Gide in the little aviary (July 8, a comic highlight).  I don’t know when Jean goes home.  The poor starling is finally “torn apart by the cats” on July 19.  Austria and Serbia mobilize for war on July 26, and the Journal shifts to a wartime footing, relieving my tension.  What was Gide supposed to do about the imminent war?  So he writes about his tame bird.  The war comes soon enough.


  1. It's funny how these big (unsubtle?) ironies are overcome by the subtlety or the trickeration of their authors in other respects--at least in the ones I've read. Are you suggesting that this device is a ploy or a way to up the degree of difficulty before impressing the judges on their scorecards or something else entirely?

  2. I think they mean it, really, they mean to pound it in - the war! the war! the war! As if I did not know. But they know I know. The fact of the war is so enormous that it swamps all other meaning, so if they want their books to contain any other meaning, they have to put the big one up front. They are definitely not subtle in this regard.

    Then there's the second layer, of which Roth at least is well aware, that he is not writing a historical novel. The historical moment is ongoing. Readers of 1932 are right in the middle of it. What would Roth's novel look like if he had been wrong, if things had gone a little differently in Germany and an era of peace and prosperity had begun?

    I am sitting here thinking of deleting that paragraph. Does it contain a real idea, or is it pure nonsense?

    Anyway, I guess my thought now is that they all mean it, in some way, although what is "it" that they mean? Makioka Sisters is a terrible novel for me to use to answer the question, because I do not know enough about the Japanese context, but I will try, regardless.

  3. I wonder if historical fiction (which I know you say Roth is not writing) is possible without this effect. There is always the layer of dramatic irony, in that we inevitably know things the characters don't about what (on the large scale) will happen, how things will turn out. We don't necessarily know how their individual stories will turn out, but every decision they make we see in the context they don't share. But the effect is not always ironic - is it? Now you've got me wondering about this, anyway, at least insofar is irony is not just a device but also a mood, a knowingness. We know the Forty-Five will fail and the Jacobites will be crushed; Fergus MacIvor in Waverley doesn't know that but there's something sincere about the way Scott presents it.

  4. The historical fiction that is more in the adventure or romance genre does not need the Big Irony so much. The Three Musketeers is full of the usual suspense and surprises. I know that Louis XIV outlives them all, but that does not matter much.

    Waverley maybe vitiates some of the irony through its adventure story techniques. We know Edward joins the losing side, but do we feel that he is doomed? Are we filled with dread when he makes his decision? Or do we guess that it will all work out all right somehow? The novelist will take care of that for me.

    Now, Old Mortality, that one seems more strongly ironic in the sense I mean here, as does John Galt's great response, Ringan Gilhaize, which is irony-saturated.

    Roth's and Musil's original readers would have lived through the events. Just saying "August 1913" would invoke an array of responses. "What fools they were." "What fools we were."

  5. I just read Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy, which are exactly the sort of novels you describe here. Manning lived through the events she recounts, sat in Bucharest with the Wehrmacht on the borders while everyone assured themselves that there'd be no invasion, and then fled when the invasion came. Same thing with Athens, a little later on. We, the reader, know what's coming. Manning's readers, as you say in your last comment about Roth's and Musil's original readers, were the author's contemporaries. Maybe part of the thrust of these novels is a claim that we never see what's coming.

    There is of course a great deal more than WW II going on in Manning's novels, but the war is the Big Thing that acts as foreground and background. The lives of the characters are all lived in the shadow of the Big Thing. The Big Thing is so damned big and incomprehensible that nobody wants to look at it full in the face. That might be more important to these books than the structural effects of irony.

  6. The Manning books sound like a nightmare. You flee the war and it seems to actively pursue you. It must have felt like that to many people.

    The reason the Gide starling episode jumped out at me is it is exactly Gide not wanting to look in the face of what is coming. To write in the face etc. He knew pretty well what was coming.

    A distinctive thing about the Musil book, and about The Makioka Sisters, the point I will expand today or tomorrow, is that the Big Thing never comes. The book ends (or with Musil, never ends) before the catastrophe.

  7. The Manning books sound like a nightmare.

    But they don't feel like that when you're reading them. They feel like life. There's a war, and it's awful, and terrible things happen to people you know, but also you're worried about your marriage and trying to do a job and having drinks and laughing with friends and wandering around cities seeing new things. The trilogy is really a remarkable achievement that should be better known.

  8. Makioka is like that, but without the war.

  9. The trilogy is really a remarkable achievement that should be better known.

    Yes, it is. And Harriet is a sort of Everyman, trying to get through her days and navigate her relationship with Guy.

    As soon as we get our hands on a second copy, we'll be reading the Levant Trilogy.

    1. They really are astonishing - both trilogies. I really like that description of them as feeling like life - which is how this whole nightmare feels right now. There's this catastrophic context and a lot of stress and fear and uncertainty but also there's your kids and your spouse and still needing to get groceries. She captures that combination of the catastrophic and the quotidian so well.

  10. I wonder if there has been a run on Olivia Manning novels. They sound useful!