I’ve just finished reading The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. I'm doubtless late to the party but just in case there’s someone reading this who hasn’t yet got around to dusting down this hefty tome, let me explain that Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften is widely regarded as one of the world’s great novels, compared by some to Ulysses or The Remembrance of Things Past (The Times). No doubt it is something of a cult work in German-speaking lands.
Great it certainly is in terms of length, some 1130 pages (1700 in some editions, apparently). I finally began to read it during lockdown no 1 so it’s taken me best part of a year to plough through it. Now I’m not the fastest of readers, to be sure; but plough is a good metaphor to describe the toil and concentration required to read the work. My reading time pretty much coincides with bed time; frequent have been the occasions when, grappling with the meaning embedded within some paragraph or other, waves of sleep have overcome me. This goes a long way to explain my ultra-slow progress: the inability to stay awake.
It’s not the length of the novel that’s so unusual: it’s the depth. Every paragraph, almost every sentence, is stuffed full of insights. It’s a philosophical tour-de-force. The Man Without Qualities refers to Ulrich who lives in Vienna in 1913-14. ‘Qualities’ might be better rendered as ‘properties’ in the sense that a chemical substance or physical material has ‘properties’. Ulrich is a mathematician by training, now a freelance man-about-town. Whereas everyone around him conforms to a type - of class, politics, wealth, occupation, religion, nationality - Ulrich, in his own no-man’s land, seems to mix with them all. Like a journalist who must empathise with subjects of all kinds, he’s a polymath who embraces diverse views but has no strong commitment to one thing or another. He has a mistress, off and on, but doesn’t experience the depths of love; he has a wide circle of acquaintances, but lacks close friends to whom he can abandon himself. His is a search for intellectual and emotional fulfillment. This all changes - spoiler alert! - when he meets his long lost twin sister at about page 700 - from which point things liven up considerably. She eventually leaves her husband and moves in with him - but alas! there’s no frolicking in between the sheets (as far as we know)…
For the novel is unfinished: what frustration! I’d got to page 900 or thereabouts when I learned that. Musil worked on it for 20 years and died before he could finish it. Presumably the plot would have continued into WW1 and we would have seen how Viennese society became ‘modernised’. Goodness knows how long the work would have become: I do think perhaps creatives need to have a certain humility in the face of their human lifespan and tailor their cloth accordingly.
A project in the autumn and winter lockdowns recently has been to finish another Lorca setting. My operatic version of Así que pasen cinco años I've called In Five Years' Time, which seems a more natural translation than 'When Five Years Have Passed'. Death is a theme of the play and very much in the headlines right now.
About a year ago I finished this chamber opera on a play by Oscar Wilde. I was keen to write an Italian-style opera although never sure what I meant by that.
Written before the pandemic outbreak, this could hardly have been more timely. A rhyming libretto by Leo Doulton at first had me stumped: how could such a doom-laden scenario be treated as a 'comedy of manners', as he put it?
Gilles' Requiem is one of the most lovely works of all time!
An interesting observation by Philip Brown... Handel vs. Bach.
I went to see Music Theatre Wales' production of The Golden Dragon in Basingstoke recently. This is a production which has caused some controversy because of its ‘yellowface’ casting.
The Oval Portrait
I came across Poe’s The Oval Portrait in 2013 when I needed to complete a programme of chamber opera: the story is concise and simply told, written in prose that sounds very musical.
Attended a performance last night of Le Grand Macabre at the Barbican, London. An immensely good performance and riveting from start to finish. It was great to have the London Symphony Orchestra on stage, which meant we could relish the score's fabulous textures which bristled and shimmered and hooted and blasted and everything in between.
Composer and musician