I have long desired to read Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, but picking up such a long book often feels like moving in with someone you have yet to meet, so let’s look on Flypaper as a first date. (Should things get more serious I have a copy of The Confusions of Young Torless to hand). The pieces in Flypaper come from The Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, translated by Peter Wortman, and published by Archipelago Books rather than Penguin. Most are short pieces – two to six pages – with the exception of ‘The Blackbird’ which runs to almost thirty.

The title essay, ‘Flypaper’, immediately demonstrates Musil’s powers of observation in his description of the flies stuck to the paper:

“Here they stand all stiffly erect, like cripples pretending to be normal, or like decrepit old soldiers.”

But he can also be empathetic, reading his own experience into that of the flies:

“…it gets stuck at first by only the outermost joints of all its legs. A very quiet, disconcerting sensation, as through while walking in the dark we were to step on something with our naked soles.”

Most of the other pieces are also occasioned by something Musil has seen: ‘Fishermen on the Baltic’ is simply a description of fisherman putting bait on their hooks; ‘Sarcophagus Cover’ tells of a chance discovery in the Italian countryside:

“One sees many such sarcophagus covers in Rome; but in no museum and in no church do they make an impression as here, under the trees, where as though on a picnic the figures stretch themselves out and just seem to have awakened from a little sleep that lasted two thousand years.”

A couple, however, are more ruminative essays, one on monuments and the way in which, built to be noticed, they lie instead in a background to which we are largely oblivious; another on what he calls paintspreaders, who he claims to bear the same relation to painters was penpushers do to poets.

The final piece, ‘The Blackbird’, was the least satisfying to me. Partly told as a dialogue between two friends – rather bizarrely named Aone and Atwo – it presents some interesting ideas on friendship and also a wonderful scene set during war, but the puzzled reaction of one friend at the end – “But aren’t you implying…that all this is supposed to have a common thread?” – very much echoed my own.

Overall, though, enough to meet again!

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7 Responses to “Flypaper”

  1. Tony Says:

    Perhaps I’ll try this before moving on to the big one – certainly a less daunting prospect 😉

  2. Max Cairnduff Says:

    This is another one I’ve read (again there’s a review at mine if you’re curious). I liked it a fair bit, though some stories stand out more in memory than others.

    It is less daunting than the big one, but having read this despite having enjoyed it I don’t find the big one any less daunting…

    • 1streading Says:

      I notice you don’t mention ‘The Blackbird’ in your review – I really didn’t know what to make of it.
      I can tell you a that a new Picador Classics edition of The Man without Qualities is coming out next year though!

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I’ve considered the big Musil too – though it does look awfully long. Maybe I’ll check out the new Picador edition next year.

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