Sunday, June 01, 2008

My favorite for the day (NYTBR)

Essay
Jumbo Lit
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By JOE QUEENAN
Published: June 1, 2008
I was 1,083 pages into Robert Musil’s majestic novel “The Man Without Qualities” when my wife burst into the living room and said that my 1991 Toyota Previa was leaking oil. The Previa is a fantastic vehicle, requiring virtually no upkeep, but “The Man Without Qualities” is even more fantastic, despite being 1,774 pages long, which is why hardly anybody has finished it.

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Brian Rea
For at least four years I’d been having trouble with the van — the passenger door went on the fritz in 2006, the emergency brake started sticking in 2007, the rear wiper started squeaking this year and the engine has been wheezing since it hit the 132,000-mile mark in 2004 — but I’d never taken care of these problems because I’d rather lie on the couch reading gargantuan books like “The Man Without Qualities.” Over the past couple of years I’d used the “Iliad” (663 pages in my edition), “All the King’s Men” (661 pages) and “Anna Karenina” (851 pages) as an excuse for not dealing with the van, but once my wife got serious about a vehicular upgrade, I knew I’d have to roll out the heavy artillery: Boswell, Gibbon, Proust. I kept telling her, “I’ll get the brakes checked as soon as I finish ‘The Guermantes Way,’” or “I’ll take the Previa in for an oil change as soon as I get to the part where Diocletian goes to war against the Christians.” My wife, who has read tons of Trollope, is no slouch in the jumbo-size lit department, but she has much stronger views on auto maintenance than I do, so usually she’s the one who takes care of it. But this time, she’d had enough: It’s your car. It’s a death trap. Fix it.

You wouldn’t have to get very far into “The Man Without Qualities” before seeing why auto repair would be so far down on my list of priorities. Set in Austria in 1913, the novel centers on a man who decides to take a back seat in his own life and become a detached observer of life in general and the soon-to-implode Austro-Hungarian Empire in particular. Much of the book deals with the Parallel Campaign, a frantic effort by a group of Austrian intellectuals to do something important, though they can never decide what. The best joke in this sly and very funny book is a rumor that the Parallel Campaign is planning to celebrate a “Year of Austria.” A single Austrian year, Musil writes, might be tolerable, whereas an entire Austrian century would effectively sentence the entire world to “the punishments of hell by an absurdly voluntary effort.”

I had read only 350 pages, up to the section where Musil describes “Mr. Plato” (the philosopher) trying to pitch story ideas to the Life and Leisure section of a contemporary newspaper, when I started buying up copies of the book and giving them to friends as Christmas presents. Many seemed surprised by the gesture, but I truly believe that if this book were set in Los Angeles or Paris, or even Miami (though probably not Atlanta), it would be as famous as “Madame Bovary,” “The Great Gatsby,” perhaps even “The Kite Runner.”

Anyway, for at least a month I’d known there was something wrong with the car, because I could see I was getting only about eight miles to the gallon from a vehicle that used to average 20. The problem was, shopping for a car involved reading a bunch of Consumer Reports, and every time I sat down with the magazines, trying to decide whether to buy the Honda Accord or the Toyota Camry, I found myself sneaking back to the far more glittering prose of “The Man Without Qualities.” Though I assured my wife that I would buy a car just as soon as I’d finished off Musil, she knew I was lying. I’d said the same thing about “Middlemarch” and “The Mayor of Casterbridge.” For years, I’d been getting engrossed in enormous books while the house, the van, the very fabric of our lives kept disintegrating. And since my wife knew that Boswell’s “Life of Johnson” was inching toward the on-deck circle, the odds of my getting around to buying a car were just about nil.

I’m not suggesting that gigantic books are useful only as an excuse for avoiding responsibility. No, those who read them also reap the psychic benefits of being admitted to an exclusive club, like Icelandic rodeo queens or American presidents whose administrations did not end in disaster. Those who have read the unabridged “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and “Remembrance of Things Past” and “Man Without Qualities” belong to a very special group because at any given time there are no more than a few hundred such people on the face of the earth, and none of them live in Tarrytown.
Jumbo Lit
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Published: June 1, 2008
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This is a far more exclusive group than those who have read “War and Peace” or the complete works of Jane Austen. Lots of high school kids have bluffed their way through Tolstoy, whose masterpiece is daunting but not insurmountable, and polishing off Austen is a snap because Austen is sassy and mean, and only one of her novels is more than 400 pages long. What’s more, you can always see the light at the end of the tunnel when you’re reading Austen and Tolstoy. You can never see the light at the end of the tunnel when you’re reading “The Man Without Qualities” because the author himself never saw it. Even though he spent his entire adult life working on the book, it remained unfinished at the time of his death.

It was the oil leak that finally persuaded me to shelve Musil. Dutifully, I hauled out all my car-buying info, but not before motoring down to my sister’s house in Philadelphia and hiding “The Man Without Qualities” behind the sofa to ensure I wouldn’t be tempted to slack off. I returned home, read a couple of articles and drove across the river to price a Nissan Altima. Then I went to the Honda dealer and checked out the Accord. Then it was on to the Mazda6. Or maybe it was a Toyota Corolla. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a Subaru Forester. I was all set to make my purchase when my wife said she would trade me her Toyota Sienna for the new car, but she wanted to get a Honda Civic with a stick shift. This would take a few more weeks to sort out, which would give me time to reread “Don Quixote” and perhaps even take a crack at the “Decameron.” But then she found out that stick shifts were hard to resell, so maybe the Civic wasn’t such a good idea.

In fairness to her, I must admit that the week I spent not reading “The Man Without Qualities” was a revelation. With no excuse for my indolence, I rearranged my LPs, repaired the back of the CD rack, got a carpenter to fix a rotting beam, threw out a bunch of old clothes, bought a fax machine, restrung my guitars and figured out how to operate my digital camera. I also made a vat of spaghetti sauce and visited my mother. So I could see how different life could be without Gibbon and Proust gumming up the works. But then my wife came in and said that in addition to buying a new car, she wanted to talk about refinancing our house. At which point I threw up my hands and went back to Musil. Now I’ve assured her that we can discuss the mortgage just as soon as I’ve finished the greatest Austrian novel of them all. But something tells me that before I get around to the mortgage, I’ll first gain admission to an even more exclusive club: people who have read the Big Three of the 20th century — “Ulysses,” “Remembrance of Things Past” and “The Man Without Qualities” — and then read them again. I wonder what those folks are driving.

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2 Comments:

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3:34 AM  

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