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Italo Calvino on Musil and Gadda

John Barth’s article also mentioned Calvino’s essay on “Multiplicity.” It’s a short piece on novels that spawn ever outward and novels that are unfinishable on that account. Calvino loops in some Oulipo authors and talks about generative novels, but his main focus is on uncontrollable novels, not contrived ones. Proust, Mann, and late Flaubert are mentioned, but the two flagships he uses are Carlo Emilio Gadda and Robert Musil. Musil and Gadda appear to have almost nothing in common except for a certain underlying contempt for the world, and even that comes out very differently.

Calvino says:

If we compare these two engineer-writers, Gadda, for whom understanding meant allowing himself to become tangled in a network of relationships, and Musil, who gives the impression of always understanding everything in the multiplicity of codes and levels of things without ever allowing himself to become involved, we have to record this one fact common to both: their inability to find an ending.

This is as far as Calvino goes. I don’t know that he ever wrote more on Musil, but he was a big booster of Gadda: Calvino’s introduction to Gadda’s That Awful Mess on Via Mirulana is quite wonderful and much easier going than the novel itself. But does it have a lot to do with Musil, or is the comparison spurious?

Calvion only alludes to the fact that Gadda wrote not one but two unfinished novels, making him a bit less successful than Musil, who got a couple completed books under his belt before embarking on a twenty-year unfinished project. For Calvino, they are unified by the devouring nature of their books, both of which (he implies) prevent completion by their very design. Musil can’t finish his book because there’s still more to understand; Gadda can’t finish his because there’s still more to describe. But with Gadda, it’s unavoidable: there is the insistent breakdown of facts and objects that Gadda can’t avoid. His neurosis won’t let him. Whereas with Musil, there is the sense that after a good chunk of near-total control in the first two volumes, The Man Without Qualities runs off its rails in the third and Musil tries desperately to get it back on track. Had he lived longer, he could have brought it to a conclusion, albeit an unsatisfying one. Gadda could never finish any novel, even given an eternity.

Despite Musil’s considerably loftier aims, it’s Gadda who ends up exemplifying the theme of “multiplicity” better, because he sets himself up in an impossible solution, where the sludge of the novel’s environment creates an irresistible inertia. His is a very pathological version of the multiplicative obsessions of Borges and the rest of the authors Calvino discusses. Musil, as is his tendency, evades the classification.

(And on the topic of multiplicity, there is Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Andreas, a novel that not only was never finished, but barely started.)


  1. great essay- actually i think the whole “uses of literature” collection is great. just finished reading the gadda and enjoyed it but thought it could have been better- the unfinished/unfinishable nature of it didn’t bother me, but once the narrative left don ciccio for the more geographically peripheral areas of the city it got weaker. i thought the high point was the interrogation of the nephew. then again, some passages in the latter part seemed nearly untranslatable, as weaver acknowledged.

    random question: which philosophers or works of philosophy besides Nietzsche are discussed explicitly in the Man Without Qualities that you think it might be helpful to have read before embarking on MWQ?

  2. anon: I hadn’t read any philosophy before embarking on MWQ… it was difficult at first but once I “heard” his peculiar voice in the language, I was hooked and “got it”. Even if I didn’t understand every single sentence, I felt like I could engage fully with the work.

    While I was reading it (it took me months) I was also reading a biography on Wittgenstein. I found surprising parallels between the ideas in these books, as well as between Musil and Wittgenstein themselves.

    David: I know this is an old post but thank you for all these thoughts on Musil… (I did a search sitewide for him) They’re all very perceptive.

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