The Novel and a Warm Belly

The slowness of rural and small town life allows a natural life narrative to arise among inhabitants.

Everything feels so simple, he felt. One’s feelings get drowsy, one’s thoughts drift off like clouds after bad weather, and suddenly a clear sky breaks out of the soul, and under that sky a cow in the middle of the path may begin to blaze with meaning; things come intensely alive as if there were nothing else in the world. A single cloud drifting past may transform the whole region: the grass darkens, then shines with wetness; nothing else has happened, and yet it’s been like a voyage from one seashore to another. Or an old man loses his last tooth, and this trifling event may become a landmark in the lives of his neighbors, from which they date their memories. Every evening the birds sing around the village in the same way, in the stillness of the setting sun, but it feels like something new happening every time, as though the world were not yet seven days old! In the country, he thought, the gods still come to people. A man matters, his experiences matter, but in the city, where experiences come by the thousands, we can no longer relate them to ourselves; and this is of course the beginning of life’s notorious turning into abstraction. (I,708)

 But life in the city does not release us from the need for meaning-giving narrative. This need fed the growth of that modern phenomenon, the novel.

But even as he thought all this, he was also aware of how this abstraction extended a man’s power a thousandfold and how, even if from the point of view of any given detail it diluted him tenfold, as a whole it expanded him a hundredfold, and there could be no question of turning the wheel backward. And in one of those apparently random and abstract thoughts that so often assumed importance in his life, it struck him that when one is overburdened and dreams of simplifying one’s life, the basic law of this life, the law one longs for, is nothing other than that of narrative order, the simple order that enables one to say: “First this happened and then that happened…” It is the simple sequence of events in which the overwhelmingly manifold nature of things is represented in a unidimensional order, as a mathematician would say, stringing all that has occurred in space and time on a single thread, which calms us; that celebrated “thread of the story,” which is, it seems, the thread of life itself. Lucky the man who can say “when,” “before,” and “after”! Terrible things may have happened to him, he may have writhed in pain, but as soon as he can tell what happened in chronological order, he feels as contented as if the sun were warming his belly. This the trick the novel artificially turns to account: Whether the wanderer is riding on the highway in pouring rain or crunching through snow and ice at ten below zero, the reader feels a cozy glow, and this would be hard to understand if this eternally dependable narrative device, which even nursemaids can rely on to keep their little charges quiet, this tried-and-true “foreshortening of the mind’s perspective,” were not already part and parcel of life itself. Most people relate to themselves as storytellers. They usually have no use for poems, and although the occasional “because” or “in order that” gets knotted into the thread of life, they generally detest any brooding that goes beyond that; they love the orderly sequence of facts because it has the look of necessity, and the impression that their life has a “course” is somehow their refuge from chaos. It now came to Ulrich that he had lost his elementary, narrative mode of thought to which private life still clings, even though everything in public life has already ceased to be narrative and no longer follows a thread, but instead spreads out as an infinitely interwoven surface. (I,708-709)

It is just this discovery of a style of depicting Ulrich’s life that classifies The Man Without Qualities as modernist, to use Josipovici’s definition.

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