Literary Fiction and Reality Towards the beginning of his novel The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil announces that 'no serious attempt will be made to... enter into competition with reality.' And yet it is an element in the situation he cannot ignore. How good it would be, he suggests, if one could find in life ' the simplicity inherent in narrative order. 'This is the simple order that consists in being able to say: "When that had happened, then this happened." What puts our mind at rest is the simple sequence, the overwhelming variegation of life now represented in, as a mathematician would say, a unidimensional order.' We like the illusions of this sequence, its acceptable appearance of causality: 'it has the look of necessity.' But the look is illusory; Musil's hero Ulrich has 'lost this elementary narrative element' and so has Musil. The Man Without Qualities is multidimensional, fragmentary, without the possibility of a narrative end. Why could he not have his narrative order? Because 'everything has now become nonnarrative.' The illusion would be too gross and absurd. Musil belonged to the great epoch of experiment; after Joyce and Proust, though perhaps a long way after, he is the novelist of early modernism. And as you see he was prepared to spend most of his life struggling with the problems created by the divergence of comfortable story and the non-narrative contingencies of modern reality. Even in the earlier stories he concerned himself with this disagreeable but necessary dissociation; in his big novel he tries to create a new genre in which, by all manner of dazzling devices and metaphors and stratagems, fiction and reality can be brought together again. He fails; but the point is that he had to try, a sceptic to the point of mysticism and caught in a world in which, as one of his early characters notices, no curtain descends to conceal 'the bleak matter-of-factness of things.
Tick is a humble genesis, tock a feeble apocalypse; and tick-tock is in any case not much of a plot. We need much larger ones and much more complicated ones if we persist in finding 'what will suffice.' And what happens if the organization is much more complex than tick-tock? Suppose, for instance, that it is a thousand-page novel. Then it obviously will not lie within what is called our 'temporal horizon'; to maintain the experience of organization we shall need many more fictional devices. And although they will essentially be of the same kind as calling the second of those two related sounds tock, they will obviously be more resourceful and elaborate. They have to defeat the tendency of the interval between tick and tock to empty itself; to maintain within that interval following tick a lively expectation of tock, and a sense that however remote tock may be, all that happens happens as if tock were certainly following. All such plotting presupposes and requires that an end will bestow upon the whole duration and meaning. To put it another way, the interval must be purged of simple chronicity, of the emptiness of tock-tick., humanly uninteresting successiveness. It is required to be a significant season, kairos poised between beginning and end. It has to be, on a scale much greater than that which concerns the psychologists, an instance of what they call 'temporal integration'-our way of bundling together perception of the present, memory of the past, and expectation of the future, in a common organization. Within this organization that which was conceived of as simply successive becomes charged with past and future: what was chronos becomes kairos. This is the time of the novelist, a transformation of mere successiveness which has been likened, by writers as different as Forster and Musil, to the experience of love, the erotic consciousness which makes divinely satisfactory sense out of the commonplace person.