'A barometric low hung over the Atlantic'

Tim Radford
Early postcard of Graben in the centre of Vienna, the setting for Robert Musil’s novel The Man Without Qualities. Photograph: Culture Club/Getty

Elmore Leonard’s first rule was “Never open a book with weather” although his Get Shorty smuggles “on-off cold winters” of Miami Beach into the first sentence. Dostoevsky opens The Idiot with a warm spell at the end of November. Mikhail Bulgakov launches The Master and Margarita at sunset on a warm spring day. George Orwell starts Nineteen Eighty-Four on a cold bright day in April and Raymond Chandler begins The Big Sleep with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain.

None match the unrepentant meteorological metaphor of the Austrian Robert Musil. “A barometric low hung over the Atlantic. It moved eastward toward a high-pressure area over Russia without as yet showing any inclination to bypass this high in a northerly direction,” he begins in The Man Without Qualities, translated by Sophie Wilkins.

“The isotherms and isotheres were functioning as they should. The air temperature was appropriate to the annual mean temperature and to the aperiodic monthly fluctuations of the temperature. The rising and setting of the sun, the moon, the phases of the moon, of Venus, of the rings of Saturn, and many other significant phenomena were all in accordance with the forecasts in the astronomical yearbooks. The water vapour in the air was at its maximal state of tension, while the humidity was minimal. In a word that characterises the facts fairly accurately, even if it is a bit old-fashioned: it was a fine day in August 1913.”

The vast novel was unfinished when Musil died in 1942.

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