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Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften
Robert Musil
publisher: Rowohlt, Berlin, 1930

translated as:
The Man Without Qualities
publisher: Querido, Amsterdam, 1995 (new translation)
translation: Sophie Wilkins

refered to by:
The Magic Mountain
Thomas Mann

The Radetzky March
Joseph Roth

Virtuoso, The
Margriet de Moor

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This is one of the most prestigious novels of the 20th century; the sort of book no one has read but everyone has heard of. It is well worth reading, even though it is very long, very slow, and was unfinished at the time of Robert Musil's death. The first volume of The Man without Qualities runs to 365 pages, and the dilemma of the protagonist, Ulrich, is presented only on about page 300. Nevertheless, the writing is so precise and the argument Musil makes about Ulrich and his situation so intricate that it is intellectually and aesthetically involving even before it becomes emotionally so.

Ulrich is an unmarried man in his early 30s who has recently returned to Vienna from several years abroad. He is ostensibly a mathematician, but although his mind still works like that of a scientist, he has ceased to be inspired by his vocation, and finds himself in the midst of an existential crisis. He is a habitual thinker whose most characteristic activity is to continually refine his analysis of himself and the people around him. He is not meditative or contemplative - that is, he seeks neither peace nor enlightenment. Earlier, once through love and the natural world, and later through mathematics, he had sought truth, but not long before the novel begins, he slacks off, no longer passionate enough about it to be disappointed. He finds and redecorates a house and then takes up the typical activities of a Viennese gentleman - he procures himself a mistress and falls in with bureaucratic projects. As an idle pastime, he gets to know the leading lights of the Austro-Hungarian empire, who, somewhat like their counterparts in the American south of the 1850s, have no idea they are passing into history.
The novel has eight principal characters: Ulrich; his cousin Diotima, a tall, robust, beautiful middle-class woman who epitomises a certain type of self-satisfied German-speaking Austrian; Diotima's lover, Arnheim, a Prussian mogul and man of letters whom Ulrich detests; Bonadea, Ulrich's own mistress, whose promiscuity and spiritual corruption sometimes intrigue him; and Leinsdorf, a highly placed government official who is in charge of the celebrations for the jubilee of Emperor Franz Josef. A sixth character, Moosbrugger, is a murderer whose trial interests Ulrich and a friend of his, Clarisse, who is married to Ulrich's estranged childhood companion. All these characters have plenty of leisure, including Moosbrugger, who is in prison for the murder of a young prostitute.

Like most modernist novels, The Man without Qualities is not tragic, but it is not comic, either, if we take comic to mean that at least some of the characters achieve authentic connections with one another by the end of the novel (of course, there is no ending, since the novel was unfinished). It is, however, quite funny, or at least witty, as a result of Musil's amazingly specific and complex figurative language. The reader is quite
often struck by epigrams and remarks that gracefully offer images and insights which are utterly original and right. At one point, for example, he writes: "This non-plussed feeling refers to something that many people nowadays call intuition, whereas formerly it used to be called inspiration, and they think that they must see something suprapersonal in it; but it is only something nonpersonal, namely the affinity and kinship of the things themselves that meet inside one's head." And in a remark that must surely apply to many of the unaccountable things that rogue governments and rogue corporations still do, he writes: "For it is only criminals who presume to damage other people nowadays without the aid of philosophy." The chapters on Moosbrugger and Count Leinsdorf are contrasting masterpieces of empathy - on the one hand, with a murderer whose grasp of reality is utterly logical but scarily tenuous, and on the other, with an aristocrat who has no idea what is going on in the nation he is responsible for.

Some novelists excel at giving the reader the emotional feel of a character's mind (Dickens), others at the sensuous feel of a character's mind (Flaubert). Musil is wonderful at both - even though Ulrich isn't very emotional, a couple of the other characters are, and Musil enters into them quite smoothly. He is extremely good at characterising the logical way in which the thoughts and perceptions of a thinking man progress, climax and begin again with another subject. Musil uses the third-person omniscient point of view, and is perfectly at ease entering the minds of all his characters; he seems to get especially close to them, as if what he were saying about them is so concise that it must be absolutely true.

Ulrich is both attracted to and disdainful of Diotima; for example, Musil writes, "What it really came to always was that Diotima began talking as though God had on the seventh day put man, like a pearl, into the shell of the world, and Ulrich then reminded her that mankind was a little heap of dots on the outermost crust of a midget globe." But as foolish as Diotima is, it grows apparent that Ulrich is even more foolish, because, just as his friends and relatives keep telling him, he is going nowhere. He is always right, but never productive, never happy, and never, except momentarily, engaged. The reader may enjoy his talents and his state of mind, but Ulrich is building to something that may not be pleasant. The Man without Qualities requires and rewards patience. Like most modernist novels, it forgoes plot in favour of ideas, character, and, in this case, many very funny insights into modern life. Most novels come to seem, while one is reading Musil, rather coarse; most characters, too easily satisfied. The older editions and translations show that Musil is due for a revival in English. It can't come too soon.

- Jane Smiley, The Guardian, 17 June 2006


The Confusions of Young Törless
At a bleak, isolated military school on the fringes of the Austro- Hungarian Empire, four young cadets - Torless, Beineberg, Reiting and their victim Basini - drift even further away from their school- fellows into a private world of ritual, secrecy and torture.
The Man Without Qualities
Ulrich has no qualities in the sense that his self-awareness is completely divorced from his abilities. He is drawn into a project, the 'Parallel Campaign,' to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Emperor Franz Joseph's coronation in 1918.
Posthumous Papers of a Living Author
This work, written mostly in the Twenties and first published in 1936, is a collection of satirical stories and essays that 'observe human life in the tiny traits by which it carelessly reveals itself.'
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