Monday, October 19, 2009

The Man Without Qualities


1. The Man Without Qualities, by Robert Musil

This book expanded my understanding of what a novel can do. As a writer, there has been no greater influence.

I've read it three times from beginning to end, and I return to passages regularly. The Man Without Qualities is a three volume work, left unfinished at the author's death. The serial chapters continually open up the novel to new possibilities and new story-lines. Musil calls this the "open architecture" of the book.

The titles of the chapters read as follows:
From which, remarkably enough, nothing develops

If there is a sense of reality, there must also be a sense of possibility

In a weak moment Ulrich acquires a new mistress

A chapter that may be skipped by anyone not particularly impressed by thinking as an occupation
The chapters are short, often digressive, and typically witty. The plot is less important. More important is the vivid characterization and the novelistic treatment of "history".

This reviewer sums up the novel quite nicely:
On the one hand, Musil offers a highly entertaining satirical portrait of Austria-Hungary right before the First World War. His detached hero Ulrich meets all kinds of bizarre people, who happen to be members of the ruling class of the country. Like a vivisecteur, Ulrich analyzes the philosophies and ideologies of his time. On the other hand, he dreams of a kind of new mysticism, an emotional purity that is opposed to the dross surrounding him; together with his sister he embarks on quest for 'the other state of being'.
The narrator of the Musil's opus, Ulrich, a mathematics professor with a bent for philosophy, has a charisma and intelligence that is hard to resist. He's the supreme objective observer and the supreme subjectivist at the same time. You feel as though you are listening in on the thoughts of the most brilliant man on earth.

Musil's motto was "Soul and Precision." This statement applies to life and art, and it implies the harmony and synthesis of the logical, analytical faculty of the mind, and the emotional, spiritual soul of the individual. "Soul and Precision" runs through the three volume work as a motif in the narrative and as a philosophy behind the writing about the writing.

While the work contains elements of satire, there is a real force of sincerity and earnestness about it. The narrator is not merely mocking the ruling class of Austria-Hungry, but also seriously trying to understand people's motives and eccentricities.

The world, according to Ulrich, may be absurd; but it is not worthless. There is still a mystery to be sought after, a spiritual reality. . .


Deep philosophical reflection is embedded within highly-visual, almost hallucinatory scenes. These scenes are filled with lively characters and charged by a kinetic, quasi-mystical language.

Here is an example from the chapter entitled, "Clarisse and Her Demons":
The next instant, Clarisse and Walter were off like two locomotives racing side by side. The piece they were playing came rushing at their eyes like flashing rails, vanished under the thundering engine, and spread out behind them as a ringing, resonant, marvelously present landscape. In the course of this ride these two people's separate feelings were compressed into a single entity; hearing, blood, muscles, were all swept along irresistibly by the same experience; shimmering, bending, curving walls of sound forced their bodies onto the same track, bent them as one, and expanded and contracted their chests in the same breath. In a fraction of a second, gaiety, sadness, anger, and fear, love and hatred, desire and satiety, passed through Walter and Clarisse. They became one, just as in a great panic hundreds of people who a moment before had been distinct in every way suddenly make the same flailing movements of flight, utter the same senseless screams, their gaping mouths and staring eyes the same, all swept backward and forward, left and right, by the same aimless force, howling, twitching, tangling, trembling. But this union did not have the same dull, overwhelming force as life itself, where this kind of thing does not happen so easily, although it blots out everything personal when it does. The anger, love, joy, gaiety, and sadness that Clarisse and Walter felt in their flight were not full emotions but little more than physical shells of feelings that had been worked up into a frenzy. They sat stiffly in a trance on their little stools, angry, in love, or sad, at nothing, with nothing, about nothing, or each of them at, with, about something else, thinking and meaning different things of their own; the dictate of music united them in the highest passion, yet at the same time it left them with something absent, as in the compulsive sleep of hypnosis.
It's clear from this passage that Robert Musil had a gift for conjuring the emotional states of human beings, and with his remarkable command of the language, he approaches metaphysical description, the territory between feeling and God (or spirit).

The translation by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike is the authoritative one, but I'd like to add that I first read a translation of The Man without Qualities by a translator who I no longer have the name of, but found the same, incandescent experience while reading--and in some cases--more profound. I wish I knew the name of this translator. It's been said that Musil translates well into English, but the original language is German, and there is probably a major gulf between the poetry of the original and the translated versions.

If a three volume work seems too daunting, you might want to check out Musil's first novel, Young Torless. This is an easier book to read, more compact and digestible.
This post is part of a series of posts on 25 Profound Works of Literary Genius.

Image Credit: Musil Illustration

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3 comments:

James said...

Entering Musil's world of possibilities is truly an "incandescent" experience. The Man Without Qualities is the standard against which I measure all other novels.

TrinaMb said...

hmm, I am intrigued by your offering, the chapter titles are enticing. The passage you quote rivoting. Thank you for introducing me...

windspirit-girl said...

"The anger, love, joy, gaiety, and sadness that Clarisse and Walter felt in their flight were not full emotions but little more than physical shells of feelings that had been worked up into a frenzy." Any author that can describe a type of unity (in the sentences before) between two people that is, still, indeed, a superficial one gets my vote. I've never read Musil. I will definitely have to check him out. I love the beginning of the passage, where the sentences gain momentum, like a train--I imagine the original German must have had that sound and feel as well. Thanks for this!!

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