January 4, 2006


Book of the year (Paul Greenberg, 1/04/06, Jewish World Review )

Everybody loves to talk about the really great book he's just read, and here was my chance to savor a couple of them again. It wasn't easy picking out just one, but I finally settled on . . . the envelope, please. . . .

Robert Musil's "The Man Without Qualities."

No brief summary can do a great book justice. Page after page, this one strikes deep. Like a diagnosis of cancer. Yet its prose is cool, detached, wry, limpid . . . affecting but never affected.

Actually, I've only read the first volume of the two that make up the book. It's a hefty tome, but the prose flows by as swiftly as a clear mountain stream carrying a sleek canoe . . . straight over a mile-high waterfall.

Like much of Walker Percy, though quite different in style and much else, "The Man Without Qualities" is a description/indictment of modernity. It's a worldly diagnosis of worldliness, a lucid dip into confusion. Underneath its superficial bitterness there lies a deep well of it, dry as a good martini.

How sum it up? Call it a "Remembrance of Things Past" for those of us who have never been able to get into Proust. (Too distant, too precious, too French.) Translated from the German, the tone of this work is Austrian rather than Prussian, which may explain its charm — and its view of the human condition: hopeless but not serious. [...]

[M]usil distilled from Europe's decline and fall into barbarism a book whose unblinking clarity and wry irony still exhilarates. As long as someone can describe despair so well, there is hope.

Modernity Laid Bare: a review of The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil (Virgil Newmoianu, Crisis)
The subject-matter of the novel is of secondary importance. Its merit must instead be sought in Musil's character portraits and rich commentaries. Ulrich is, at age 32, a "man without qualities" to such an extent that we are never even told his family name. Intelligent, cultivated, and well-to-do, he is also utterly agnostic about the present and future, a devotee of unceasing availability and openness. If nothing else, this disposition turns him into an ideal spectator of a world spinning out of control.

There are three things Ulrich bemusedly observes with eager curiosity. The first is "the parallel action" - a quixotic intiative led by intellectuals, bureaucrats, aristocrats, and enterpreneurs seeking a suitable framework in which to celebrate the Emperor after 70 years of rule. The second is the debate around the suitable handling and punishment of Moosbrugger, a man accused of sexual murder. The third is Ulrich's continuing passionate interest in the feminine soul. While the first of these actions allows Ulrich to get in touch with social elites, and the second to reflect upon what occurs in the lower reaches of society, at the instinctive level, it is the third which truly engages him psychologically and existentially. His elegantly snobbish cousin Diotima, his "lost" sister Agatha, the capricious Clarissa, Rachel, and Gerda, all capture his attention, bringing him in touch with the ideological world of Central Europe, filled with socialists, anarchists, and the menacingly crystallizing nationalists and racists.

Musil's greatest success, however, is the manner in which his vision tolerates, inside the realm of doubt, belief in the redeeming power of beauty and even a little faith. In chapter 83, for example, we find a thought that might be familiar both to certain theologians, and to the spirit of Christian existentialism: "God does not really mean the world literally; it is a metaphor, an analogy, a figure of speech that He has to resort to for some reason or other, and it never satisfies Him, of course. We are not supposed to take Him at his word, it is we ourselves who must come up with the answer for the riddle He sets us." And, of course, even more significantly, the final pages of the book sketch out a "monastic" option of lonely, genuine contemplation and authenticity. The tone of "The Man Without Qualities" strangely mixes keen lucidity with jocular melancholy.

Like Joyce and Mann, Musil is not beholden to wholeness and abundance, nor does he emphasize the human opening toward transcendence. The spiritual piety of tradition is not part of his make-up. Still, in a curious way, these represent the background to his fictional world (like Joyce's Ulysses or Eliot's Waste Land). It may indeed be that the projects of Musil or Joyce would fall to pieces without these backgrounds of allusion. I am not sure I can even be cross with those who turn their reading of the "high-modernists" into a kind of detective search for such signs of tradition. In this sense, Musil's dogged examination of disposability and possibility, as well as his use of irony and ambiguity, become substitutes for wholeness rather than devices of deconstruction.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 4, 2006 12:00 AM

"Life is a terrible thing, made tolerable chiefly by smoking" - Robert Musil.

Posted by: Carter at January 4, 2006 2:35 PM


Confessions of Zeno seems more your speed.

Posted by: oj at January 4, 2006 2:46 PM

I have a copy of 'Zeno' (one of those nice Everyman library editions) that I've been saving for the right occasion (say what you will about Joyce, he really did right by Svevo).

'Man Without Qualities' has been on my books to read list for a long time. Maybe this year.

Posted by: Carter at January 4, 2006 4:43 PM

There's also a fine blog by the same name.

Posted by: joe shropshire at January 5, 2006 3:43 PM