How to read The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil
By Burton Pike
Here's what you need to know, and what you need to forget, to read Robert Musil's great, challenging modernist novel, The Man Without Qualities. You need to know that Musil was writing this book between 1924 and 1942, when Europe was in crisis and on the edge of the abyss of fascism and a second world war. You need to know that the novel opens in August 1913 and takes place over one fateful year, the last year of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. But August 1914—and the guns of World War I—never arrives, only looms as a ghostly presence over the whole work.
You need to forget about a novel having a beginning, middle, and end. You need to stop thinking and let yourself feel, get the pleasure of the striking images and language, recognize the emotions they arouse in you without trying to explain them to yourself. Musil gets into the soul of his characters, into their hearts and minds. You the reader are his target; he wants to subtly change your life. Let yourself respond to the sensuous language with which this novel presents a kaleidoscope of situations and characters, the pieces coming together in beautiful little explosive combinations. Here is one:
"I've been expecting you," she said, leaving Ulrich uncertain whether she meant this as a kindness or a rebuke. The hand she gave him was plump and weightless.
He held it a moment too long, his thoughts unable to let go of this hand at once. It rested in his own like a fleshy petal; its pointed nails, like beetle wings, seemed poised to fly off with her at any moment into the improbable. He was overwhelmed by the exaltation of this female hand, basically a rather shameless human organ that, like a dog's muzzle, will touch anything and yet is publicly considered the seat of fidelity, nobility, and tenderness. During these few seconds, he noted that there were several rolls of fat on Diotima's neck, covered with the finest skin; her hair was wound into a Grecian knot, which stood out stiffly and in its perfection resembled a wasp's nest. Ulrich felt a hostile impulse, an urge to offend this smiling woman, and yet he could not quite resist her beauty.
For Musil, there can be no thinking without feeling. Yet he shows us in one encounter after another how feelings running riot are dangerous. ("All lines lead to the war," Musil wrote about the novel.) Trained as a scientist, he understood that science had created a new world far ahead of people's ability to cope with it. "We have gained reality and lost dream," says the novel's narrator. Diotima, unhappily married to a government official, searches for "soul"; Clarisse, a free spirit in a contentious marriage with a failed artist, spirals into madness; Arnheim, the Prussian industrialist adored by Diotima, talks of coal prices and soul but is really interested in Austrian oil fields. Over all hovers the figure of the sex-murderer Moosbrugger, who is quite insane. The characters are unaware of impending disaster, though the collapse of their world is only months away.
For Musil the problems of that world are still with us and still unsolved. A bridge must be found to a new kind of society, a union of reason and soul. In the end Ulrich, with his sister, Agathe, steps back from a world that is flying apart and embarks on a journey—"on the edge of the possible"—toward a "day-bright mysticism."
Burton Pike has translated and taught Musil's novels and stories.
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