Many people reread their favourite books - often, even. There must be a few, like me, who would rather not because the first read, like a pleasant memory, might be linked to a time, mood and place. It is a melancholy experience to pick up a work you loved and not respond to it in the same way.
The Man Without Qualities by Austrian Robert Musil (1880 to 1942) is considered by some the most important German-language novel of the 20th century and rated along Ulysses by James Joyce. Not that the two works have much in common beyond stature, scale and density. Joyce's masterpiece is hard to follow, Musil's just tough to take in since it has such an intricate plot and so many ideas.
There are more people who own Musil's tome, one of the lengthiest novels in all literature and unfinished as well, than have read it, says the official site on the author. I've read it three times - didn't finish the first time, I must admit, but made it halfway through the second of the three volumes, or two-thirds of the 1 264 pages in the original English translation published by Picador Classics. With the next and the third attempt I made it to the abrupt ending, a paragraph Musil wrote the morning he died.
Let me try to explain why I keep going back to this book - and say in advance that I'm not entirely sure.
Musil deserves a biopic. He was an intelligent, fascinating, versatile man who seemed capable of anything. The son of an engineer with a noble title awarded by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he was a short, but strong teen who turned into a good wrestler. His parents couldn't control him and picked the inevitable solution of sending him to military school. Afterwards he rattled off an engineering degree and invented a chromatometer while working on his debut novel, Young Törless, inspired by the horrific military school years. When he got bored with engineering, he did doctorates in psychology and philosophy and then decided to become a full-time writer. To support himself, he worked as a librarian and later edited a literary magazine until World War I began and he joined the ranks. During the war he met one of his heroes, Franz Kafka.
Volumes one and two of The Man Without Qualities appeared in the early 1930s. Musil withdrew 20 chapters from the second and didn't use them again. Volume one sold out and got positive reviews. But all in all Musil felt underappreciated, even after a nomination for the Nobel Prize.
When the rise of the Nazis forced him to flee Berlin with his Jewish wife, he settled in Vienna and then spent the last of his 62 years in Switzerland. He died of a stroke while doing his strenuous daily routine of exercises. Only eight people turned up for his cremation. Since his works were so long repressed by the Nazi regime, he was almost forgotten until the English translations of his novels and short stories in the 1950s sparked new interest.
The Man Without Qualities follows former mathematician Ulrich, a man who won't live up to society's expectations and doesn't want to be defined by anything. “I believe all our moral injunctions are concessions to a society of savages,” he says.
Ulrich becomes involved with a plan to commemorate Emperor Franz Joseph's 70 years on the throne, sitting with the rich, the noble and the powerful in a salon, discussing a doomed event and an empire on the brink of collapse. Meanwhile, the drawn-out trial of psychotic killer Moosbrugger fascinates the idle classes and Ulrich's childhood friends, the artistic couple Walter and Clarisse. She is frustrated with her husband and thinks Ulrich can unleash qualities in himself - or in her? - by doing something for Moosbrugger.
Musil's greatest book got the unfair reputation as one of those classics best left to literary geeks and scholars. The writing is as precise as you would expect from a mathematician, but not clinical. Everything is delivered in realistic, humorous prose that effortlessly carries the full philosophical weight of Musil's ideas.
The characters are unforgettable - the portrayal of Moosbrugger, for instance, is considered one of the finest ever of a murderer. Walter and Clarisse with their endless duels - the intellectual versus the artist - are very entertaining. Ulrich is an almost comical anti-hero as he tries to reach a reality beyond good and evil - or perhaps a middle ground between the scientific and the mystical.
“Layer by layer art strips life bare,” wrote Musil. The Man Without Qualities is a book with a rich, unfinished life of its own, one you can read as slowly or quickly as you like, mulling over some thoughts, skimming over others, making of it what you will. It is a mesmerising look at culture, love, compassion, cruelty, logic and all things that play a part in defining us.
I want to read it again.
Words © Pieter van der Lugt. Original template by OS Templates.