A Very Low Birth Rate in Kakania
- The Man without Qualities by Robert Musil, translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike
Picador, 1774 pp, £40.00, November 1995, ISBN 0 330 34682 2
- The Man without Qualities by Robert Musil, translated by Sophie Wilkins
Picador, 1130 pp, £15.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 330 34942 2
There is only one baby in The Man without Qualities. Her mother is Rachel, maid to Ermelinda Tuzzi who is the wife of Section Chief Tuzzi, a bureaucrat in the service of the Imperial Austrian Government in Vienna. The year is 1913:
Rachel was 19 and believed in miracles. She had been born in a squalid shack in Poland, where a mezuzah hung on the doorpost and the soil came up through the cracks in the floorboards. She had been cursed and driven out of the door, her mother standing by with a helpless look on her face, her brothers and sisters grinning with fear. She had pleaded for mercy on her knees, her heart strangled with shame, but to no avail. An unscrupulous young fellow had seduced her; she no longer knew how; she had had to give birth to her child in the house of strangers and then had left the country. Rachel had travelled; despair rolled along with her under the filthy cart in which she rode until, wept out, she saw the capital city toward which some instinct had driven her, as some great wall of fire into which she wanted to hurl herself to die. But – oh true miracle – this wall parted and took her in.
Rachel’s story belongs to the world of the traditional novel, where characters have stories. None of the main characters in The Man without Qualities has a story. It is a novel that disdains stories, that rejects ‘the law of narrative order’ as an adequate way of construing the meaning of a life.
Babies may be seen to entail stories because they embody the tyranny of linear causation – ‘first this happened and then that happened.’ They mock our sense of possibility. Like murders, they tell us that what’s done cannot be undone. They foreclose choice and finalise the loss of all that could have been chosen in their place. So Rachel’s having a baby and her having a story are closely related exceptions to the rule of The Man without Qualities. The same relation holds true in reverse: the characters who do not have stories are also not in the running for babies. Walter desperately wants a baby, but Clarisse, his wife, won’t co-operate. ‘Nothing doing, my dear!’ she taunts, grabbing a piece of cheese and heading off into the night to observe moths. Clarisse despises Walter for not being the genius she took him to be. She has her sights on Ulrich, whom Walter calls ‘a man without qualities’. The last thing Ulrich wants, however, is a story, so when Clarisse tries to rape him with a view to having his baby, he backs off furiously.
Hester Prynne, Clarissa, Tess, Anna Karenina – life is indifferent to class when it comes to trapping us in stories. Still, as Tess complains to her mother, ‘ladies know what to fend hands against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks.’ The poor have no choice but to end up in novels because they do not read them. Musil has less faith than Hardy in the genre. Rachel’s life slips into a narrative straitjacket without her even knowing how; but the novels that Frau Tuzzi feeds her do nothing to free her from the narrowness of story: the last we hear, she is pregnant again, facing a second ruin.
The only other character to have a story in The Man without Qualities is Christian Moosbrugger, a sex murderer, on trial for stabbing a prostitute in a country lane. Moosbrugger is a literary descendant of Woyzek. Like Woyzek, he never stood a chance: ‘Moosbrugger had started out in life as a poor devil, an orphan shepherd boy in a hamlet so small that it did not even have a village street, and his poverty was such that he never dared speak to a girl.’
Rachel is inscribed in the novel as the flesh which Moosbrugger is tormented and brought down by. Before we know anything of Rachel’s story, we have stripped her and marvelled at her body: ‘Rachel’s body, beneath its black uniform, was as exquisite as Meissen porcelain.’ Female flesh pursues and persecutes Moosbrugger, leaving him no option but to expunge it brutally. The woman he hacks to pieces was ‘a jobless, runaway housemaid’. No wonder the knowledge of her second pregnancy changes Rachel’s looks: ‘The lovely curve of her cheeks was a shade hollow, the black blaze of her eyes dulled with discouragement. Had Ulrich been in a mood to compare her beauty with that of his sister, he would have been bound to notice that Rachel’s former dark brilliance had crumbled like a piece of coal that had been run over by a heavy truck.’
For Ulrich, Rachel is just a girl with a beautiful body, a footnote to the main text of his sexual interests and a reminder of a narrative domain he seeks to remain out of reach of. In Moosbrugger, however, Ulrich recognises the extreme of a continuum on which he, too, stands: ‘Ulrich felt that he was basically capable of every virtue and every baseness.’ Like Moosbrugger, though under the disguise of a refined and civilised sensibility, Ulrich is troubled by a deep-seated dualism in his attitude to sex. The women he is attracted to pose a threat to his spiritual and intellectual freedom. Fleisch threatens Geist. The only women Ulrich is allowed by the book – allows himself – to make love with are intensely physical beings: Leona – ‘provocatively lifeless’ Leona – and Bonadea, the nymphomaniac wife of a judge. Both are sensual but stupid. The more Ulrich’s interest is engaged by the women he is attracted to, the more afraid he is to make love with them. As the chance to act on his desire comes closer, a sense of danger grows. When Clarisse tries to force him to make love with her, her body is described as an invading force: ‘it was as if her body had penetrated his senses.’ What stops him at this critical moment is the thought of another, younger woman he has narrowly escaped deflowering only a few hours earlier. At the climax of that encounter, Ulrich had found himself contemplating the imminent act as though in ‘a half-crazy anticipation of something like a massacre, a sex murder or, if there is such a thing, a lustful suicide’. Confronting himself in the mirror of sexual decision, Ulrich sees Moosbrugger staring out at him. The only woman Ulrich allows himself to fall profoundly in love with is his sister, Agathe, with whom sex, if not unthinkable, is at least hedged around with inhibition and taboo.
Whether or not it results in babies, sex with intelligent women seems to be equated in Ulrich’s mind with entrapment in story. When he comes close to succumbing to Clarisse ‘what he did not want to happen almost happened.’ What happens (‘was geschieht’) is story or history (‘Geschichte’). Geschichte is seductive. Indeed, the deeper pull of sex is not towards the satisfaction of instinctual desire but, via that satisfaction, towards the indulgence of a regrettable weakness for the comfort of story: ‘It is the simple sequence of events ... which calms us ... Lucky the man who can say “when”, “before” and “after”! Terrible things may have happened to him ... but as soon as he can tell what happened in chronological order, he feels as contented as if the sun were warming his belly. This is the trick the novel artificially turns to account.’
Ulrich’s ambivalence about the sexual act expresses his ambivalence about action of any kind. The sense of possibility that swarms ahead of the moment of commitment to love-making is a synecdoche for the awareness of the ‘overwhelmingly manifold nature of things’. To act is to risk losing this complexity. To make love is to lose the polyphony of flirtation and foreplay in the monody of the achieved sexual act. Action is inimical to interest. In sexual terms, the Hamletian ‘I think therefore I cannot act’ becomes ‘I talk therefore I cannot fuck.’ For Ulrich, fucking is only an option where talking holds no interest. On the other hand, with the right woman, the space which sexual desire opens up between the male and the female intelligence provides an incomparable opportunity for interesting conversation. The conversations that arise in these spaces (conversations about love, morals, history) fill up long stretches of The Man without Qualities.
Unlike Rachel or Moosbrugger, Ulrich is not impelled to do anything out of economic necessity. At 32 he has reached the threshold of his mature life. A period as an officer in the Army, followed by a spell of civil engineering, has led him to mathematics, where his recent work has earned him something of a reputation – all aspects of his biography that closely match Musil’s own. But Ulrich’s ambition has gone underground and he has come to a standstill. Instead of pursuing the advantage of his position as a mathematician, and despite his old father’s remonstrations urging him to do something useful, he decides to take a year off, a ‘holiday from life’ in which to figure out ‘the right way to live’. And it is during this intercalary year that the ‘action’ of The Man without Qualities takes place.