The Man without Qualities 
by Robert Musil, translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike.
Picador, 1774 pp., £40, November 1995, 0 330 34682 2
Show More
The Man without Qualities 
by Robert Musil, translated by Sophie Wilkins.
Picador, 1130 pp., £15, October 1997, 0 330 34942 2
Show More
Show More

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.

In the conversations and ruminations that fill most of Ulrich’s time, he elaborates a subtle relativism. For him, there is no single truth, there are only truths, and most of the value systems and moral precepts by which people live are worthless because they fail to take account of this. Good and bad are dependent on scale, context and perception: ‘a murder can appear to us as a crime or a heroic act, and making love as a feather that has fallen from the wing of an angel or that of a goose ... all moral acts take place in a field of energy whose constellation charges them with meaning.’ Since every event is dependent on other events in a boundless web of seen and unseen connections, deliberation cannot lead to consequential action: whatever we think we are doing, we are bound also to be doing something else which may quite possibly contradict our declared aims. We cannot get from here to the other side of the ethical garden without stepping on the flowers. Moreover, the laws of statistics suggest that nothing we do individually will make a difference, so belief in determinate action is groundless. Despite these and similar conclusions, Ulrich is not satisfied. He is a profound fellow with an exquisite sensibility. Between the coldness of pure mathematics and the puerile irrationalisms of the non-scientific mind, he seeks a third way, the ‘Other Condition’, which he characterises as a synthesis of two aspects of mind – precision and soul, Genauigkeit und Seele.

The Man without Qualities reserves its most savage mockery for manifestations of pseudo-soul: Walter’s onanistic indulgence in ‘Klaviergefühl’ (playing Wagner transcriptions on the piano to drown his despair); Frau Tuzzi’s self-deluded love for the Prussian financier and polymath Paul Arnheim; the poet Feuermaul’s flatulentverse. But the ferocity of these attacks argues for the importance of what is being defended. The experience of soul is made central to Ulrich’s intellectual perplexities; it is the fata morgana that leads him away from the world: ‘he thought of that curious experience, “spirit”, as he would of a beloved who had deceived him all his life without his loving her less, and it bound him to everything that came his way.’

One of Ulrich’s favourite maxims is that everything that happens could just as well have turned out differently. So he is not at all surprised when his determination to do nothing, beyond think about the futility of doing anything, is almost immediately thwarted by a chance event that propels him right to the centre of the available action. He becomes Secretary to the Parallel Campaign, which turns out to be a delightful parody of purposeful endeavour.

Sponsored at a high level in the Imperial Government, the Parallel Campaign is a sort of commission charged with the task of planning a great national demonstration in honour of the 70th anniversary – in 1918 – of the accession to the throne of the Emperor Franz Joseph. It’s known as the ‘parallel’ campaign because its hidden aim is to eclipse a similar jubilee which the Prussians are rumoured to be planning for the same year. Throughout the novel, the presence of Prussia is felt as a sinister threat, a force that could break ‘the baroque spell of old Austrian culture’ and wake the Empire from its uneasy sleep. The particular shape that this threat takes is Dr Paul Arnheim, a German industrialist and intellectual, heir to ‘world-spanning business interests’ and author of books ‘regarded in advanced circles as extraordinary’. When Frau Tuzzi introduces Arnheim onto the unofficial steering committee of the Campaign, Liege-Count Leinsdorf, the old Austrian aristocrat who’s in charge, is distinctly put out. Frau Tuzzi, meanwhile, is none too pleased at the appearance of General Stumm von Bordwehr, who’s come along uninvited to keep tabs on things for the War Ministry. When Ulrich, a distant cousin of Frau Tuzzi’s, floats in on the back of a bizarre coincidence, the anomalous quartet that makes up the inner circle of the Campaign is complete.

The tempo of the Parallel Campaign is set by Count Leinsdorf in his opening speech to the first session: ‘What has brought us together is the shared conviction that a great testimonial arising from the midst of the people themselves must not be left to chance but needs guidance by an influence that sees far into the future from a place with a broad perspective – in other words, from the top.’ Following this, Frau Tuzzi assures everyone that the purpose of the session is not to try to define the aim of the Campaign but to create ‘an organisation to prepare the way for the framing of suggestions leading towards this aim’. An unknown professor rises to speak about the path of history, a Frau Weghuber proposes a ‘Great Austrian Franz Joseph Soup Kitchen’, General Stumm puts in a word for the re-equipment of the Army, Frau Tuzzi urges the formation of a baroque structure of committees, and Count Leinsdorf, noting that ‘the time had not yet come for examining proposals on their merits,’ winds the meeting up with a resolution ‘to the effect that those present had unanimously agreed to submit the wishes of the people, as soon as these could be determined ... to His Majesty.’

The Parallel Campaign soon settles down into a glorified salon presided over by the ingenuously ambitious Frau Tuzzi, who’s really a middle-class girl with the looks and the confidence to play the grand hostess with panache. Ulrich is the only one who sees the absurdity of the Campaign, but it delights him, superficially at least, because of the opportunity it gives him to play his favourite role – urbane sceptic, charismatic Diogenes, suave deconstructor of other people’s cant, ‘devil’s advocate and materialist’ among the doe-eyed idealists. His youth, charm, good looks, intelligence and complete lack of investment in any of the aims or pretensions of the Campaign, make him the darling of the salon. Everyone uses Ulrich as his or her confidant: Count Leinsdorf to air the perplexities of a feudal landlord in a ‘progressive’ age, Stumm to exercise and educate his soldier’s common sense, Frau Tuzzi to gush about her love for the world and for Arnheim. Only Arnheim refuses to be entirely taken in, warning Frau Tuzzi against his sarcasm – ‘a form of sabotage’.

What’s sabotage to a man may be seduction to a woman. Ulrich’s effect on women is particularly irksome to his old boyhood friend Walter, whom he visits from time to time when he’s not on Campaign business. Provoking Walter, Ulrich arouses Clarisse. This drives Walter wild. Like a man held at arm’s length by an opponent with longer arms than his, he punches empty air: ‘Today it’s all decadence! A bottomless pit of intelligence! He is intelligent, I grant you that, but he knows nothing at all about the power of a soul in full possession of itself ... He’s a man without qualities!’ As an attempt to take the moral high ground, Walter’s outburst fails: the novel endorses Ulrich, not just in this scene (one of the funniest in the book), but by the whole tenor of its exuberant satire. The portrait of Walter as a man without the courage to be true to his own talents is especially merciless. Walter is selling out – abandoning the shifting ground of intellectual honesty and acquiring qualities as fast as he can.

To have or not to have qualities is not a universal predicament. For all of the poor, most of the white-collar middle class and most women, the issue is purely theoretical, if they bother to consider it at all. To have qualities is the recourse of those who have power, or rather, those who think they have power. It is about acting: about acting out, and acting up to, the role of someone with the power to act. The man with qualities has grown into his mask. He identifies himself with his role because he believes it empowers him, and he defends action by promoting it as an ethical imperative. The Man without Qualities is a menagerie of men with qualities: Count Leinsdorf the landed aristocrat; Stumm von Bordwehr the middle-class military man; Arnheim the Jewish polymath and financier; Meingast, new age prophet; Lindner, self-appointed moralist and would-be saviour of Ulrich’s sister’s soul. The definitive example, however, never actually appears, we only hear about him. Gottlieb Hagauer, Agathe’s husband, is everything he declares himself to be, everything his role in life says he should be: ‘a model of the industrious, capable person, doing his best for humanity in his own field without meddling in matters beyond his scope’. Hagauer’s fixity is deadly, Agathe’s mercurial spirit quite beyond his terms of reference. When she leaves him, he falls back on a legalistic invocation of family values. In his own eyes he is perfect, so he simply cannot comprehend why Agathe should wish to be elsewhere.

Ulrich and Agathe slink away, out from under the shadow cast by Hagauer’s conformity, like a pair of naughty children. When their father dies (it is his death that brings them together) Agathe tampers with the will so as to deprive Hagauer of his rightful share of the inheritance, and Ulrich is accessory to the fact. But their real delinquency is their mobility of thought and feeling, which is to say their sense of humour. Humour, understood as a constitutional disposition to irony, is incompatible with the possession of qualities, because it undermines certainty and prises the mask of the social actor from his face. Walter, who longs for the certainty of a role and a set of beliefs, hates Ulrich for his humour and his constantly shifting position: ‘When he is angry, something in him laughs. When he is sad, he is up to something. When something moves him, he turns against it ... nothing is, to him, what it is; everything is subject to change.’ In Walter’s definition – though he means it quite differently – not to have qualities is to acknowledge the mystery of the world, that ungraspability which the men with qualities will not concede, the complexity they simply ignore.

The man without qualities laughs, but he is not happy. Consciousness torments him. Intelligence strings him out between an uneasy omnipotence of the mind and a debilitating impotence of the flesh. He deplores the servitude enforced by necessity (Moosbrugger, Rachel) and despises the sham potency of the men with qualities, but potency is what he yearns for. Unknown to Walter, Ulrich is desperately unhappy. Beneath the detachment there’s another Ulrich who seethes with anger and frustration, ‘his fists clenched in pain and rage’. After six months of his holiday from life he finds himself no further on: ‘Disappointed, still-burning ambition went through him like a sword ... he waited hiding behind his person ... and his quiet desperation, dammed up behind that façade, rose higher every day.’

Ulrich’s position has a close affinity with that of the narrator of Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquietude, a strikingly complementary text to The Man without Qualities and written over a roughly similar period. At the beginning of Pessoa’s melancholy work, the narrator says: ‘And so, not knowing how to believe in God and unable to believe in an aggregate of animals, I, along with the other people on the fringe, kept a distance from things, a distance commonly called Decadence. Decadence is the total loss of unconsciousness, which is the very basis of life. Could it think, the heart would stop beating.’ It’s Walter who echoes this in The Man without Qualities, with his ‘Today it’s all decadence! A bottomless pit of intelligence!’, but Ulrich would agree: ‘stopping to think is dangerous,’ he reflects; it disturbs and kills the ‘lifeward’ movement of ‘everything we do and feel’.

Ulrich’s great literary precursor is, of course, Hamlet. Like Hamlet, Ulrich makes up for his lack of potency in action, with poetry, philosophy and satire. Unable and disinclined to live his life as a story, he attempts to live it as an essay. Here, the relation of Ulrich to Musil is at its subtlest. Ulrich’s rejection of certain forms of life parallels Musil’s rejection of traditional narrative form: ‘essayism’ is both an ideal for living and for writing novels. It is also the ideal of a particular kind of talk, responsive to the infinite nuances which the world presents to perception. Such talk is rare. Most talk – especially from the mouths of the men with qualities – is bad talk, ‘the kind of talk that amounts to nothing but words’. Ulrich ridicules such talk, but he sometimes has a disquieting sense that his own talk, too, is a corrupt substitute for the ‘lifeward’ action his inner self craves: ‘This second self had no words at his disposal.’

Musil disliked the wrong kind of talk. ‘He took no part in vague conversation,’ wrote Elias Canetti, who knew him in Vienna: ‘A discussion, he felt, should start from something precise and aim at something precise.’ Talk was too important to be thoughtlessly squandered. Why else would power fear talk and set it against action? The chattering classes are ‘the enemy within’ for authoritarians of any stripe. Musil wrote The Man without Qualities between 1924 and 1942, years during which the talking-up of action and the talking-down of talk gained a dark and sinister impetus. The novel was an ambitious attempt to represent imaginatively the culture out of which this nightmarish antagonism to talk had evolved. ‘It has always been a contemporary novel developed out of the past,’ he wrote; and ‘if I should be reproached with going in for too much reflection, then ... today there is too little reflection.’

In The Man without Qualities, the chief zealots of the deed are the proto-Nazi Hans Sepp, and Meingast, Walter and Clarisse’s pet guru. In Meingast’s view, the sickness of the age lies in its ‘being in two minds about everything’, from which he concludes: ‘Although it is not easy for a philosopher to renounce insight, it is probably the great, growing insight of the 20th century that this is what must be done ... salvation must be brought about by force.’ Even the benign and thoughtfully wrong-headed General Stumm finds himself wondering whether it might not be for the best ‘if a real idiot came along to tackle all these insoluble problems’.

While Meingast and Sepp are preaching salvation through the deed, the powers that be are lost in the dream of the Parallel Campaign. ‘Tomorrow we may be making world history,’ purrs Frau Tuzzi to Rachel, and Count Leinsdorf feels sure that ‘a great force has been set in motion.’ History is being made elsewhere and it doesn’t look pretty. The Prussian military-industrial machine is bearing down ruthlessly on Frau Tuzzi and Leinsdorf’s world. The hideous joke about the Parallel Campaign is that 1918 will turn out to mark the end of that world, not its apotheosis in joy and peace.

Ulrich stands as an observer to one side of a society that is on the brink of oblivion. His rotting state is Austria-Hungary, or Kakania – a satirical name which manages to combine a reference to the Kaiserlich-Königliche with the suggestion of the contents of an infant’s potty. ‘Kakania’ locates Austria-Hungary in the realm of fairy-tale and the Parallel Campaign is the fantasy at its core. A metaphor within a metaphor, the Parallel Campaign epitomises the government of Austria-Hungary, while the government of Austria-Hungary epitomises the processes of history: ‘The law of world history ... was none other than the fundamental principle of government in old Kakania: “muddling through”. Kakania was an incredibly clever state.’

Ulrich thinks that history is made ‘without authors’, that it proceeds not like a billiard ball ‘which, once it is hit, takes a definite line’ but as clouds move or as a man saunters through the streets, ‘turned aside by a shadow here, a crowd there, an unusual architectural outcrop, until he arrives at a place he never knew or meant to go to’. In 1913, the place that Kakania is heading for is the hecatomb of war. Part of the genius of The Man without Qualities lies in its contriving to make us almost forget this. Almost, but not quite: we experience the unreal and troubled somnolence of the characters, but the knowledge of what is to come laps like a blackness at the edges of the imagination. A monstrous absence hangs over the novel, a pressing backwards of the afternoon’s storm on the too great brightness of the morning, when it was felt that something needed to be done, but what exactly, no one could say.

Drift is a function of weight. If events in Kakania move aimlessly, serene as clouds or bubbles, this is because Musil has imagined a world with very little physical substance to it. We are used to thinking of life in pre-First World War Europe as almost insupportably heavy. This was a world weighted down with physical objects: heavy furnishings in heavy buildings, heavy vehicles in streets clogged with people wearing heavy clothes, heavy industry belching clouds into heavy skies, and war approaching like a leviathan, an embodiment of unstoppable, nightmarish weight. Musil understood that we always imagine the past to be heavier than the present. Being is always unbearably light. History, as it actually happens, has no centre of gravity. Musil saw that the early 20th century, which we imagine to have been so overburdened, was a time of excitement, headiness and speed for the people who lived then. He also saw that the 20th century was developing inexorably in the direction of weightlessness, and that our connection to the physical world would in time be replaced by what we have come to call virtual reality, reality in the head rather than in the flesh.

Reality in The Man without Qualities is flat and evenly lit, without the shadows that increase the depth of field and offer the illusion of places to explore, to hide or get lost in. When Rachel leaves her hovel in Poland, she says goodbye to the mezuzah on the doorpost and the soil that comes up between the floorboards. The country she travels to is floating away. The interesting clutter she might expect to find in the house where she is to be a maid is simply missing. Below stairs at the Tuzzis’ there are no copper pots and wrought-iron implements, no heavy-bound ledgers with stiff pages covered in meticulous entries for the household accounts, no warming-pans or chamber-pots. Trying to pocket a ball on Section Chief Tuzzi’s billiard table is a lost cause. This deficiency of substance in the imagined world of The Man without Qualities, the concomitant lack of a story, and the substitution for it of relentlessly subtle discourse and satirical levity, produced a light-headedness in me leading to exhaustion. This is a novel in which the only things that get weighed are questions without answers and matters found to be imponderable.

It’s difficult to see The Man without Qualities as other than a remarkable and endlessly interesting failure. Nor is it clear how, given Musil’s imaginative project, the novel could have been a success. Its refusal to incarnate a world was bound to become wearisome over the length it grew to, and there was no way to keep it short: Kakania must be experienced by the reader as a rudderless balloon, drifting in an unreal ether and incapable of arriving at any destination. Musil’s plan to end the book with the outbreak of war would never have worked. To succeed in its aim the novel must seem endless, but in becoming literally interminable, it becomes unreadable.

Yet taken in small doses, The Man without Qualities is a pure intellectual tonic. Musil seems to acknowledge this when he writes: ‘I ask to be read twice, in parts and as a whole.’ As far as I can tell, most people are happy to meet the first part of this request. But I’ve only ever met one person who has read the whole of the published text (up to page 1130 in this hardback edition), and I know no one who has also read the posthumous material (drafts, sketches, notes and revisions – not included in the paperback edition). This is a book about which most readers are knowing, not knowledgeable. They are familiar with the beginning, the first three or four hundred pages, where the book has a vigorous forward impetus and Musil’s satirical virtuosity is breathtaking. Beyond that point, the impulse that started the ball rolling grows weaker, but only by infinite degrees, since the ball is rolling in a world with almost no friction. Following Musil’s movement from the focused satire of the first book, through the second, to the increasingly mystical and abstruse exploration of love in the third, and then on into the posthumous material, is like walking from the source of a great river towards the sea: at the outset, it flows powerfully between firm banks, but as each new tributary adds its waters, the main stream grows muddy and more slow-moving, and then the banks start to break up and allow side streams and backwaters to develop, until, arriving at the estuary, the river that was once so fast and unified has broadened out into a vast expanse of water, scarcely moving, reflecting the clouds and the infinite sky, with nothing beyond but the ocean.

Feeling defeated by The Man without Qualities, feeling bogged down in it and exhausted by it, is surely the authentic response to it. A book about the omnipotence of mind and the impotence of the body, about history as a dream without a dreamer, should leave us feeling lost and at a standstill. Musil himself was defeated by it. He worked on the novel for 18 years and then dropped dead while doing the exercises that were meant to keep him in trim for the great task. I like to imagine this great Austrian ascetic collapsing while lifting weights or cycling furiously into eternity on an exercise bicycle. Whatever he was actually doing when he died, his wife found him with a look of ‘mockery and mild astonishment’ on his face, as though, even in the moment of dying, the irony of what was happening to him did not escape him. In an early chapter of The Man without Qualities he had written of the ‘unspeakable absurdity’ of keeping fit, of giving up an hour a day (‘a twelfth of a day’s conscious life’) to preparing the body for an adventure that never comes along, or, perhaps, for the only adventure that with complete certainty does.

Over the months that I have intermittently struggled to write about this novel I have sometimes wondered if one day my wife would find me dead under the weight of it. Lifting this weight and throwing it off has seemed almost literally like a physical task, the intellectual weight finding its objective expression in the actual weight of the book, which – together with the previous translation, the German edition, and the notes, jottings, false starts and falser endings of my attempts at writing about it – I called my Musil kit, carrying it around in a black Samsonite case of the kind middle-management businessmen use for their samples and sales reports, their Psion organisers and portable phones – insignia of effectiveness and success, the qualities that make them men. Dogged most of the time by a sense of ineffectiveness and failure in the face of what Ulrich might call the ‘insufficient necessity’ of everything I wrote, I would occasionally feel the stirrings of inner rebellion.

In this frame of mind, I would see Ulrich’s intellectual position as an elaborate defence against growing up, a displacement from the task of figuring out his psychological inheritance. Psychoanalytic accounts of personality had to be axiomatically foreign to a novel that shunned simple narrative order, yet strewn about the book there were enough fragments of Ulrich’s history to make me wonder whether Musil didn’t intend us to piece them together. The death of Ulrich’s mother, when he was young, for instance. The haunting of the book by Ulrich’s father who never appears, but who determines the novel’s structure by dying halfway through. The passing references to Ulrich’s love affair, as a younger man, with ‘the major’s wife’, a love for an older woman from whom he fled out of some unexplained fear. His ambivalence about making love. The swerve into incest at the moment of his father’s death. Could it be that Ulrich suffered from deep Oedipal terror? That he couldn’t embrace adult life because he had failed to demythologise his father? That his fear of babies was a fear of making his mother pregnant? That his sister-love was a hermaphroditic fantasy from which babies could not issue? Was this the reason why, in the end, Ulrich, like Hamlet, was ‘unpregnant of his cause’?

Perhaps, too, Musil was afraid of the spirit of narrative. He devoted the major part of his creative life to imagining a world unable to be born, unable to happen, unable to submit itself to process, to life. The result has about it a visionary craziness that argues for the involvement of Musil’s psyche at its deepest level. He can take us inside the madness of a world, because that madness is his also. There is a fascinating paradox here to do, with control, which Canetti’s depiction of Musil throws light on.

Canetti describes Musil in terms not of psychodynamic categories but of humours. According to this model Musil is ‘a man of solids’ who ‘avoided liquids and gases’: ‘he distrusted amalgamations and alliances, superfluities and excesses.’ In the idiom of modern German psychobabble, Musil would be said to have suffered from Berührungsangst or fear of touching. He was, in Bellow’s immortal coinage, a ‘noli me tangerine’: ‘he avoided unwanted contacts. He was determined to remain master of his body. I believe he disliked shaking hands.’ Not a man to take to babies.

Canetti’s description of an individual who separated himself from the world is the description of a satirist, a mystical poet, a certain kind of philosopher, but not obviously a novelist. Novelists can be many things, but a novelist who is averse to process, to unpredictability, to getting his hands dirty in the muck and fluids of the world, seems likely to be in some ways at odds with his medium. When novelists talk about writing novels, the analogy with birth is rarely far away. It’s a cherished cliché of our literary culture that the true novelist finds his or her novel getting a life of its own: the idea that develops in unforeseen directions, the character who goes off and does unexpected things. Musil, one suspects, would have scoffed at such talk. ‘He never lost himself in a character,’ Canetti reports. ‘He knew the way out.’ Musil’s need to control his characters means that he cannot, in the end, control his book.

This new edition of The Man without Qualities has not been, by all accounts, an easy birth. In Britain, at any rate, the hardback was stillborn, arriving too late to catch the Christmas market it had been intended for. In the hope of recouping lost sales with a successful paperback edition, the publishers have now brought the novel out in one volume, dumping the six hundred pages of posthumous material that was surely the main argument for a new translation in the first place. The idea has clearly been to make the novel affordable in a single hit, so as to beat the competition (the Minerva paperback of the old translation appears in three volumes) and avoid losing fainthearted readers between volumes. But to make The Man without Qualities a more manageable read is to run counter to its nature. The decision to lose the posthumous material is a retrograde step. The material so splendidly confounds any lingering desire a reader might have for closure. Moreover, it contains some of Musil’s most beautiful writing and acts as a resonating chamber for the manifest content of the published novel. In these drafts, revisions and fragmentary notes, The Man without Qualities does its dreamwork.

Ironically, the posthumous material has been better translated (by a different translator) than the novel proper. Here, the disappointment at this edition deepens, for the quality of the text that now claims to be the definitive edition in English of this largely unknown and great novel is marred on page after page by poor translation. Reading at 25 pages an hour, I only had time to make spot checks against the German wherever the prose seemed especially odd or awkward. This revealed enough straight inaccuracies to make me wonder how much of the more fluent text (of which, to be fair, there are long stretches) was similarly awry. And, in almost every case, I found the 1954 translation by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser, if not very elegant, at least truer to the German original.

To translate ‘Sich etwas Schädliches verbieten können, ist die Probe der Lebenskraft! Den Erschöpften lockt das Schädliche!’ as ‘The ability to fend off harm is the test of vitality. The spent is drawn to its own destruction’ is wrong, but it is also unintelligent and partly unintelligible: ‘unintelligent’, because the first sentence fails to recognise in itself a blandness of idea that Musil would have been incapable of, while the second doesn’t mean anything. By comparison, Wilkins/Kaiser is accurate and clear: ‘One’s ability to forbid oneself something harmful is the test of one’s vitality. The weary man is tempted by corruption.’

The scale of the task facing the translator of this novel should inspire any mere critic with humility. It’s impossible not to feel sympathy for Sophie Wilkins (any relation?), but there’s no reason to excuse her editors. What were they thinking of when they let go the sentence: ‘She was held fast, much as one who sometimes has absolutely no desire to walk keeps walking a hundred steps, and then another hundred, all the way toward something one catches sight of only at the end, at which point one definitely intends to turn back and yet does not’? There are many such sentences. How was it that nobody spotted the error on page 229: ‘Walter had already made a start, and then stopped again. Here, outside the city, there was still some snow on the ground’? (It is winter not Walter that has returned to the city.)

It is the beauty of Musil’s German, at once sensuous and intellectually intense, that gives weight to this novel about weightlessness. It’s in the words, in the extraordinary metaphoric richness of the writing, that the substantial world finds its way into the book. How this could have been retained in an English translation (English being so much lighter a language than German) I could not say, but it hasn’t yet been done, and we may have to wait a long time now before the attempt is made again.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences