I’ve spent the last couple of days immersed in Musil’s enormous, 1,400 plus, two volume, unfinished Magnum Opus and have been completely drawn in and captivated by his writing. My reading experience reminds me, so far, of War and Peace, which I devoured the winter before last in a matter of three weeks. Musil constantly switches his narrative back and forth among different characters, buildings layers of interest through his third person point-of-view. He starts, of course, with his main character, Ulrich—the very man without qualities—and then gives us portraits of those with whom Ulrich has contact, from the maid of a distant cousin, to a convicted murder in the news headlines, to important members of the Austrian government. What makes an epic book like this, and War and Peace, a truly great piece of literature is the level of riveting detailed that is maintained throughout the writing.
Another initial impression I have from reading the first few hundred pages of A Man without Qualities is what a brilliant and amazing wit Musil possesses. I didn’t quite detect it, not at this level anyway, from reading his shorter works. The chapter titles, for instance, are cleverly funny: Chapter 28 is “A chapter that may be skipped by anyone not particularly impressed by thinking as an occupation” and Chapter 39 is “A man without qualities consists of qualities without a man.”
In addition, when Musil is satirizing upper class society, intellectuals and the Austrian bureaucracy he uses bizarre and hilarious metaphors. “But even at that time, as one got older and on longer acquaintance with the smokehouse of the mind, in which the world cures the bacon of its daily affairs, one learned to adapt oneself to reality, and a person with a trained mind would finally end up limiting himself to his specialty and spend the rest of his life convinced that the whole of life should perhaps be different, but there was no point in thinking about it. This is more of less how people who follow intellectual pursuits maintain their equilibrium.” Ulrich has had failed careers as a soldier and an academic mathematician and now, while he tries to decide what he should do with the rest of his life, he accidentally falls into a governmental position. Ulrich is appointed to the committee that is planning a celebration of the 70th year of Franz Josef’s reign, a committee which has no real goals, no concrete ideas and isn’t quite sure what to call itself. Musil’s wit reminds me of Dickens whose novel Little Dorrit, in particular, is mixed with witty and serious commentary on the ludicrous nature of bureaucracy.
But Musil doesn’t go too far with his humor which would make his characters ridiculous and uninteresting. Ulrich’s existential crisis and his inability to choose a career cause him to do a great deal of thinking and these passages are some of the most philosophical, and profound, of the novel:
Few people in mid-life really know how they got to be what they are, how they came by their pastimes, their outlook, their wife, their character, profession and successes, but they have the feeling that from this point on nothing much can change. It might even be fair to say that they were tricked, since nowhere is a sufficient reason to be found why everything should have turned out the way it did; it could just as well have turned out differently; whatever happened was least of all their own doing but depended mostly on all sorts of circumstances, on moods, the life and death of quite different people; these events converged on one, so to speak, only at a given point in time. In their youth, life lay ahead of them like an inexhaustible morning, full of possibilities and emptiness on all sides, but already by noon something is suddenly there that may claim to be their own life yet whos appearing is as surprising, all in all, as if a person had suddenly materialized with whom one had been corresponding for some twenty years without meeting and whom one had imagined quite differently. What is even more peculiar is that most people don’t even notice it; they adopt the man who has come to them, whose life has merged with their own, whose experiences now seem to be the expression of their own qualities, and whose fate is their own reward or misfortune. Something has done to them what flypaper does to a fly, catching it now by a tiny hair, now hampering a movement, gradually enveloping it until it is covered by a thick coating that only remotely suggests its original shape.
Some might find a novel with such a philosophical bent tedious, but this type of writing is what draws me to Tolstoy, and Dickens and now to Musil.
My friend and fellow blogger Tony is also reading A Man without Qualities and has an excellent post on the theme of mathematics in Musil that I encourage everyone to also read: https://messybooker.wordpress.com/2019/07/06/robert-musil-mathematics-and-infinity/