Friday, 9 September 2016

Book Review - The man without qualities by Robert Musil

The man without qualities by Robert Musil, translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike

(A sort of introduction, Pseudoreality prevails, Into the Millennium)

Translated from the German by Sophie Pike, Editorial Consultant Burton Pike

London: Picador, 1997             ISBN 9780330349420

Ah, the unfinished novel - of the millions that have languished in bottom drawers around the World, only a few are lucky enough to be published, and only a very few come to be considered towering classics of literature. The man without qualities is one of those classics, a massive intellectually sprawling novel (in truth three novels) following the Austrian man Ulrich through his experiences during his time as secretary to the Parallel Campaign, formed to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Emperor's reign.

Ulrich is the vehicle of the story, and he is an interesting man, a man of his time, and "the man without qualities". He has no need to make a living or a name for himself, and while being surrounded by what would be called today the "chattering classes", sees himself as above the fray of the intrigues and arguments of the campaign, full of wisecracks and theories about modern life, but never getting personally involved.

Through Ulrich we meet an array of other characters - the Count, who is in charge of the Campaign, an old-school aristocrat who is bemused by the new ideas that are swirling around him, Diotima, Ulrich's cousin, who holds the meetings of the Committee at her house and is determined to create a lasting legacy from this moment, Tuzzi her husband, and Ulrich's friends Walter and Clarisse.

Then there is Moosebrugger, the sex murderer. Through these characters we gain an insight into the decadence, lack of direction and vacuousness of an Empire and an era that is about to fall. As the old certainties crumble, what is to replace them? This is at the heart of Musil's project, and as all the characters work toward that answer, nothing seems to hold firm. Diotima, the paragon of beauty and social correctness, falls for the German industrialist and thinker Arnheim, and is torn in two by her forbidden love for him and her need to be seen as a pillar of society. She becomes close to Ulrich for a while as she can confide in him. While Ulrich is always ready to give advice, it is never clear whether he believes such advice to be correct, or whether any path he suggests one should follow is in fact the "right" one. The question of what is "right" or "wrong", or "good" or "evil" is returned to again and again by nearly all the characters in the book. Moosebrugger is the catalyst for this philosophizing early on in the book. Several of the characters, Diotima and Clarisse, think that to hang Moosebrugger is evil, and that what he did was a natural outcome of his poor situation in society and lack of a decent upbringing. Musil shows us that in fact Moosebrugger is deranged, but not so deranged that he doesn't take advantage of feelings such as those of Diotima's and Clarisse's to advance his cause.

The intrigues develop apace - Diotima seeks to justify her inability to leave her husband by developing her concept of a higher love, General Stumm enters the fray to ensure the military has its point of view expressed in the Campaign and promptly becomes lost in philosophy, Ulrich begins and ends an affair with what is by now his usual prevarication and generalisations about feelings rather than looking at his own individual wants and needs.

Clarisse meanwhile, starts to fall apart. The contradictions in thinking in this modern age start to fracture her delicate personality, and when confronted with the realities of the inmates of the prison for the insane, her grand schemes for the rehabilitation of criminals such as Moosebrugger collapses.

The beginning of the third book, Into the Millennium, takes us to Ulrich's hometown to which he has returned on his father's death. There he meets Agathe, his sister. They have spent most of their childhood apart, and this sudden reconnexion is dramatic for both of them. Agathe is a person who, much like Ulrich, has slipped through life without creating many ripples, but unlike Ulrich she doesn't intellectualize feelings: she relates personally to situations and people, and still has a sense of good and bad. She collides head-on with Ulrich, and this collision leads not only to an almost incestuous relationship, but leads Ulrich to begin to open his mind to the idea that the old religions may have hit on some core truths on how to live life.

Agathe flees her husband and goes with Ulrich to Vienna, where they once again enter the busy-ness and intrigue of the Campaign, and the book then ends halfway through a pivotal moment in the Committee's activities.

There is so much in this book it's hard to know where to begin and end, and better minds than mine have drawn out the themes that abound in the novel/s. The loss of the old certainties in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries left a void in values and even morals, which The man without qualities probes into, showing that, without some sort of guiding light, society can quickly go haywire. The "old school" characters in the book bemoan the rise of democracy, nationalism and other "modern" characteristics, but realise there is little they can do to force a return to the old realities. The self-consciously "modern" characters flail about in their search for something concrete on which to build their lives: Diotima for example moves from being at the pinnacle of the social tree, to exploring the idea of chaste love between two equals, on to developing sexology to a higher plane, without finding the roots that she longs to feel under her feet.

In the figure of the Count we see the leader who leads from behind, often finding that doing nothing is the best course of action at any particular moment. General Stumm is often pictured throughout the book as a figure of fun, especially when involved with Ulrich, but he keeps plugging away, and where the book finishes we begin to see him position the Army well in the grab for prestige that the Campaign has unleashed.

The question of what one is to do with one's life is the central theme of the book: Ulrich has all the answers but doesn't believe any of them, Arnheim can talk with the best of the theorists but is a businessman at heart, Diotima loses herself in the latest fad, and Clarisse is driven mad by the choices open to her. In this way, although the book was written in the earlier years of the Twentieth Century, it feels very modern in subject matter: what should we believe? is it even valid to believe anything? is there such a thing as good and evil? There is much discussion and exposition in The man without qualities, but no answer.

At over a thousand pages, it might seem that this book about nothing much (and yet everything) would be a colossal bore, and yet it is not so. Yes, there are passages within the work that take some getting through and are quite dense, but those moments are relieved by others of high farce, romance, comedy and drama. While no-one "does" anything of note, and nothing is decided, there is a lot of action in the book.

There is little doubt in my mind that this book is a classic of Twentieth Century literature. It took me a long time to read, but the book stayed with me the whole time: Ulrich in particular - "the man without qualities" - struck me as a perfect example of the modern man, and all that is wrong and right with him.

This is not a book for the faint-hearted reader, or for someone who is not prepared to work at a book, but if you don't mind digging in and going the extra mile, the rewards can be worth it.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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