I’ve just finished reading The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. I'm doubtless late to the party but just in case there’s someone reading this who hasn’t yet got around to dusting down this hefty tome, let me explain that Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften is widely regarded as one of the world’s great novels, compared by some to Ulysses or The Remembrance of Things Past (The Times). No doubt it is something of a cult work in German-speaking lands.
Great it certainly is in terms of length, some 1130 pages (1700 in some editions, apparently). I finally began to read it during lockdown no 1 so it’s taken me best part of a year to plough through it. Now I’m not the fastest of readers, to be sure, but plough is a good metaphor to describe the toil and concentration required to read the work. My reading time pretty much coincides with bed time; frequent have been the occasions when, grappling with the meaning embedded within some paragraph or other, waves of sleep have overcome me. This goes a long way to explain my ultra-slow progress: the inability to stay awake.
It’s not the length of the novel that’s so unusual: it’s the depth. Every paragraph, almost every sentence, is stuffed full of insights. It’s a philosophical tour-de-force. The Man Without Qualities refers to Ulrich who lives in Vienna in 1913-14. ‘Qualities’ might be better rendered as ‘properties’ in the sense that a chemical substance or physical material has ‘properties’. Ulrich is a mathematician by training, now a freelance man-about-town. Whereas everyone around him conforms to a type - of class, politics, wealth, occupation, religion, nationality - Ulrich, in his own no-man’s land, identifies with them all. Like a journalist who must empathise with subjects of all kinds, he’s a polymath who embraces diverse views but has no strong commitment to one thing or another. He has a mistress, off and on, but doesn’t experience the depths of love; he has a wide circle of acquaintances, but lacks close friends to whom he can abandon himself. His is a search for intellectual and emotional fulfillment. This all changes - spoiler alert! - when he meets his long lost twin sister at about page 700 - from which point things liven up considerably. She eventually leaves her husband and moves in with him - but alas! there’s no frolicking in between the sheets (as far as we know).
And (would you believe it!) the novel is unfinished: what frustration! I’d got to page 900 or thereabouts when I learned that. Musil worked on it for 20 years and died before he could finish it. Presumably the plot would have continued into WW1 and we would have seen how Viennese society became ‘modernised’. Goodness knows how long the work would have become: I do think perhaps creatives need to have a certain humility in the face of their human lifespan and tailor their cloth accordingly.
Composer and musician