Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities
, first published in German, is a three-volume modernist novel that remains unfinished. Austrian writer Musil spent more than twenty years writing it, and it remained unfinished upon his death in 1942. It was published in various forms and versions between 1930 and 1943. Musil opposed publication of his work before he was able to complete it, and later regretted giving in to his publisher’s demands. The Man Without Qualities
spans more than 1,700 pages and depicts Austria in the years just before World War I. It has been described as a “novel of ideas” that often delves into allegory, existentialism, and the meaning of truth.
The first volume, A Sort of Introduction
, introduces the reader to protagonist Ulrich, a thirty-two-year-old mathematician in search of meaning. His life seems to lack a grounding in reality; he is aimless and directionless. He is indifferent to morality and ethics, and as such, has become the “man without qualities” of the title. He does not really live; he only passively observes the world around him. He has no central philosophy of life or moral guidelines to live by.
A criminal named Moosbrugger is introduced. Moosbrugger is a murderer and rapist, sentenced to death for the murder of a prostitute. He spends his last days pondering the nature of reality.
The novel flits from character to character in the depiction of a slightly off-kilter version of pre-war Austria. Musil’s version of the country is referred to as “Kakania,” the Dual Monarchy (a shortened form of kaiserlich und koniglich
, or k und k
, German for “imperial and royal”). His portrait of the country shows the self-destructive tendencies he observed in Europe during that time period. Much is discussed and planned, but little ever happens. Ulrich seems to encompass those same qualities. His friend Walter once said about him that he “puts tremendous energy into doing the very things he doesn’t consider necessary.” Ulrich reflects that this “could be said about all of us today.”
Ulrich is a man of dualities. His intelligence is rare in the contemporary Austrian society Musil depicts, and he scorns the anti-intellectualism that surrounds him. He denounces the lack of morality he observes in others and laments that modern society is barbaric. At the same time, however, he indulges in the worst aspects of the society he condemns. He is promiscuous and keeps a mistress; he is fascinated both by crime and the excesses of high society. Ulrich fancies himself above all others, but he is really a hypocrite.
The second volume, Pseudoreality Prevails,
delves deeper into Kakanian society. Ulrich becomes a member of the “Collateral Campaign” or “Parallel Campaign.” The campaign’s purpose is to celebrate the upcoming seventieth anniversary of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph’s reign, which will occur in 1918. The celebration will be concurrent with the thirtieth anniversary of German Emperor Wilhelm II’s reign. Austrian society is determined to make its celebration as good or better than the one that will be held for Wilhelm.
Irony runs heavily through this section of the book; the beginning of World War I is on the horizon, and neither celebration will ever take place. Small references to the inciting factors of the war are sprinkled throughout the text.
Austrians, oblivious to what the future holds, stir themselves into a patriotic frenzy, determined to demonstrate the supremacy of Austrian society over that of Germany. They dream up visions of an “Austrian Year 1918,” “Austrian Peace Year 1918,” “Austrian World Peace Year 1918,” and other ideas that will never come to pass. Nineteen-eighteen will see a world and a country devastated by war.
The campaign is chaotic. Count Leinsdorf, the man in charge, is incapable of making a decision—or even of not
making a decision. He is permanently caught in the middle, unable to progress in any direction. General Stumm von Bordwehr attempts to organize the campaign and devise a system for accomplishing its goals, but his efforts are unappreciated.
Ulrich’s cousin, Ermelinda Tuzzi or “Diotima,” is heavily involved in the campaign. She aspires to become a Viennese muse of philosophy. She catches the eye of both Ulrich and a Prussian businessman named Arnheim.
Most of the people in the campaign, particularly Diotima, want to commemorate Franz Joseph’s reign for its progress and humanity; however, followers of the pragmatic realpolitik
philosophy, such as General Stumm and Arnheim, hope to use the campaign towards their own ends. Stumm hopes to procure a raise for the Austrian army, while Arnheim has plans to buy lucrative oil fields in eastern Austria. Their interests start to skew the campaign towards war instead of peace. Through satire and irony
, Musil charts the ways that Austria inevitably progressed towards the war that would change everything.
The third volume, Into the Millennium
, focuses on Ulrich’s sister Agathe. They meet for the first time after their father’s death and are immediately romantically attracted to each other. They liken themselves to conjoined twins and soulmates. From here, the novel ends in unfinished notes, drafts, and digressions. Musil had not worked out an ending for the novel at the time of his death. Thousands of pages of alternate versions exist.
Little action happens in The Man Without Qualities
. Much of the text is philosophical, an exploration of characters’ inner thoughts and lives. Musil’s stated goal, similar to Ulrich’s, was to somehow synthesize the scientific world and the mystical one. Critics have noted that the writing of the book was “overtaken by history.” Musil began when memories of World War I were still sharp, and his attempt to make sense of the jumbled factors that had led to the terrible bloodshed of what was still thought of as “The War to End All Wars.” But the writing took so long that the world was already well on the way to the second World War by the time the first section had been published.
Even unfinished, the novel gained a formidable reputation. It is considered one of the most important European novels of the twentieth century.