lunes, 27 de agosto de 2012

The Man Without Qualities


The Man Without Qualities [Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften] (Vintage International, 1996)
by Robert Musil [translated from the German by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike]
Austria, 1931 & 1933

A barometric low hung over the Atlantic.  It moved eastward toward a high-pressure area over Russia without as yet showing any inclination to bypass this high in a northerly direction.  The isotherms and isotheres were functioning as they should.  The air temperature was appropriate relative to the annual mean temperature and to the aperiodic monthly fluctuations of the temperature.  The rising and setting of the sun, the moon, the phases of the moon, of Venus, of the rings of Saturn, and many other significant phenomena were all in accordance with the forecasts in the astronomical yearbooks.  The water vapor in the air was at its maximal state of tension, while the humidity was minimal.  In a word that characterizes the facts fairly accurately, even if it is a bit old-fashioned: It was a fine day in August 1913.
(The Man Without Qualities [translated by Sophie Wilkins], 3)

Although it took me long enough to finally finish the first 1130 pages of the famously unfinished The Man Without Qualities, I'm actually pretty psyched that I have over 600 pages of material "From the Posthumous Papers" left to sift through at some point since I'm not sure that any other novel has brought me such laughter and joy all year.  Seriously.  In any event, I knew Musil's sense of humor and I were going to get along just fine from the outset--or at least in the amount of time it took me to move on from the precise, pseudo-scientific description of the weather in the opening paragraph above to the gently mocking and yet equally precise description of an upscale couple walking down the "wide, bustling avenues" of a modern metropolis a mere one page later: "They clearly belonged to a privileged social class, with their distinguished bearing, style of dress, and conversation, the initials of their names embroidered on their underwear, and just as discreetly, which is to say not for outward show but in the fine underwear of their minds, they knew who they were and that they belonged in a European capital city and imperial residence" (4).  Surely, any man who can pen a line as unanticipatedly rich and rewarding as "in the fine underwear of their minds" is a man with a narrative voice to be trusted!  Whatever, seeing as how I hope to give both Ulrich, the 32-year old ex-scientist, ladies' man, sceptic, and titular "man without qualities," and some of the colorful cast of characters who cross his path as virtually all of 1913 Vienna prepares to celebrate the 70th year jubilee of the Emperor Franz Josef their Caravana de recuerdos due in a series of Musil Monday posts scattered throughout September, for right now I'd merely like to focus on an overview of the work's structure.  Part I: A Sort of Introduction and Part II: Pseudoreality Prevails appear in Volume I of the Vintage edition I read while Part III: Into the Millenium (The Criminals) and several hundred pages of drafts "From the Posthumous Materials" make up Volume II (translators: Sophie Wilkins for the previously published but incomplete parts of the 1130 page "novel," Burton Pike the additional, mostly previously unpublished material that Musil took with him while attempting to finish the novel and flee from World War II's path).  So what's the book about?  Ha, more on that later!  Maybe.  However, please note that while Pike claims in his preface to the posthumous material that "Musil's purpose in writing The Man Without Qualities was a moral one.  He had set out to explore possibilities for the right life in a culture that had lost both its center and its bearings but could not tear itself away from its outworn forms and habits of thought, even while they were dissolving" (II, xii), you might never know that from the humor that permeates the work and from the fact that the wildest philosophical digressions and such are likely to be found in chapters with titles like "A Racehorse of Genius Crystallizes the Recognition of Being a Man Without Qualities."  Hmm, no doubt a good chapter to turn to next.  Until then, though, here's an introduction to Ulrich and a slightly less funny Musil after the man without qualities has just been beaten near-brainless on those same Vienna streets by unknown thugs:

Close by those streets where there is a policeman every three hundred paces to avenge the slightest offense against law and order lie other streets that call for the same strength of body and mind as a jungle.  Mankind produces Bibles and guns, tuberculosis and tuberculin.  It is democratic, with kings and nobles; builds churches and, against the churches, universities; turns cloisters into barracks, but assigns field chaplains to the barracks.  It naturally arms hoodlums with lead-filled rubber truncheons to beat a fellow man within an inch of his life and then provides featherbeds for the lonely, mistreated body, like the one now holding Ulrich as if filled with respect and consideration.  It is the old story of the contradictions, the inconsistency, and the imperfection of life.  It makes us smile or sigh.  But not Ulrich.  He hated this mixture of resignation and infatuation in regard to life that makes most people put up with its inconsistencies and inadequacies as a doting maiden aunt puts up with a young nephew's boorishness (22-23).

Robert Musil (1880-1942)

25 comentarios:

  1. 1130 pages plus 600 pages of posthumous pages? That's... a big committment.

    One day ;)

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    Respuestas
    1. A big commitment but worth almost every minute of it, Tony! Proof of which, I now want to read everything that Musil ever wrote for "comparison purposes" and all...

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  2. I was considering whether or not I should begin this soon...until I read your review. I start today!

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  3. Save for one somewhat uninteresting spell about 3/4 of the way through, R.R., The Man Without Qualities surpassed all my expectations and then some. It's surprisingly quick-reading too--or it would have been if I weren't so easily distracted. In any event, a great read--hope you agree once you get into it!

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  4. Long on my TBR list, but as yet unopened, so for now I'll have to live on "...the fine underwear of their minds" (!) and your infectious enthusiasm. Congratulations for making it all the way to the non-ending - and beyond!

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    1. Yes, it's been on my TBR list too since, I think, I read one of Milan Kundera's book of essays. This and Broch's The Sleepwalkers have piqued my interest, but I already have lots of huge novels to read.

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    2. I think I had Volume I in the house for 2-3 years before I finally got around to reading it, Scott, so I can assure you that the novel marinates well while waiting for its time to come so to speak. Wasn't super happy with the way that post turned out, by the way--glad my enthusiasm for Musil was "infectious" at least, so thanks for mentioning that and thanks as well for the congrats!

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    3. "I already have lots of huge novels to read": I can relate, Miguel, believe me! By the way, I wasn't aware of that Kundera essay on Musil, so I'm glad you mentioned that (I think Enrique Vila-Matas was the first novelist I like who sort of brought Musil to my attention in a fellow writer sort of way, but I haven't read much "appreciation" of Musil other than that). Would like to read The Sleepwalkers myself some day, of course.

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  5. I believe 2013 will have to be "year of the doorstop, pt. 2) for me. I started this a while back, just as I was telling one employer to suc...wait, this is a family blog, isn't it? Anyway, I set it aside and have not returned to it despite loving what I read. I will have to fix that.

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    1. "The year of the doorstop, pt. 2." Love it, Dwight! I've been putting off War and Peace for almost a full year now, and trying to do that before the end of the year while reading Galdós with you and the gang and about to launch another lit project I have coming up is kind of spooking me a bit since I'm a bit of a reading slacker in case you haven't already noticed. P.S. Just to clarify, I prefer to use the term "an effin' family-friendly blog"! Freedom of speech is still tolerated here, ha ha.

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  6. Another one with a copy on the TBR pile. I find the length daunting.
    I don't think I have read another equally enthusiastic review of you this year.
    It's interesting that I don't really read anything about Musil's humour but then I didn't find Proust funny and Emma does.
    If only it wasn't that long, I would love to read it soon.

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    1. The length is definitely daunting (although it reads rather quickly actually), Caroline, and so maybe it's not so surprising that I wound up taking a couple of breaks from it during the reading marathon! Musil's humor here is sort of like the wacky observations you sometimes find in Proust, so maybe Emma would relate to the "comedy" angle more than you would. I imagine that you'd almost certainly enjoy other aspects of the work, though, and the book made me laugh out loud with frequency. Anyway, hope you get a chance to try it out sometime soon--maybe during German Lit Month 2012?!? Cheers!

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    2. That's what happens when you have an adoring public!

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  7. I loved it too richard Musil was so dedicate to this book you can see the man on every page ,your post has made me think about rereading this ,I may over christmas as it is ten years since I read it and would love to follow him again ,all the best stu

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    Respuestas
    1. Stu, I like what you say about being able to see the man, Musil, on every page. He had such a charismatic narrative voice in this novel that I've already started dipping into his diaries to see how his private and public voices differed and converged. Would love to get to Young Törless before the end of the year also.

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  8. I fell in love with The Man Without Qualities, but got distracted about 300 pages in and never got back to it. I've upgraded to a fancy hardback 3-volume edition as extra motivation and *will* get back to it soon.

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    Respuestas
    1. It's easy to get distracted with a work of this size, Anthony, and I should know because it happened to me too despite also loving it. Good luck getting back to the novel soon--will have to see what your hardback edition looks like because all the ones I've seen have only been paperbacks.

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  9. In my usual way of skirting round major works, I've only read Tonka and Young Torless. Might get around to this one day when I've collected all the relevant parts of it - but I've a few other roman fleuves to read first.

    I see you might be joining me on Quincas Borba. I'm about 100 pages in. Good so far.

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  10. This "skirting round major works" approach of yours is much like what my García Márquez method is like. Glad I didn't try it with Musil, though. Very fun read. Didn't realize you were reading Quincas Borba too right now. I'm only halfway up to where you are/were and liking it although not as much as Brás Cubas or Dom Casmurro yet. I haven't read Machado in three years somehow--poor decision-making on my part until yesterday.

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  11. What's the most complete edition? There's a two-volume edition and a single-volume edition on the market.

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    1. Miguel, the two-volume U.S. edition is the only one I've seen in person. Just make sure that any edition you select includes pages titled "From the Posthumous Material" or else you're getting shortchanged (even this doesn't include everything that's available in German, but it's at least several hundred pages more than what was available in English previously).

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  12. Directed here by Caroline. I've been thinking about reading this but became tangled up in the question of translations. Many people seem to find the older translation better but I found one article that argued pros and cons on the old vs. the new translation and certainly the previously unpublished bits are a huge plus. And it's becoming harder (and more expensive) to find all the volumes of the old translation.

    Any thoughts?

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    Respuestas
    1. Guy, unfortunately I don't know anything about the quality of the old translation for comparison purposes. This new one sounds fine to my ears, though, and it includes additions to the text never published in English before from what I understand. So: the version I read gets a big thumbs-up from me--of course, it helps that the novel itself is amazing, you know? P.S. Are you still thinking of reading Berlin Alexanderplatz for German Lit Month? It's on my short list, but I'd like to get to another Musil as well after having been blown away by The Man Without Qualities. Good luck settling on the right translation!

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  13. I think I'll go with the new translation. I can get both books new for around $33 but if I go off and get the old translation then it's minimum $80 and that's used. Some sets are in the 100s. If the new translation was good enough for you, I'm sure it'll be good enough for me. I saw some comparisons and could see arguments both ways--translation being a sticky business. But the kicker is the additional material.

    Not sure on my choices for German lit month. I've argued with myself for weeks. I really loved Blue Angel (one of my picks last year) and I suppose that part of me wants that type of successful pick again.

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