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)