The qualities of Robert Musil

“Why, then, aren’t we realists?” Ulrich asked himself. Neither of them was, neither he nor she: their ideas and their conduct had long left no doubt of that; but they were nihilists and activists, sometimes one and sometimes the other, whichever happened to come up. —Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities 

In the realm of the aesthetic … even imperfection and lack of completion have their value. —Robert Musil, “Address at the Memorial Service for Rilke in Berlin” (1927)

 The Austrian novelist Robert Musil (1880– 1942) occupies a peculiar position in the pantheon of great twentieth-century writers. He is admired by literati for a handful of astringent modernist fictions, especially for his first novel, Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless (The Bewilderments of the Schoolboy Törless). This brutal yet seductively introspective tale of adolescent cruelty and sexual exploitation at a German military boarding school was published to instant critical acclaim in 1906, when Musil was only twenty-six. (Later, in the 1930s and 1940s, Törless was hailed as a prescient allegory of the spiritual deformations of the Nazi era.)

Musil’s play Die Schwärmer (1921, The Enthusiasts) explores that favored modern topic, the collapse of traditional bourgeois ideals; its taut language and intense dramatization won it the Kleist Prize in 1923 and, eventually, a regular spot in the German theatrical repertory. Drei Frauen (1924, Three Women), a celebrated suite of three novellas, plumbs the relationship between eroticism (generally unhappy) and transcendence—one of Musil’s staple themes.

Then there are Musil’s essays, some of which are masterpieces of ironic cultural commentary. “Uber die Dummheit” (“On Stupidity”), a lecture that Musil delivered in Vienna in 1937, deserves special mention for its signal contemporary relevance. Particularly pertinent is its withering analysis of “the higher, pretentious form of stupidity” —the “real disease of culture,” in Musil’s opinion, which infiltrates even “the highest intellectual sphere” and has repercussions throughout society. “The examples,” he dryly notes, “are pretty blatant.” As indeed they are. Finally, some of Musil’s short prose pieces, collected in Nachlass zu Lebzeiten (1936, Posthumous Papers of a Living Author), rival Kafka’s fables in their vertiginous humor and enigmatic creepiness.

All of Musil’s works (the German edition of which runs to nine volumes) have their partisans and admirers. But for most of us, Robert Musil is first and foremost the author of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities), a book in which the major themes of his earlier works coalesce to form a novelistic tapestry of extraordinary wit, complexity, and intelligence.

It is worth stressing the wit. The Man Without Qualities, the book upon which Musil’s claim to greatness chiefly rests, is regularly cited alongside Joyce’s Ulysses, Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg, and Hermann Broch’s Die Schlafwandler as a triumph of high modernism. Like those other novels, The Man Without Qualities is a book of weighty seriousness and deep erudition. It is also, in parts, an exceptionally funny book. Few readers with any sympathy for Musil’s writing will be able to read far without laughing aloud, at least as they make their way through the first volume. Whatever else one can say about it, The Man Without Qualities stands as one of the great modern works of satire.

Set in Vienna in 1913, it depicts a world on the edge of a precipice—the moral, cultural, political precipice that was to give way to the abyss of World War I the following year. But it turns out that, in Musil’s hands, peregrinations at the brink of disaster are as amusing as they are poignant; and Musil’s man without qualities—a gifted, amoral, concupiscent mathematician of good family named Ulrich—is one of the most engaging comic anti-heroes in modern fiction.

It almost goes without saying that The Man Without Qualities is a peculiar book, or set of books. Like the other great novels just mentioned, it is monumental—in its literary ambition, its intellectual sophistication, and, not least, in its length. Certainly, as Dr. Johnson said of Paradise Lost, “none ever wished it longer than it is.” Musil began working on The Man Without Qualities in 1924. He published the first volume—some thousand pages—in 1930, and the first part of the second volume in 1933 (for which he was awarded that year’s Goethe Prize).

Under pressure from his publisher, who had been steadily advancing him money for years, Musil reluctantly began preparing the second part of the second volume for publication in the late 1930s. By then, Musil and his wife Martha, a painter whose parents were assimilated Jews, were living in penurious exile from the Nazis in Switzerland. An energetic (not to say fanatical) rewriter— a literary perfectionist, really—Musil had retrieved the galleys from the printer and was in the process of extensively reworking them when, in April 1942 at the age of sixty-two, he suddenly collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage and died. Apparently, he succumbed while performing his morning gymnastics (another activity to which he was fanatically devoted). According to his widow, who found him a short while later, the look on his face was one of “mockery and mild astonishment.”

We really have no idea how Musil intended to end The Man Without Qualities. Probably, the last section would have been titled “A Sort of Ending” to mirror the opening sequence, “A Sort of Introduction.” He once said that he wanted to conclude the book in the middle of a sentence, with a comma. Be that as it may, in addition to the twenty chapters in half-corrected galley proof, there exist dozens of draft chapters as well as voluminous notes, character sketches, alternative chapters, and miscellaneous jottings related to the book. Musil’s widow published the second part of the second volume in 1943. The “complete” German edition of this incomplete novel was published in 1951.

The first English translation of The Man Without Qualities was by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser, who also collaborated on translations of Törless and some of Musil’s stories. Published in three volumes from 1954 to 1960, this edition included all of the novel that Musil published during his lifetime (all of volume one and the first thirty-eight chapters of volume two). A projected fourth volume was to contain the posthumously published chapters and notes. Although incomplete, the Wilkins–Kaiser translation remains a sound introduction to The Man Without Qualities: the translation is fluent, and a prefatory essay provides an excellent précis of Musil’s career.

The one clear advantage of the new, two-volume translation of The Man Without Qualities[1] by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike is that it contains Musil’s posthumously published chapters. It also contains several hundred pages of Musil’s notes, sketches, and alternative versions of chapters. While some of this material will interest readers of the novel (as distinct from those who prefer to dissect it), much of it will command the attention only of Musil specialists. It must be said, too, that shoe-horning all of this material into only two volumes has bloated the second volume to tumid, phone-book proportions: a pity, not only because it makes the book difficult to handle, but also because it seems unfair to the striking and elegant jacket design that Knopf provided.

In an afterword, Burton Pike tells us that “the translator’s intention was to have the writing startle the reader in English in the same way it startles a reader in German.” In the event, he and his co-translator have produced a version of the novel that is generally a bit more literal than the previous translation; whether it is always quite as readable is another question. It is perhaps an improvement to translate “Haus und Wohnung des Mannes ohne Eigenschaften” as “House and home of the man without qualities” (Wilkins–Pike) instead of “Abode of the Man Without Qualities” (Wilkins– Kaiser); or to render “ein leichter Geruch von verbranntem Pferdehaar” as “a whiff of burnt horsehair” (W–P) rather than “a faint whiff of brimstone” (W–K)—though given the presence of the devil in the previous clause, there is surely something to be said for “brimstone.”

In any event, other decisions in the new translation are more dubious. For example, Wilkins–Kaiser translated the second part of the first volume, “Seinesgleichen geschieht,” as “The Like of It Now Happens.” If nothing else, this does have the advantage of more or less accurately rendering the German. The Wilkins–Pike alternative— “Pseudoreality Prevails”—may indeed fulfill Mr. Pike’s ambition to “startle the reader.” The problem is that it would probably have startled the author as well: presumably, if Musil had wanted “Pseudoreality Prevails” he would have written it.

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