Reading Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities (MwQ) can be a confusing and sometimes exasperating experience. But it is also a worthwhile experience that rewards the reader with some of the most interesting and unique prose of the Twentieth Century.
Musil was educated and well-versed in physics, yet he explored the psychology and studied the source of feeling and eroticism in the MwQ from the beginning of the novel. As Elias Canetti says about Musil in The Play of the Eyes (volume three of his memoirs), "He felt at home and seemed natural among scientists. A discussion, he felt, should start from something precise and aim at something precise." The notion of precision is pervasive in the MwQ and it is continually up against the less precise feelings of many of the characters creating episodes of exceptional quality.
There is throughout a feeling that time is on the move and there is a sense of possibility for the protagonist, Ulrich, if not for the other characters. Each character represents a different perspective: social, political, cultural and otherwise that creates a sort of medley of voices that goes under the microscope of the narrator. These characters , with Ulrich in the lead, allow the narrator to raise questions of identity: how do you understand who you are? The setting, in the final year preceding the Great War, provides a subtle foundation for apprehension of what will come in the future. But foremost, from the first pages of the novel, we encounter the play of ideas - and not dictates as to what ideas must prevail, but rather questions as to the nature of this world. Are our actions determined or not? What do we know about the world and how do we know it?
If this sounds weighty, it is, but there is also a lightness from the ironic attitude of the narrator and the often humorous episodes interspersed throughout the story. In one humorous moment Ulrich disagrees with a police official and is almost thrown in jail until they find out he is Secretary to Count Leinsdorf (an influential man) and is involved in an important project with Leinsdorf, "The Parallel Campaign". The way the police officials are portrayed is as humorous as any comic scene I've read. As I continue to reread this amazing novel I find myself learning new aspects of the characters and wondering with them if their future is inevitable.
The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 1995 (1952).