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Robert Musil (November 6, 1880, Klagenfurt, AustriaApril 15, 1942, Geneva, Switzerland) was an Austrian writer. His unfinished long novel The Man Without Qualities (in German, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften) is generally considered to be one of the most important modernist novels.

The Man Without Qualities Vol. 1:

A Sort of Introduction and Pseudo Reality


Robert Musil (Author)

Editorial Reviews

This intriguing landmark of modernism from Austrian writer Robert Musil has been newly translated from the German by Sophie Wilkins and re-edited in a textual overhaul. This new edition includes portions of the author’s original manuscripts that have never been published before. Though an imposing edifice of writing, devotees of literary modernism and anyone interested in the decline of the Austrian empire must read this sweeping, comic take on life in pre-Great War Vienna. The story of Ulrich, the man without qualities himself, is continued in a second volume, The Man Without Qualities: Into the Millenium, From the Posthumous Papers.

From Publishers Weekly

This edition of Musil’s classic modernist novel features the complete text in a new translation,as well as extensive supplementary material.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 752 pages

  • Publisher: Vintage (December 9, 1996)

  • Language: English

  • ISBN-10: 0679767878

  • ISBN-13: 978-0679767879

Set in 1913 in Vienna and Austria-Hungary in the period just prior to World War I, this massive, two volume novel, features Ulrich, the supposed “man without qualities,” who takes 1 year off just to observe people who help make up his environment. Forming the backdrop of the novel are preparations for the Parallel Campaign, which will celebrate the 75th Anniversary of Franz Joseph’s assention to the Austrian throne. The sponsors of this event, who hope to spotlight the achievements of Austria and reach some form of peace and understanding with the disperate groups that make up the Austria-Hungary Empire, never seem to agree how best to get the festivities off square one. The Germans feel shunted aside and make their extreme dissatisfaction known to everyone. One of the major characters of the novel is a wealthy German businessman who inspires love and admiration from some of the female characters and jealousy, mistrust and contempt from Ulrich and some of the other male characters.

“The Man Without Qualities” works best as a work showing Europe in a transitional period prior to the fall of the various kingdoms and empires of Europe and just before the rise of Nazism. Musil’s characters go into great detail discussing the many political, economic and social philosphies swirling around Europe at that time and these often reflect the relationships of the various and motley individuals that make up the novel. These include Ulrich’s cousin, Diotima, who loves to give parties for the prominent in society, her husband who is a petty government official who is severely lacking in imagination, Ulrich’s musically gifted married friends, Clarisse, a nervous and somewhat hysterical woman, and Walter, a weakling who is very jealous of Ulrich. While oftentimes the clash of ideas and philosophies can make an incredibly engrossing read, the novel can often bogs down in them and become awfully tiresome.

The second volume introduces Ulrich’s sister, and she helps to bring a completely different and unforgettable dimension to his life.

Their world is shaken by the fast pace of elevators and trolleys.

Oft described as one of the three most seminal works of 20th century modernist literature (the others being Proust’s Remembrance, & Joyce’s Ulysses), Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften is an amazing work of literature.

Musil’s novel is the story of Ulrich, a brilliant young mathematician who observes Austrian high society on the eve of the First World War. Under the pretext of planning a huge anniversary party for the King, society gathers in one Diotima’s salon. Musil’s narrator here has good fun looking at the ideologies and social pretensions of the upper classes. Austra becomes “Kakania,” and the idealistic Diotima a parody of Socrates’ interlocutor in The Symposium.

Parallel to this social story is Ulrich’s “inner transformation.” As Ulrich becomes more and more cynical about, and detached from, the increasingly bizarre social world, he begins to undergo a transformation of mind, and to this end, moves at the end of Volume I into retreat from the world to pursue a “mystical union” of mind with his twin sister.

Musil’s book– like Proust’s, and like Richardson’s “Clarissa”– takes on all themes. From social decay, inner transformation, the meaning of science and art, political satire, the dangers of technology, love, spiritual questions (here refreshingly and presciently free from being couched in Big Religions’ terms) and plain old human longing, Musil deals with them all. And, like Proust and Richardson, Musil’s story is ultimately a dialectic: the twin poles of social and individual transformation would, ideally, wind closer together until they fuse into one.

Musil never finished his novel, perhaps fittingly– WWI would destroy all remaining dreams of fusing European political idealism and the humanist spiritualism of the early 20th century.

Comment: The Bush-Cheney years of imperial fantasy land and the feel of March 2008 are perhaps best understood together as a Musil-type era where “pseudo reality prevails,” as described in his novel.

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