‘We’ve Conquered Reality and thereby lost our Dreams’: Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’ – or ‘Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften’

Robert Musil and his medals 1918 - Literaturmuseum Klagenfurt

Robert Musil and his medals 1918 – Literaturmuseum Klagenfurt

Thank goodness I didn’t read Marcl Reich-Ranicki’s demolition job of Musil’s 2000 page, incomplete novel – is that the right word? – The Man without Qualities. Everything Reich-Ranicki criticises about Musil’s monster is true, only irrelevant in relation to the importance of this extraordinary work. I finished reading it yesterday, the 100th anniversary of the start of war between Germany and France. One of the fascinating conceits of Musil’s masterpiece is the fact that it takes place in 1913/14 and continues as if the cataclysm of the Great War had never happened. As the book progresses, he picks up a number of subjects that were inter- rather than pre-First World War. There is barely a plot, though the general idea is brilliant as a frame on which to elaborate any number of ideas and observations: Ulrich, a man in his early 30s of independent means is a mathematician who decides to sort himself out over the coming year before finalising what it is he wishes to do. His various attempts at careers in the military and academia have been unfulfilling. His father was a noted professor of law and an advisor to the Habsburg Court who lived in retirement in the Austrian provinces. Ulrich moves to Vienna, rents a small ‘palais’ and through contacts of his father joins his cousin ‘Diotima’ in an attempt to organise ‘The Parallel Action’ of 1918. This is the anniversary year when Franz Josef will have been on the Austrian throne for 70 years and Kaiser Wilhelm on the German throne for 30. The bitter irony of this ‘action’ is the fact that it takes place the year both countries go to war and their imperial houses are catapulted into history. Already, this bare outline of plotless plot allows Musil to ruminate on Austria and Germany and the relationship is not so different from that of post-Imperial Britain and the United States. Germany is young, ambitious, wealthy and mono-cultural – Austria is none of the above. But what it lacks in financial wealth, it offers in cultural wealth, history and experience. Yet Musil is never so crass as to paint the Prussian protagonist, Count Arnheim, as ‘the ugly Prussian’. On the contrary: he’s cultivated, intellectual and publishes countless well-regarded and popular books on any number of different subjects. The metaphor of difference that Musil presents is one of envy and impotence against the stronger, younger and ultimately smarter rival.

Edvard Munch's portrait of Count Harry Kessler - in my opinion, the more likely model for Musil's Graf Arnheim

Edvard Munch’s portrait of Count Harry Kessler – in my opinion, the more likely model for Musil’s Graf Arnheim

There are a number of loose-ends and unfinished sub-plots: Ulrich’s friends Walter and Clarisse, a deranged murderer named Moosbrugger along with Ulrich’s nymphomaniac mistress Bonadea. They all slide in and out in order to offer platforms for debate, thoughts, ruminations, philosophy, endless metaphors and narrative garden paths. The ‘Parallel Action’ allows Musil to populate the salons of his cousin Diotima with an assortment of do-gooding intellectuals who are identifiable throughout time and place. His most trenchant observations are often those regarding the relationship between Austria and Germany. The Prussian Count Arnheim is a figure clearly based on Walter Rathenau or perhaps Count Harry Kessler. Almost as an afterthought, Agathe arrives in Ulrich’s life. She is the sister Ulrich never really knew and goes unmentioned in the first 1000 pages appearing only in Book III at the funeral of their father. She was sent away to school as a child and married as a girl. Her husband died from typhus on their honeymoon and she then marries a progressive educationalist and lives in obscurity in the provinces. Ulrich has never wasted a moment of his multi-layered, navel-gazing ruminations on her and only recalls that he has a sister when he encounters her at their father’s burial. She decides to divorce her husband and come to Vienna to live with Ulrich. The erotic feelings between Ulrich and Agathe become the subject for the most disjointed and challenging 60-odd final chapters.

Musil as a young man - the model for 'Ulrich' in 'The Man without Qualities'

Musil as a young man – the model for ‘Ulrich’ in ‘The Man without Qualities’

Reich-Ranicki is right: the book is by every conceivable measure a mess. Chapters roll into one another with absolutely no dramatic narrative at all. Philosophical conversations dominate for hundreds of pages at a time. Not one character comes to anything like a resolution, despite often dramatic excursions that seem to promise some sort of denouement: Walter’s neurotic wife Clarisse is determined to ‘redeem’ through her belief in Nietzche, the deranged prostitute murderer Moosbrugger. Diotima is nearly seduced by the oddly sexless Count Arnheim. His personal assistant, an African circus performer ‘adopted’ by Arnheim while still a boy, develops a passionate relationship with the Jewish housekeeper of Diotima. Count Leinsdorf represents the out-of-date paternalism of Austro-Hungarian aristocracy and serves as deliberate foil to Count Arnheim, who though a Count, also happens to be a wealthy Prussian industrialist of recent, possibly Jewish lineage; General Stumm represents the hopelessness of Austrian militarism; a half-Jewish girl named Gerda Fischel muscles in for fifteen minutes of fame with her pan-German, anti-Semitic fiancée Sepp, and so on. Each character offers Musil a detached and often amusing opportunity to satirise the Zeitgeist of the country he calls ‘Kakania’, a mischievous piss-take on all Imperial and royal institutions in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These were historically referred to as ‘K und K’, in reference in the Austrian half of the Empire for ‘Imperial and Royal’: ‘Kaiserlich und Königlich and pronounced ‘Kah und Kah’. In the Hungarian half, for wonderfully confused reasons, these self-same institutions are called simply ‘KK’ – without the ‘und’. Musil’s creation, ‘Kakania’ not only plays on the pun of ‘K und K’ or ‘KK’, but the fact that ‘Kaka’ is a children’s word for shit, translatable in English as ‘poop’. The Habsburg realms are thus referred to by Musil as something like ‘Pooponia’.

The Imperial Austrian-Hungarian Crest

The Imperial Austrian-Hungarian Crest (kakania)

So, is life too short to read Musil? I don’t believe so for a moment. If Joseph Roth offers a mirage of romantic Habsburg nostalgia through the sheer beauty and immediacy of his novel Radetzky March, Musil offers us the way people thought and processed ideas. Characters, no matter how dramatically ill-conceived, are real and the way they see the world offers both a telescope into the past, but into the present as well. Unlike Karl Kraus, he avoids the direct use of aphorisms, but employs them by means of quite brilliant and often startling similes. They mug the reader from unexpected corners and transform a page of inward conversation between characters around a table, into a sobering ‘life-revelation’.

Robert Musil as a 7-year old 1887

Robert Musil as a 7-year old 1887

For the music historian, Musil is particularly important as he places music in Vienna’s fin de siècle intellectual discourse where we would not expect to find it. Perhaps it’s too easy to assume that such central figures as Schoenberg and Mahler would have occupied the same place in the salon conversations as Freud, Weininger, Schnitzler, Loos, Klimt and so on. Musil confirms Karl Kraus’s view of music as something emotional, seen by its devotees as nearly spiritual and thereby unqualified to participate in the discourse of ‘Modernism’. Music, unlike any of the other fin de siècle intellectual disciplines, was neither scientific nor empirical and threatened by its inclusion to derail progress. It’s revealing that Ulrich’s most unstable friends are musicians. His description of his arrival in their home tells us everything, (My translation):

“…they thought it self-evident not to notice [Ulrich’s] arrival until the four-handed work they were playing was completed. This time, it was Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, with ‘the millions’ tingling in ecstasy as they sank into the dust – at least, this was how Nietzsche had once put it. They broke down alienating barriers, exhorting the Gospels of World Harmony, with the previously divided of the world, now united in peace. [Walter and Clarisse] had forgotten how to walk and were dancing in upward flight towards the heavens. Their faces were spattered, their bodies bent double, their heads rocking back and forth while their open fists leveraged out a pounding mass of sound. The immeasurable happened; an unclear all-surrounding blister, bloated with heated emotion, swollen to bursting was pumped even further by agitated fingers, furrowed brows and shaking bodies, blasting yet more vehemence into their private, musical pandemonium. How often had this experience repeated itself? Ulrich had never been able to abide the piano, eternally open with its teeth bared – this false god hybrid between a wide muzzled, stubby-legged dachshund and a bulldog. It was at this shrine his friends now worshipped with unquestioned dedication. . . “

The view of music that discredited it in fin de siècle intellectual life

The view of music that discredited it in fin de siècle intellectual life

Another extraordinarily revealing passage illustrates misguided Habsburg paternalism and philo-Semitism. Count Leinsdorf explains to Ulrich at one point: “I have nothing against Jews. […] They’re intelligent, industrious, always of good character. The only mistake we made was to give them inappropriate names. Rosenberg and Rosenthal for example are aristocratic names; Löw, Bär (Lion and Bear) and other beasts are things that decorate one’s coat of arms; Meier (dairy farmer) is taken from Land-Ownership; Gelb, Blau, Rot, Gold (yellow, blue, red and gold) are the colours of our family crests – all of these Jewish names are nothing more than the insolence of the Austrian civil service against the nobility! That’s who was supposed to be savaged by these silly names, not the Jews!”

Anti-Semitic postcard showing different 'Jewish Types'

Anti-Semitic postcard showing different ‘Jewish Types’

There are too many passages to quote, too many life-changing revelations to go into, but one thing is clear from The Man Without Qualities: it’s difficult to understand fin de siècle Vienna without it. The mixture of brilliance and bigotry, entitlement and social conscience are all there. As Norbert Wolf writes: ‘It’s less a nostalgic retrospective of the Habsburg years, such as one finds with Joseph Roth, but a representation of Vienna as the melting pot of different nations, cultures, religious and artistic movements. In Vienna, one found both modern pacifism and modern anti-Semitism; it was in Vienna that atonality could live side-by-side with the most superficial operettas; Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka experimented with modern painting while Hitler tried his own hand at art; the aristocracy celebrated its centuries of unquestioned dominance while Leon Trotsky wrote political pamphlets in Café Zentral. Vienna was full of cracks and fractures.”

Vienna's Naschmarkt, or main market before the First World War - Vienna as melting pot of different cultures

Vienna’s Naschmarkt, or main market before the First World War – Vienna as melting pot of different cultures

It’s a book one only reads once, but returns to frequently. Reich-Ranicki was right, it’s a mess, but then so was Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and in a similar way, so was Wagner’s Ring or even Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. It’s the artistic ‘messes’ of our culture that offer the greatest insight. The only other book I can recall that was equally messy yet equally important in explaining the nuances of Austrian Central Europe, was Manès Sperber’s Wie eine Träne im Ozean – As a Tear in the Ocean. I’ve sadly never seen an English translation but it too offers characters who simply disappear without resolution and ends without an ending. But unlike Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, it offers narrative drama and comes in at a ‘mere’ 800 pages. Musil and Sperber were flawed geniuses, but it was in their flaws that their genius was found – pace Reich Ranicki.