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The Hovering Life

The Man Without Qualities

by Robert Musil, translated by Sophie Wilkins, by Burton Pike
Knopf, 1,774 pp., $60.00

1.

In St. Louis a warm wind had unexpectedly arrived to draw moisture from the cold ground and cover runways with layers of dense fog. The flight boards in LaGuardia said “Canceled” for Chicago, too. Detroit was socked in, Cleveland growing gray, so there’d be no back door through which I might return. I thought I was traveling light, but my briefcase was galley heavy and I heard my squashed socks moan; though perhaps it was static on the line I was hearing when I tried to phone for a room at one of the airport motels. A faint foreign voice believed they might have a suite for $220 if I hurried. None of the others answered.

Since the flight I’d been rebooked on (after languishing in line like a pin of forgotten wash) was scheduled to take off as a herald to the dawn, I thought returning to Manhattan for the night seemed silly—it had become a place as far away as Nome. Furthermore, I didn’t relish the idea of trying to capture a cab from a dim slick New York street at five AM. Already the mesh gates of some concourses were coming down with a coarse crash, denying me sleeping space on a length of their cool-a-heel seats. And dinner with any decency was done for. Even the plastically appointed eateries, squalors full of redundant light and fast food, were emptying their patrons into mournful halls; my fellow maroonees had gone to houses or hotels so promptly I never saw them leave; and I began to feel I had made a stubbornly stupid choice (to stick it out where I was), because there might be nothing to stick to: mops and pails, lowered lamps and jailhouse grills, would see to that.

For a while I wandered (heavier, though, than a lonely cloud), until I came upon The Bar—The Bar—which lay like a filled-in ditch alongside twenty-five yards of dismal glarelit passage constructed to connect these snoozy airlines with one another. The place served sloppy dogs and chili. With grateful haste, I seated myself at a small round table next to the alley’s imaginary edge where I might enjoy the baleful and incessant hall light, ordered the Blush, which was this pseudo-saloon’s so-called choice, extracted a ponderous galley from my case, and vowed to drink wine and read Musil the rest of the night.

Oddly enough, it proved to be the right time, the perfect place. Vienna. An evening in August 1913. The characters in Musil’s novel gather and disperse like strangers in an airport bar. First Ulrich, the man without qualities himself, the son of a provincial civil servant, who, we are told, has taken a year off from his mathematical studies in order to drift and observe. His passivity carries him from opulent drawing rooms in Vienna to a walled garden in a provincial town, puts him in odd situations, including a brief arrest for defending a drunk who has been loudly insulting the government.

The oddest of all is that he accepts the post of General Secretary to the “Parallel Campaign,” the bit of stupid nonsense that serves as the ironic center of Musil’s never less than serious novel. Observing the calendar with a political eye, the Prussians have decided to celebrate the thirtieth year of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s reign in 1918. In a customary fit of inferiority, desperate not to be outdone, and with a weightier, more redolent reason, the Austrians determine to surpass the Prussians by mounting the Parallel Campaign, a celebration of Emperor Franz Joseph’s seventieth jubilee in the same year.

Since it is a piece of patriotic and royalist propaganda, the Campaign, as it comes to be called, has to have a theme, a vision which should appear clear and vast. It must exhibit an idealism quite out of Prussia’s range. Perhaps the governing goal should be that of “human unity” (paradoxically, a hope that mimics Ulrich’s own desire for a scientific morality which would successfully wed thought and experience), a unity that Austria may be the first to manifest, since Austria is royalist and Catholic, not aggressively materialistic and expansionist, or coolly scientific and reductive, like the Prussians. Of course, in 1918, these parallel aristocracies, and all the bureaucrats who dangle from them like badly pinned medals, and the careful hypocrisies whose cultivation has been their business, will be torn and tarnished, rendered kaput, be brutally exposed, or put in deadly disarray. But those events lie in a future that Musil’s narrative will never reach.

The bar begins to fill with lost souls like me, students in a style one might call “German Youth,” wearing layers of fashionable rags, then a few commercial types in sober suits, and shortly after them, as I spread out my galleys, Musil’s moods and characters arrive, along with his ironic eye. Soon I am in the company not only of Ulrich but of the woman who has become the muse of the much-heralded Jubilee, the voluptuous and socially aspiring Diotima, her would-be paramour, the industrialist Dr. Paul Arnheim, and other characters as packed with reflective consciousness as overpopulated countries; and now another lonely man like me appears, his round table, like mine, spread with papers. Suddenly it’s ten PM. There will be no more liquor served or sold. Weak coffee in waxed cups. On paper plates, tacos smothered in pus and blood. I have reached Part II in my reading: “Pseudoreality Prevails.” Musil’s question has been: Has the moral and intellectual condition of man been getting better or has it been getting worse? Oh yes, and another subject concerns the early pages: the nature, the infrequency, the futility of being a genius.

The Man Without Qualities: What is his opinion? Well, Ulrich thinks, things within Austria are certainly improving. After all,

Men who once merely headed minor sects have become aged celebrities; publishers and art dealers have become rich; new movements are constantly being started; everybody attends both the academic and the avant-garde shows, and even the avant-garde of the avant-garde; the family magazines have bobbed their hair; politicians like to sound off on the cultural arts, and newspapers make literary history. So what has been lost?

And the Man With Time on His Hands: What is his opinion? Well, with a hint of pride and none of shame, family magazines now show teen-age boobs, nubby and bulging behind a scoopy blouse whose fabric is thin and blue as a gas flame. Loud colors coarsen every newsprint page. Entire bulletins are composed of headlines and illustrated with snapshots of Martian babies born to surprised Brazilian natives. Otherwise the world is restfully the same.

Ulrich goes on,

There is just something missing in everything, though you can’t put your finger on it, as if there had been a change in the blood or in the air; a mysterious disease has eaten away the previous period’s seeds of genius, but everything sparkles with novelty, and finally one has no way of knowing whether the world has really grown worse, or oneself merely older.

What has been lost is the magnetism which once discreetly ordered public affairs as though society were a pattern of metal shavings. Relationships have shifted a little and the orchestra is out of tune. Persons who would never have been taken seriously before have become famous.

I see that men have arrived with ladders and long-handled brooms to scrub the higher elevations of these whitish walls. A supervisor keeps tabs on their success at removing what I take to be construction smears, for this hostile passage has been recently remodeled. Texture-deprived, it is slick as a urinal. I am seventy, I grumble, feeling the seat of my pants in my lap. What am I doing in this tear in time?

2.

Robert Musil’s long, literally endless, novel, The Man Without Qualities, has finally been freshly and fully translated into a rich and resourceful English by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike. One feels obliged to be shocked that this uniquely great novel has been available before only in a truncated and uninspired British version; but surprise is hard to muster when neglect is one of our more practiced habits, and includes Hermann Broch and Karl Kraus, merely to mention a handy pair of Austrians. How often Musil must have despaired at the definition he was giving to his life, and the unpromising position he had put himself in; for if Sir Walter Scott (in Bertrand Russell’s famous example) was the author of Waverly so definitively that the phrase could have been conferred on him at birth like a prediction, Robert Musil, despite his earlier novel, Young Törless, and all of his weighty essays and significant stories, was fated to receive a definite description drenched in Musil’s own kind of irony, since he would be ultimately recognized as the author of a novel about a man who escapes every line destiny endeavors to draw around him, and whose lack of any limiting essence, one might wryly say, is his principal characterization.

In the United States, not noted for much acumen concerning matters of literary quality, the initial English translation was greeted with an animosity which cannot be ascribed to simple philistinism. As Christian Rogowski reports, Musil was described as an “almost intolerably bad writer,” “a sort of jet-powered literary no-good,” his style exhibited “a rather bumbling mass of Teutonic metaphysics.”1 The Times Literary Supplement‘s favorable reception of the translation in London was judged to be part of a literary hoax.

What better place for a bit of bitter reflection and unhurried contemplation than this flotsam-littered sand bar in the middle of an airport night? With a book set in the shade of an oncoming war and written while in the shadow of the second. Seventeen hundred pages of the most intelligent and unflagging scrutiny modern life has ever had to bear—described with fondness by Françcois Peyret as a Foltermaschine—a torture machine. And what, in the garden of greatness (this novel presumes to wonder), has been crowding out genius if not common stupidity, so endearing and natural to man, so easily mistaken for talent and made to resemble progress and improvement?

The novel addresses this question in the essay-like meditations that Musil creates for Ulrich to stroll through while he is strolling Vienna’s streets. During the first of these, Ulrich concludes that there is “no great idea that stupidity could not put to its own uses; it can move in all directions, and put on all the guises of truth. The truth, by comparison, has only one appearance and only one path, and is always at a disadvantage.”

How appropriately in step with our own age; in which the stupids are the royal family, this suggestion is. Ulrich next imagines how Saint Thomas Aquinas (after staying up several centuries past his bedtime to conclude his researches, and therefore having put the reigning ideas both of his own time and future centuries in order) would step out of his medievally arched door into an Austrian street, only to have his nose surprised by the fierce passage of an electric trolley. Ulrich, chuckling, is himself confronted at that moment by a motorcyclist careening noisily past, its rider wearing a face with “the solemn self-importance of a howling child.” With characteristic rapidity he then remembers a magazine photo of a famous female tennis player in the strenuous posture of serving an ace, “on her face the expression of an English governess,” only to recollect immediately another image, this one of a swimming champion nakedly in the midst of her conditioning massage, a flexed knee held by a man in a doctor’s gown who gazes indifferently out of the picture, “as though this female flesh had been skinned and hung on a meat hook.”

  1. 1

    In Distinguished Outsider: Robert Musil and His Critics (Columbia, South Carolina, 1994), p. 23.

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