The Hovering Life

The Man Without Qualities

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


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.

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