Robert Musil
Robert Musil; drawing by David Levine

If you like difficult amusements and find yourself with a month or two to spare, I would urge you to try (if you haven’t yet read it) The Man Without Qualities by the Austrian writer Robert Musil (1880–1942). Yes, it’s unfinished (“inherently endless,” as Max Brod said of Kafka’s Amerika), and in its published and translated form takes up the thick end of 1,800 pages, by the end of which its knots have started fraying into experimental variants and the poor author’s frantic Post-its to himself, as Musil introduced further characters, adding new factorial numbers of delays and complications and possible outcomes—but it will change your life. It will teach you patience and relish and tolerance, give you a floaty gait and a long view and a permanent half-smile, and acquaint you with a gentle and rather superior form of suspense that you’ll wonder how you ever managed without. Truly, it’s huge fun and the recent translation by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike is excellent.

It has been plausibly said that “no one has ever read all of The Man Without Qualities.” That is because no such thing exists: it goes beyond what is Gutenberg-possible. Then again, the whole interconnected extent of the bolus (in the German original) makes it a natural for the Internet and hypertext. Call it an omniscript. The new digital edition is said to top 11,000 pages. Musil himself would rather not have published any of it before he published all of it (or whatever he would have chosen to preserve of it), which one can understand, but it didn’t happen that way, and besides, he needed money. The first volume was published in 1930; a second installment, with greater difficulty, and by subscription, in 1932 (this part, give or take, is Agathe); and a third was being readied for publication in 1938 when Musil pulled it. (That same year, the book was banned by the Nazis.)

Since then, publishers have sought to ply readers with some kind of leaner alternative. A kind of Musil-Lite. There might be his first novel, and one financial success, The Confusions of Young Törless (from 1906), set among youths at an Austrian military academy. There might be the three excellent novellas called Three Women (from 1924), especially the very moving Tonka. Or the two books now under review: Intimate Ties, which is a translation, by Peter Wortsman, of Vereinigungen, a book of two novellas that bombed in 1911, and that the author himself later found, except in homeopathic quantities, unreadable; and last and likeliest, Joel Agee’s new translation of those-latter-parts-of-The-Man-Without-Qualities-involving-Ulrich’s-sister-Agathe, and published in a so far English-language-only project as Agathe, or, The Forgotten Sister.

Intimate Ties is one of those regrettable publications that hurts the reputations of everyone connected with it: Musil’s own, the translator’s, and even the luckless publisher, Archipelago. The novellas themselves are very strange: very slow, very interior, minutely analytical, and revolving around frankly pornographic subjects: being sodomized by a stranger in “The Culmination of Love,” a childhood recollection of bestiality in “The Temptation of Silent Veronica.” But we are not talking Anaïs Nin here. Musil’s overall effect is about as untitillating as the contemporary paintings of Gustav Klimt (themselves described as so unerotic, they were an argument for chastity), and indeed the author might have set himself the challenge or exercise of rendering such material opaque, decorative, somehow theoretical. His lens is so thickly smeared with verbal Vaseline that if there is any “action,” the reader can barely follow it.

“The Culmination of Love” is the more grounded or earthed piece. The now blissfully married Claudine takes a train by herself to visit her thirteen-year-old daughter Lilli—the product of a chance encounter with an American dentist—in her boarding school in presumably the Austrian provinces somewhere. In her unaccustomed solitude Claudine is taken back to her rather wayward youth. Arrived in the small, snowbound town, she is finally overcome by her own mixture of exposed vulnerability and desire. She interprets her depraved surrender as a gift to her all-unknowing husband, back in the city.

This is positively Dickensian or Balzacian—envelope of circumstance! minor characters! background detail!—in comparison to the other story, “The Temptation of Silent Veronica,” which is set in a house where Veronica (of undetermined age) lives with an old aunt. There is a looming neighbor or tenant or fellow dweller by the name of Demeter, and a suitor called Johannes. In the end, she discharges them both—Johannes to a possible suicide—in favor of conjuring the unforgotten attractions of a large dog from her childhood.

What interests Musil in the two novellas is very slowly pushing his female protagonists into situations of extreme erotic degradation—or initiative?—while keeping up a steady stream of explanation and clarification. Acts of great grossness are ushered toward us in prose of extreme delicacy and subtlety; events for which there are no or low justification are reinterpreted as somehow generous or idealistic. This could be that oft-evoked “style that made writing impossible,” finicky with almost molecular detail, pointillism, a weather map of swirling consequences. There is one memorable trope common to both stories: the description of a nude or partially clad woman waiting, quivering, behind a door:


And a long while later it seemed as if a cautious finger were once again groping for the latch, and she knew the stranger was standing listening outside her door. She felt dizzy with the desire to crawl to the door and unlock it. [“The Culmination of Love”]

But the most elusive feeling was that there was something of her outside too, as a frisson of her being slipped through the tiny keyhole and the trembling of her hand must have flitted through and stroked the clothes of the passerby. [“The Temptation of Silent Veronica”]

This sort of detail is studded, relieved, occasionally firmed up with elaborately clever similes. Musil was an admirer and onetime publisher of the poems of Rilke; he spoke at his memorial celebration in 1927. The experience of reading Intimate Ties is like reading Rilke’s poems patched together—the salon pieces in New Poems, moments of anagnorisis, little miracles, little swings of psychology. The “thens” and “suddenlys” and “as ifs,” the hyper-acute bits of noticing, the drastic likenings, the subjunctives and conditionals, all put one in mind of such poems as “Piano Practice,” “The Shako,” “Before Summer Rain.” Hence perhaps Musil’s declared willingness later to read his own book in suitably tiny doses.

One might describe Intimate Ties as weird, finical, oversubtle, probably misconceived, and in the end barely readable, one of the stranger and chillier blind alleys in literature. It is also shockingly badly translated. This is the more upsetting as Peter Wortsman is not a beginner but an experienced operator. (He has even translated a book of Musil’s before: Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, back in 1987.) I am not talking about the rather mealy-mouthed title—Conjunctions or Associations would have been quicker and better—or the numerous graceless anachronistic idioms (“knotted up inside,” “got antsy,” “all bent out of shape,” “strutting their stuff,” “fire herself up”), all of them obviously and totally out of sympathy with the author and instantly and pervasively destructive of his endeavor. Nor am I talking about the persistent use of that most vulgar of supposedly poetic effects, alliteration: “the muffled murmurs emanating from the drained dregs of a life,” “lastingly have lifted her out of the mundane muddle, living had just become a little less vivid,” “animals terrifying in the threat of their ugly onslaught, but their piercing pupils dripped with dumb droplets of forgetting,” “filled with foreboding at the unceasing life of this thing that restlessly roamed through all the rooms as she lay awake listening.”

No, I am talking about mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes occasionally, and, no question, this is a difficult book—but these are elementary mistakes. They are the sort of misunderstandings that bespeak a translator not equably accompanying an author on their way together so much as looking around and wondering in a blind panic where he can have got to. They are mistakes that make of German—where many short, everyday words exist in more than one sense—a sort of German roulette. In the opening scene of the first story, Claudine pours tea. “Aufschlug,” given as the perplexing “flung open” (like a door?), is the sound made by the tea being poured; “Strahl” is a column of liquid, not a “shaft of light”; the “etwas eingebogene Flächen der Kanne” is in the haut bourgeois context highly unlikely to be “the slightly battered surface of the pot” but rather something decoratively and modishly concave. Think perhaps Jugendstil.

That’s in the first couple of pages. And then on and on, dozens of them. “Laich” is frogspawn, not the inexplicably peculiar “drool of oysters on the stagnant surface of fallow water”; the roof of the railway station, “von schmutzigem Glas und wirren eisernen Streben,” is not “filthy glass, reverberating against scattered, iron resolve” but glass and a tangle of iron struts. “Einer spitzen Zunge” is a pointed tongue, not one that is “lacey.” “Unbestimmt,” an important word that crops up frequently, means “vague” or “uncertain,” but never “nondescript.” Musil describes everything: to him, “nondescript” would be an admission of failure.

There is one particularly calamitous mistake when Claudine, far into the night, having fought down an earlier attack of lust and shut herself up in her room, tries to picture the man she half-fancied (“Dann machte sie den Versuch, sich den Menschen vorzustellen,” in the original). Wortsman, no doubt thinking nymphomania, reads the masculine singular accusative as a dative plural and gives the verb the wrong sense, throws in a comforting final phrase, and writes, “After that she attempted to introduce herself to the people in the inn.” What she was actually doing was picturing the man.


At the end of another sentence, one finds this: “an Olympic bauble of foolishness tried to coax her into feeling like a woman who believed in it.” In context, it’s even more mystifying. Musil’s meaning is that she took one of the bearded, dwarfish locals, a man of Olympian abjectness, and tried to see him through the eyes of a woman who adored him. Sometimes one has the feeling with this book that everything that can go wrong in the way of approximation and miscomprehension and faulty construction and a glib tolerance for any amount of one’s own nonsense has gone wrong.

Whatever help one may have from publishers, editors, friends, or native speakers, at a certain point as a translator, one is alone. Almost in advance of any other requisite qualities, one needs intuition. It is the absence of this, the Instinktlosigkeit, as it would be termed in German, that is so puzzling about Wortsman. It can’t be pleasant to offer up so many instances of one’s incomprehension; to make of a book to which one has contributed an unctuous afterword on “Preserving the Imprint of the Ineffable in Musil’s Prose” something so inept.

Turn over. Cut. All change. While just as “impossible” as the two novellas in the exuberant complexity of its intellectualism, its endlessly modified expatiations, its inability to cross a street without entering into an argument, its heaping of formulations, characters, speeches, ideas, reflections, incidents, and all-round dazzle, The Man Without Qualities is a comedy. In the course of the twenty years since the very serious Vereinigungen, Musil has discovered humor. It perhaps sounds like a detail, a flourish, an ornament; it makes all the difference in the world. With its all-capable soldier-engineer-mathematician hero Ulrich, “resolved to take a year’s leave of absence from his life in order to seek an appropriate application for his abilities,” and its elastic plot—a pan-Austrian “Parallel Campaign,” a hush-hush bid to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the coronation of Austrian Kaiser Franz Joseph (in December 1918) before the Germans pip them by celebrating the thirtieth of their own Kaiser Wilhelm II in June—it is something like a vanity of human wishes.

We know, after all, what happens next (begins with “S,” ends with “o”; capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina). Among these vain human wishes is one of Musil’s own, the wish to write a sweetly panoptical satire of moeurs contemporains that would incorporate every level of society, from murderers to generals and counts to maids and rich wives and mistresses, as well as airing the author’s abundant and prophetic ideas on every subject. It is like an all-encompassing sculpture made of—why not, didn’t Leonardo make one of butter?—Schlagobers: whipped cream. It will fill any space allotted to it, and, unlike water, not even find its own level. More character? Check. More characters. Digression? Digressions. Soliloquy? Soliloquies. Stream of consciousness? Whoosh. Authorial or narratorial commentary? Absolutely.

So what has been lost?

Something imponderable. An omen. An illusion. As when a magnet releases iron filings and they fall in confusion again. As when a ball of string comes undone. As when a tension slackens. As when an orchestra begins to play out of tune. No details could be adduced that would not also have been possible before, but all the relationships had shifted a little. Ideas whose currency had once been lean grew fat. Persons who would before never have been taken seriously became famous. Harshness mellowed, separations fused, intransigents made concessions to popularity, tastes already formed relapsed into uncertainties. Sharp boundaries everywhere became blurred and some new, indefinable ability to form alliances brought new people and new ideas to the top. Not that these people and ideas were bad, not at all; it was only that a little too much of the bad was mixed with the good, of error with truth, of accommodation with meaning…. At this point a new era had definitely arrived.

Musil seems to have little of the directedness of most novelists. We don’t know—I think he didn’t know—where his book is headed. He is epic and unplanned, or, better and stranger, mock-epic and unplanned. His arrow flies, but it doesn’t seem to matter to him where it is going. Being airborne is enough for him and for it—and it ought to be enough for his readers, too. The Man Without Qualities gives one the feeling of being ineluctably, inextricably unterwegs, underway. Does anyone need to be told what a delightful sense that is? There’s no end in sight, or ever. Kafka subdivides; Musil ramifies. Ramifies and rises and swells. His aesthetic is an aesthetic of postponement. Adventitiousness and postponement. Something will turn up. June 1918 stands there as some sort of telos, but it doesn’t seem to get any closer. The Man Without Qualities is like one of those theoretical heavenly bodies that gather mass as they move, and not at the speed of light, but at something less than the speed of life. Not really an arrow at all. A mode of being.

The opening chapter, calmly entitled “From which, remarkably enough, nothing develops,” is one of the great beginnings in literature: a leisurely-technical paragraph on the weather: “In a word that characterizes the facts fairly accurately, even if it is a bit old-fashioned: It was a fine day in August 1913.” This is followed by two-and-a-half pages on a car crash that Ulrich happens to witness. (Yes, it’s 1913, but it feels like 2013, if not 2113.) Seven hundred pages later, like a second locomotive where one might have expected a restaurant car, a second beginning, quite as good, comes along, in which Ulrich arrives in the railway station of his father’s small provincial town to bury his father and take care of the formalities arising from his death.

The hero at this point feels armored and perfunctory and dutiful, a young god descending with the callousness of youth and the snobbery of one who lives in the capital, and never having been especially close to his father anyway, who has played no great part in the narrative thus far. Neither has Agathe, his younger sister—twenty-seven to his thirty-two. They were brought up for the most part separately; he has practically forgotten her existence, and even her appearance in the book now seems like an afterthought or an accident, a sudden and unexpectedly broad tributary opening off a majestically slow estuary. Now, their simultaneous entry in matching, impious, leisure suits—remember, they are there for a funeral, and that of their father!—sets the tone for everything that follows:

It was a wide, soft, woollen pajama, almost a kind of Pierrot costume, checkered black and gray and gathered at the waist, wrists, and ankles; he liked it for its comfort, a quality that felt pleasant as he came down the stairs after the sleepless night and the long journey. But when he entered the room where his sister was waiting for him, he was more than a little surprised by his outfit, for by a secret directive of chance he found himself face-to-face with a tall, blond Pierrot swathed in delicate gray-and-rust stripes and diamonds, who at first glance looked quite like himself.

“I didn’t know we were twins!” Agathe said, her face lighting up with amusement.

For the remaining 350 pages, the question is, What do they do with this knowledge?

“What was previously a kaleidoscope narrows to a laser,” George Steiner argued twenty-five years ago in “The Unfinished,” an essay in The New Yorker. I think Steiner overstates it, or he has chosen the wrong metaphor. Musil has merely swapped one eye-catching impossibility for another. Not unlike his hero Ulrich, who “switched from the cavalry to civil engineering,” he has changed horses mid-novel, from introspective social panorama (it’s something like that!) to love story. Where once there was to be either the Great War (as at the end of The Magic Mountain?—but Musil detested Mann and his works) or just possibly some counterfactual hullaballoo, now the reader is given “the last possible love story,” the congress between Ulrich and Agathe, to look forward to. Musil doesn’t really seem drawn to either outcome—or perhaps indeed any outcome—very much. Outcomes serve to announce a general direction of things—the reader has an irritating habit of liking to know where he’s going—but with Musil she shouldn’t assume he’ll ever get there. Musil is a tease. He delivers what are technically known as disappointments.

Self-Control; drawing by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Van Ham Kunstauktioner

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Self-Control, 1928

To me, the consummation of incest and the celebration of Global Austria are like two different backdrops hanging at the back of the stage, two impossible, narrowing perspectives. They have little to do with whatever the actors happen to be doing. But you need something there, you don’t want the audience to look through the back of the theater. Hence, these two yellow-brick roads. They have much more in common than not: as I say, they are set up as impossibilities. At the most, one might put it that in The Man Without Qualities, Ulrich/Musil has his hands and knees and elbows full with all kinds of instruments, and is tackling society, nation, history, culture; he is a vastly busy one-man orchestra. In the passages that make up Agathe, or, The Forgotten Sister, he is playing a chamber (or boudoir!) sonata on a single exquisite instrument. Neither composition is meant to end; in a sense, Musil has made it impossible for either of them to end. He is a novelist of ideas, which is to say a novelist without qualities.

Agathe is 350 pages, a respectable length, and yet it feels—especially against the perspective of the nihil alienum, all-singing, all-dancing Man Without Qualities—almost like a novella. The personnel are greatly reduced—for the most part, we are in the company of one or the other or both the siblings, rarely more. The time is from a perceived winter to spring. The scene shifts once, from the house of the father in the provinces to Ulrich’s gay little castello in Vienna. The agenda, almost throughout, is how a man is to live with a woman; the fact that she is his sister qualifies it as a useful and extreme test case. There is not really any more to be transacted than there is in, say, Turgenev’s First Love. Ulrich arrives to bury his father; he meets his sister (as above); there are some farewells, some business with the will, with an academic rival of the father’s, one Professor Schwung; Agathe tells Ulrich she wants a divorce from her second husband, the unattractive and pedantic Hagauer (Ulrich one might charitably describe as attractively pedantic); Ulrich is persuaded to assist her.

The siblings spend some restful days in the house of their childhood, becoming reacquainted; Ulrich returns to Vienna; after a few days, Agathe follows him; there are a few more rhapsodic days together in Vienna; then, after one reverse or snub or go-slow too many, with a feeling melodramatically perceived as suicidal, she takes off and happens to meet a man of another pedantic sort, Lindauer (I find it hard to take him altogether seriously as a contender, though it seems Joel Agee does; anyway, much of Musil’s glory and inventiveness is in precisely his minor characters); she returns to Ulrich; and there is a sort of fade-cum-dazzle with the two of them lying out in parallel deckchairs in Ulrich’s garden, the last passage Musil lived to add to his book:

The sun, meanwhile, had risen higher; they had left the chairs like stranded boats in the shallow shade near the house and were lying on a lawn in the garden beneath the full depth of the summer day. They had been doing this for quite a while, and though their circumstances had shifted, they had almost no consciousness of any change. Not even the pause in their conversation brought this about; their speech had been suspended without any sense of a rupture.

“Like the great novel of which it forms a part, it is a magnificent fragment,” writes Agee at the end of his introduction. It reads like a transcription of a Bonnard painting, colored blurs and white canvas, Edenic prose as beautiful as any poetry:

The garden where these things were spoken, with the strange flowers whose names they didn’t know, the butterflies that settled on them like tired drunkards, and the light that flowed over their faces as though heaven and earth were melted together in it.

Perhaps the first thing to say is that Agathe, or, The Forgotten Sister absolutely works as a book—a fractal fractal, an unfinished novel lifted from within another unfinished novel. It seems to have been reasonably straightforward to isolate this strand of the narrative from the others; Agee has simply cut out three or four intervening chapters. All that’s left are a handful of references to the cast of The Man Without Qualities: Count Leinsdorf, Walter and Clarisse, Moosbrugger, Rachel and Soliman. Ulrich spends a night with Bonadea (as Musil is wont to do sometimes, he leaves a judicious fermata in the narrative; he is a master of omission as much as commission); but there is only one scene in which Agathe is brought face to face with the personnel from the Parallel Campaign.

For the rest, she seems to have largely taken over the book, and Musil’s imagination. Where Ulrich says “yes, but…” and dithers and reasons—he is a very early mansplainer—Agathe is gung-ho and surprising and all for it. Action to his contemplation. Their configuration is like that of an accelerator pedal next to a brake. Sometimes, the brake fails through overthinking, and functions like a second accelerator. His very prudence, his mathematician’s logic, is what makes him so often wild and precarious: “She was not such a fanatical person as her brother, she felt what she felt.” This is what gives the book its suspense and its fascination: it is the meeting between the irresistible force and (for once) the somewhat movable object; the two lines converging at infinity.

Both characters are, in their different ways, rebels. The book shows them secluded from the world, islanded, closeted with each other. Ulrich, who would like to overthrow the world through speech, has ten times as many lines to say as Agathe, perhaps fifty times, but it doesn’t matter: “Much of what he said she had already thought.” She, meanwhile, displays an Eve-like, no, a Lilith-like physicality, and, it seems to him, a “gently savage resoluteness, in which purity and crime were indistinguishably mixed.” A characteristic negotiation is something like the following. She needs help with a dress, he is abashed, eager, stunned, and counters with the idea that she represents something like his self-love, which he hadn’t known he had. “It was his first attempt that evening to form a judgment on the meaning of his sister’s arrival” is Musil’s ringingly dry summary of his dry hero, all “judgment” and “meaning.”

Everything with Ulrich is translated, frustratingly, into words, words and ideas. He understands that “in order for me to experience anything with real interest, it has to be part of some context, it has to be controlled by an idea.” While Ulrich gets to work at converting his sister into an idea, then, she is in the time-honored way seducing him. On one unforgettable occasion, “Agathe had already bent down and slid a wide silk garter off her leg, lifted the magnificent shroud, and pushed the garter into her father’s pocket.” This of course doesn’t fail to have an effect on Ulrich: “The barbaric idea of sending the frigid dead man on his way with a garter still warm from his daughter’s thigh constricted his throat and started all sorts of disorder in his brain.” The operative word here is the last, “brain.”

Agathe, or, The Forgotten Sister is one of those books where writer and translator keep company. It reads like a book Agee was born to translate. I wonder if I have ever read a better translation. The book shines with pleasure, the complex sentences opening in front of you, balanced and sequential and easy to follow in all their twists and curlicues. Here, two writers have truly found each other, the intelligent slither of polysyllables, sometimes amusing, sometimes drily determined to make some vanishingly small distinction of vast implications, suddenly giving way to a line or two of dialogue, a small action, and some note of haiku-like compression. Immense cloudy calculations are abruptly brought down to a pithy formula, a sprinkling of constants, a variable or two, a low coefficient. A superlative translation, it is equally good over long distances (making it less susceptible to quotation), and in bravura passages timed to perfection, as this, on the pedantic schoolmaster Lindner:

If someone had tallied the schedule of his days, he would have noticed that in every instance it added up to only twenty-three hours, so that sixty minutes of a full day were missing, and of these sixty minutes forty were invariably earmarked for conversation and kindly engagement with the aspirations and nature of other human beings, an endeavor that comprised visits to art exhibitions, concerts, and entertainments. He hated these events.

“Earmarked…kindly…endeavor…hated”—it is the perfectly measured diction that captures the pharisaical Lindner in his hypocrisy, as though he had graciously marked this hour “Free Association.” Agee is equally good at the phrases—sheer esprit, their ideal, inspired, and sweated-over combination of lightness and heaviness, originality and depth—that are the great joy of Musil’s style, the little facets that catch the mind and glitter: Agathe’s “rebelliously intruded divan” in their late father’s study, “the honorless luster of oilcloth on the tables or the linoleum wasteland on the floor,” “the alert impassivity that was sometimes characteristic of her” (I love the “sometimes”!), “the sweet, toxic taste of soliloquy faded from his mouth,” “the brutal ploys of self-adornment,” “the sultry intermittencies of a physical union,” “the average man is the sediment of all probability.” Even if you keep back The Man Without Qualities for some hereafter, Agathe is for now. The unforgettable sister.