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Robert Musil: Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities)

Long neglected, this work has now been recognised as one of the great novels of the 20th century. It is set in Vienna, just before the First World War. Indeed, while there is a nominal hero – Ulrich, a single, well-to-do engineer, the real hero of the novel is the city of Vienna. We are given a complex and brilliant portrait of a culture at its height but, as we know, about to collapse. Ulrich is involved in the preparations for a festival to celebrate the jubilee of the Emperor, the Collateral Campaign, managed by Diotima, the wife of a senior civil servant. It involves a wide variety of people, giving us a fantastic portrait of Austria just before World War I, as they all seek to answer the question, What is Austria? (Like all good 20th century questions, there is no answer or, rather, no single, easy answer.) Ulrich, now honorary secretary of the campaign, is one of the few to realize that the whole thing is a farce – that the real Austria cannot be found.

The second main story line – and I should point out that story lines in this novel are barely more relevant than they are in those other great novels of the 20th century, such as Ulysses or A la recherche du temps perdu – is the brutal murderer of a prostitute, Moosbrugger, who is awaiting his fate. How can you judge his crime? Is he a criminal or is he a lunatic? Linking it to the fate of the Collateral Campaign – they both drag out without apparent aim – is clearly Musil’s intention.

But plot is not what this book is about. What Musil does is to give us not only the portrait of a vibrant city that is stuck in the past and cannot see how to move forward or even if there is a need to do so but also a portrait of an age, an age which, as we know and the author knows but the characters do not, is about to come tumbling down. The rich range of characters from the main ones like Diotima, Ulrich and Ulrich’s friend Walter and Clarisse to the minor ones like General Stumm von Bordwehr and the armies of civil servants we meet, Musil’s witty satire on all that is Austrian (the country is called Kakanien, which might be translated as Poopootia) and his brilliant incorporation into his story of many of the major philosophical ideas of the age (good, bad and plain stupid) all help make this novel one that everyone should read.

Publishing history

First published 1930 (Parts 1 and 2), 1933 (Part 3) by Rowohlt
First published in English 1960 by Secker & Warburg