Book Review by Jeanette Rehnstrom: The Man Without Qualities
2015-10-01 14:43:01 -

The Man Without Qualities

by Robert Musil



This heavy and thick book by the Austrian writer Robert Musil is often referred to in the same breath as Joyce’s Ulysses and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, thus scaring a lot of people off before they even muster the energy to lift it off the shelf. And okay, it is a dense modernist experience, yet not one which will demand the same sort of mental dexterity as Ulysses, and one that definitely will pay you back.


This is a beautifully written (translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike), profoundly philosophical novel, and more directly so than Ulysses as it is saturated with ideas about everything from politics to spirituality. However, for a book of this length the amounts of characters that we encounter remains fairly small, leaving the emphasis again on the ideas.


Ulrich, the thirty-something protagonist, is by his old friend Walter derisively referred to as “a man without qualities” precisely because he is able to see everything from every angle rather than deciding on one morally superior one to stick to through thick and thin.


Walter sees this as a both threatening and useless point to come from, that is, not having set convictions, as in Walter’s view one needs to pick a side so as to be a morally responsible creature, it’s the only way of reaching clarity and decisions. Ulrich, on the other hand, has a need for some kind of mathematical truth, and for that clarity and boxes will always have to suffer, and because of this he always seemingly floats around like a detached observer. But there is no doubt that Ulrich at the same time feels very deeply, perhaps ever more deeply than others, about what he sees.


This unfinished book was written between 1921 and 1942, the year of Musil’s death, and as such is standing on a precipice of history, both feet bound in the abyssal mire of its time and place, pondering crime and responsibility. One of the big questions is how violence can in one context be seen as good and in the next breath be seen as a crime. And how ordinary people then can position themselves in this fluid morality which just seems to prop up the powers that be.


If you have a philosophical bent this is a must-read, but even if you don’t, a book like this is more than worth the energy you’ll have to mobilise to get it off its perch, as it offers something way beyond the standard fare of today’s output: it might actually change your life.

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