Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

This novel ranks with Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain, 1927) and James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) as a study in the total modern sensibility and, as such, deserves a more prominent place in modern world literature. Musil completed other works, notably Die Verwirrungen des Zoglings Torless (1906; Young Torless, 1955) and several short stories, but The Man Without Qualities is his major contribution to modern literature. Perhaps because it was not finished, it has not met with the same kind of success, but it deserves more recognition, not only as a portrait of Europe in the twentieth century but also as a careful study of the nature of man’s duality. The ontological question of meaning and meaninglessness pervades other great works, such as Samuel Beckett’s The Trilogy (1951-1953), Hermann Broch’s Die Schlafwandler (1931-1932; The Sleepwalkers, 1932), and Fyodor Dostoevski’s Besy (1871-1872; The Possessed, 1913).

There is another reason Musil’s masterpiece should be examined more thoroughly by readers of modern fiction: as a warning to ivory-tower humanists and scholars who think the world will run itself without the intervention of moral people. The novel scathingly condemns the inertia of the European intelligentsia, who, by taking a “vacation from life” and choosing to ignore the rise of Fascism as a harmless variation on age-old political campaigns, remained silent in the face of Hitler’s advances—until it was too late.