Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities defies easy summary, for it is not a novel in the realist tradition, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. In addition, Musil had written and published the novel in pieces over several years, and he left the novel unfinished at his death in 1942. In 1938, Musil had withdrawn at minimum twenty chapters from the galleys of the second volume, and those chapters, in addition to more than three hundred pages of notes, character sketches, and narrative drafts, were published posthumously, in 1943.
Much like Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu(1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931, 1981) and James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), Musil’s novel plays loosely with conventional literary structure. The Man Without Qualities eschews plot and action in favor of an essayistic structure in which the central characters dart in and out of various situations set in Vienna, Austria, against the backdrop of the year just before the outbreak of World War I. Musil’s approach to the novel as a kind of experiment in which no characters can be fixed in their identities and no story can be reduced to a formula also makes easy summary of the story difficult. Some have even described Musil’s novel as a set of events in search of a plot and in terms of a destiny without a destiny—it meanders over much territory without a specific end in sight, though with one large historical ending (the fall of the Habsburg Empire) in mind.
Like Remembrance of Things Past, The Man Without Qualities captures the tortured consciousness of a protagonist who must reconcile the vagaries of time and space with the slow demise of a social world on the brink of destruction. Like Ulysses, Musil’s novel tests the boundaries of realistic fiction, creating its own rules for tracing the jerky movements of its protagonist through daily life. More than either of these modernist classics, however, Musil’s novel resembles Hermann Hesse’s Das Glasperlenspiel (1943; The Glass Bead Game, 1969), with its focus on the desire for mystical spiritual union, and, above all, Franz Kafka’s parables of bureaucracy gone mad in Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937) and Das Schloss (1926; The Castle, 1930). Like Joseph K. in The Trial, Ulrich discovers that he is caught in a social world where no discernible meaning exists. Caught in the labyrinthine justice system filled with dead ends and no...
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