One of my prized books is a battered, used copy of the first volume of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. On the cover, the Wall Street Journal calls it one of the 20th century’s three greatest novels (the other two, according to the blurb, are Ulysses and In Search of Lost Time). Inside the cover, just across from this quote, is a big black stamp from the Fairfax County Public Library: WITHDRAWN BECAUSE OF LOW DEMAND.
Musil would probably have smiled at this — and then, like any writer, been thrown into a deep depression. Low demand plagued him his entire life, and has ever since. There are some obvious reasons for this. His greatest novel, The Man Without Qualities, is the sort of enormous book that one is never in the mood to start, not only because of the density of the prose and the lack of any real narrative drive, but also because Musil died before he finished; the second volume ends in hundreds of pages of fragments, and who wants to go on a journey with no destination?
In 1936, as these drafts proliferated, Musil probably realized that his great book might never be completed. In two more years, he would move from Austria to Switzerland to escape the Nazis (their takeover had already forced him leave Berlin in 1933). He would continue working on the novel, as he had done for over a decade, but it must have been difficult to re-enter a world that dealt with the quaint absurdities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, defunct since 1918, while Europe prepared to plunge into another war.
It was then, in 1936, that a Swiss publisher asked him if it could publish a collection of his old stories and articles, and Musil agreed, while clearly having reservations about some of the material. “To publish nothing but little tales and observations amidst a thundering, groaning world,” he writes in the introduction, “to speak of incidentals when there are so many vital issues; to vent one’s anger at phenomena that lie far off the beaten track: this may doubtless appear as weakness to some, and I will readily admit that I had all kinds of doubts regarding the decision to publish.”
Posthumous Papers of a Living Author begins with a section called “Pictures,” which features a series of sketches; some are short stories, others just observations about things like horses and a village funeral. The writing here, some of Musil’s earliest published work, is polished, but almost nothing stuck with me: a surreal vignette about monkeys is clearly influenced by Kafka, but doesn’t have the same density or metaphorical weight; any number of little prose poems float by without making a dent. Only a few memorable sentences remain, like these from an essay on waking up at dawn: “I discover strange fellows, the smokestacks. In groups of three, five, seven and sometimes alone, they stand up on the rooftops; like trees in a landscape. Space winds around them and into the deep.”
Quite lovely, but this is the sort of thing that makes impatient librarians reach for their stamps. Except for the first essay, a strangely moving description of flies dying on flypaper, these are the doodles of a talented artist; Musil’s mature voice is completely absent. To my relief, in the next few sections — consisting of essays, very short stories, and finally a longer story — we hear this voice emerge, and also have the rare, thrilling pleasure of watching an author rise from ordinary talent to greatness. Even the translation gets better! The earlier sections are dotted with baffling sentences and obvious errors: missing words, elementary blunders in usage — pealed for peeled, timber for timbre — but as the blood starts moving through the writing, these progressively get cleared away.
The essays deal with a variety of topics: the German love of nature; art and kitsch; public monuments; people’s need to send postcards. They are the sort of mini-essays that appear throughout The Man Without Qualities. In the first few pieces, one can see Musil’s mathematical intelligence struggle to translate itself into prose (for one essay, to my slight aggravation, I had to write equations to figure out his argument), and then become the precise, flexible instrument used in his great work. In the process, incredibly, he starts having fun. Some of the essays, like the one on monuments, are like profound little stand-up comedy routines. As with all those other daunting modernist books — by Joyce, Proust, Kafka — that are presented like doses of medicine at universities, Musil turns out to be pretty funny. I suspect people will not believe me, so here is one of my favorite passages from The Man Without Qualities:
Children are, of course, show-offs, love to play cops and robbers, and are naturally inclined to regard the X family on Y Street as the greatest family in the world if it happens to be their own. So patriotism comes easily to children. But in Austria, the situation was slightly more complicated. For although the Austrians had of course also won all the wars in their history, after most of them they had had to give something up.
As the book moves on, essays give way to some very enjoyable fiction: absurd tales, parables, and long narrative jokes. Finally, in “The Blackbird,” the strange, visionary story that ends this collection, Musil discovers how to combine the imaginative and analytical sides of his character. The story is a masterpiece, and the collection is worth owning for it alone.
Perhaps no other writer has used fiction more extensively, and with greater intelligence, as a tool for social diagnosis, but Musil also knows precisely where the capacities of intelligence end, and how much of life consists of the irrational and mystical. And unlike the other great works of the last century — Ulysses, say, or In Search of Lost Time — which achieve a greater perfection by sealing themselves off in their own worlds, Musil’s ragged works still speak to us with great urgency, and show a writer’s attempt — failed, finally, but still heroic — to grapple with the accelerating chaos of his times. He is a special writer, and deserves to be kept in circulation. Go find this book, in a store or in the library, along with all of his others, and save them from withdrawal.