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Friday, February 06, 2015

The Man Without Qualities, Volume 1(1930) by Robert Musil

Book Review
The Man Without Qualities, Volume 1(1930)
 by Robert Musil

   The Man Without Qualities is two volumes, the first, 720 pages long, the second, over a thousand pages and unfinished.  Volume One consists of two books and volume two of a third book.  The Man Without Qualities is one of those books that haunts the precincts of 20th century literature enthusiasts, occupying a space somewhere between the "late realist classic symbolist" work of Thomas Mann and the stranger musings of Franz Kafka.  Unlike The Confusions of Young Torless (1906), which is an intimate portrayal of a high school age youth, The Man Without Qualities is a grand drama on the scale of The Magic Mountain, with equal parts character development and philosophical musings.

   I think the thoughts that cross the mind of anyone who has heard of The Man Without Qualities  and is considering reading it are first, do you have to read it at all? Second: Can you get away with only reading one volume?  For the latter question the answer is yes, one volume certainly does suffice.  The second volume revolves mostly around a sister who is not featured in the second volume at all, and the first volume ends on no kind of a cliff hanger.  As to the former question, I would say probably not.  Especially if you've read The Magic Mountain and other works of late realism.  While I finished The Man Without Qualities, Volume 1 satisfied, there were moments where Musil resembles nothing so more as an Austrian Anthony Trollope or Theodore Dreiser, flailing at the onset of modernity with a luddite mace.

   The pace of the narrative is glacial for the first six hundred pages, and only in the last hundred and twenty does the reader get anything resembling a spark: first the description by one character of her attempted seduction by her own father, and then the revelation that a critical character is motivated to be involved in the central charitable endeavor by his desire to access the "coal fields of Galacia." Although firmly a work of the twentieth century, with character who use automobiles and telephones, the tint of the 19th century "novel of ideas" is well ingrained The Man Without Qualities.

  I would say that if you are a reader nostalgic for 19th century fiction vs. 20th century, The Man Without Qualities is a must on the list.  Budget at least a month for the first volume and longer for the second.

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