The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil has been on my to-read list [or more appropriately my to-finish list] for about two years. [Two fucking years…my relationships don’t even last that long]. It is, along with Ulysses and In Search Of Lost Time, part of the holy trinity of overly long and difficult novels. It is to novels what The World’s Biggest Gangbang is to porn: stupidly ambitious and inevitably exhausting. Anyway, I have finally finished it. I, to continue my metaphor, have taken all of Musil’s intellectual cocks and come out of it, aching and sore, but alive. But did I enjoy the experience? To a large extent, yes, but I have some reservations.
One of my main criticisms of the book is that reading it felt like being stuck in a traffic jam with an interesting and engaging companion. The thing is, I couldn’t help feeling that I would have been even more interested in what I was being told if I had actually been going somewhere; that the feeling of, the frustration caused by, immobility compromised my enjoyment and distracted my attention. The novel lacks what I would call narrative movement, or momentum. Now, this would not be too much of a problem if it were shorter. Yasunari Kawabata’s books do not go anywhere, they almost completely lack plot, but they work as short and evocative pieces. However, The Man Without Qualities is over 1000 pages, hundreds of pages of which are given over to quite rigorous philosophical essays. A plot relating to a campaign to celebrate the reign of a king is essentially wrapped around these philosophical musings, like a piece of delicate lace.
Upon finishing the book I was left with an impression of failure. It is neither a successful novel, nor a successful philosophy text. It tries to be both and therefore fails, because they are two separate disciplines. One has to lean more towards one type of writing, otherwise one ends up bobbing along somewhere between the two, and actually negating the benefits of either. Unlike his contemporaries Joyce or Proust or Mann, Musil doesn’t seem to be in control of his work. Over 500 pages in he is still wrestling with the nature of human consciousness and the questions what is greatness? and how should one live one’s life? It is as though he took on too many of the big questions and ended up being defeated by them [which was always going to be the case]. Having said this, there is something heroic about his endeavour, something moving even. Musil spent over 20 years writing The Man Without Qualities and died without finishing it, because what does it mean to be human? is a question not answerable by one man. You have to admire him for trying though.
I actually wrote this review something like four years ago. I wasn’t blogging at the time, so I posted it on my facebook page. Oh yeah, I’m really that boring. In any case, since reading the book, and writing this review, I have had time to think about my experience of Musil’s epic work and have changed my mind somewhat. On reflection, I feel less convinced that it is a failure; i feel more well-disposed towards it. Yes, it is flawed, but, I dunno, like with a face, its flaws almost give it character. The Man Without Qualities is imperfect, is poorly paced and structurally somewhat of a mess, but life is imperfect, life is messy, and maybe, inadvertently, Musil’s flaws as a writer say as much about the human condition as the long philosophical passages in his novel.