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The Man Without Qualities, Volume 3: Into…

The Man Without Qualities, Volume 3: Into the Millennium III (The…

by Robert Musil

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Man Without Qualities (Wilkins/Kaiser, 3)

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1181102,161 (4.17)1



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"Musil, given his desperate personal situation and the Nazi takeover in Germany, compares his continued work on The Man without Qualities to “the diligence of a woodworm, boring through a picture frame in a house that is already ablaze”Close to the end of this unfinished tome, Ulrich muses about the condition of modern life wherein we are presented with so many raw facts and feelings that theories arising from them from every direction can appear equally valid, none having a monopoly on the truth:Does man act only according to his emotional impulses, does he only do, feel, and indeed think, that to which he is impelled by unconscious streams of longing or the milder current of pleasure, as is nowadays widely assumed to be the case? Or does he perhaps, after all, act according to reason and will--as is also widely assumed today? Is he particularly at the mercy of certain impulses, such as the sexual, as is nowadays assumed? Or at the mercy not of sexual preconditions, but of the psychological effect of economic conditions, as is also assumed?He concludes in a typical non-conclusive way:An organism as complex as man can be regarded from many sides, and one can choose one or the other axis in the theoretical picture: what one gets is partial truths, out of the interpenetration of which truth slowly rises higher. Or does it really rise higher? Every time a partial truth has been taken for the sole explanation of things, there has been a heavy price to pay. On the other hand, nobody would have arrived even at the partial truth if it had not been over-estimated. So the history of truth and the history of feeling are in many ways interlinked; but that of feeling remains obscure. Indeed to Ulrich’s way of thinking, it was not a history at all, but a wild tangle.Likewise, in a book this wide ranging and complex, I feel like you could come out of it with many different theories, each equally valid (and also equally invalid), since every theory misses the truth by its very simplification of the thing itself. Thus, I found it interesting upon finishing the book and reading Eithne Wilkins’s preface, that I never thought of Musil’s main themes the way she did (she says they are ‘love and belief’) but that reading her explanation of them, I could see a certain truth in them also.

All this to say that this work is truly hard to capture. And this being the third volume (about 700 pages precede this), you would think that by now it would be on autopilot, but that is hardly the case. In fact, Wilkins says “The previous volumes are in fact a sort of prologue, and the story begins only now, at the point where Musil originally intended to begin it...It may be disconcerting to realise that now we shall need to re-read over a thousand pages of prologue to the story. But Musil is a disconcerting writer. And one of his characteristics is to reward every re-reading with a profusion of new insights.”

I can already see myself re-reading these books over and over again for the rest of my life, grasping a little more each time. But for the sake of this first time through, I wanted to jot down a few insufficient notes of things I noticed:


Just when I thought the book couldn’t get any better, any more complex, any more interesting, Musil exceeds all my expectations. Book 3 begins with a new character, Ulrich’s sister Agathe. They spend a lot of time together in the country after his father dies, and this was a much needed break for me from the city characters (Bonadea, Walter, Clarisse, Stumm, etc). This part of the novel focuses on the thorny idea of morality. But less in a ideal sense, and more in a practical sense. Agathe is like the manifestation of Ulrich’s ideas, whereas Ulrich’s ideas are only approximations of extremes, Agathe doesn’t overthink them, she acts directly out of the same forces that makes Ulrich think, yet she doesn't often know why she is acting. This scares Ulrich, but also attracts him.

The part with Agathe in the first 100 pages or so was amazing, probably one of the best parts of the entire book, with great dialogue and thinking and dynamic between them, but when Ulrich goes back to the city, I was quite reluctant to follow him. I was tired of his talks with the city folks already, and wanted more of Agathe.


The more I read this book the more I see the original review I wrote for Part 1 of this book as inadequate. The ideas I wrote about then seem so naive and simple now, yet I don’t think they were wrong... It’s just that, with Musil, every idea has 5, 10, 100 gradations, in more and more minute detail. This doesn’t sound fun to read, but it is! (surprisingly!) But I’m glad I wrote what I did in my review of part 1 because at this point the ideas are so complex and subtle (though similiar in nature and theme) I’m not sure I can even put them into words. Someone can spend their whole life studying this book.

3.“Ahead of him he saw her figure under her dress like a big white fish quite close to the surface. He felt the masculine urge to harpoon that white fish and see it flap and struggle, and the urge was an equal blend of repugnance and desire.”Often called a book of ideas, this is more like a book of constantly-arriving-at-ideas. It never arrives, it is only interested in the process. Thus, the vehicle for the arriving-at, i.e. the writing, often contains gem after gem. This is not a crude container, as in some other idea-driven un-feeling novels like The Fountainhead. Each sentence, even in translation, is crystal clear, metaphors containing equal parts scientific precision and emotional weight, often so apt that it stuns me (or sometimes intentionally clunky/non-apt as to create a stunningly jarring effect).“and through the darkness the aerial storm of love came raging like a gale. It was with a thud that it set the lovers back on firm ground again, when, vanishing through the walls, it let them go. And now the darkness lay between them like a lump of coal with which the sinners had blackened themselves.”Musil proves that the novel can be a perfect vehicle for philosophy, if written well enough, except what he’s written isn’t philosophy at all. Instead, he attempts to put science, philosophy, and art/humanities on an equal playing field as the three legs of a stool for thinking/feeling about the modern world. These competing extremes do not have to be extremes in Musil’s world, but instead complement each other, teasing out each other’s blind spots and tugging at each other’s hems and haws for a semi-truth of fluctuating averages. Though he philosophizes, and though he writes with scientific precision, he does not sacrifice any of the wordplay, wit, or feeling in the prose.


I don’t know why I never noticed this until around the middle of this volume, but almost every time a conversation about something starts taking shape, it gets interrupted. Usually it’s right when it gets close to the conclusion of a certain theory Ulrich is arriving at... something inevitably comes up, a phone call or General Stumm von Bordwehr comes barging in or something, but the point is the novel is filled with these false-starts, where no conclusion is ever made. Aptly, the novel is about a patriotic celebration of a ‘great idea’ that would inevitably be interrupted by war (as is foreshadowed by the setting). Also apt is the fact that the novel itself is never finished, Musil himself being interrupted by war and death."The story of this novel amounts to this, that the story that ought to be told in it is not told." - Musil5.

In the same way that he was interested in extreme ideas/ideals in earlier parts of the book and how they operate in society, here the ideas get more personal and universal at the same time. He takes on the extreme opposites of male/female, of brother/sister, of moral-right/wrong, of self/other, especially in Ulrich and Agathe’s relationship. He takes apart these extremes by burying them in particulars, so that they become a million tiny moments, and at any particular moment Ulrich and Agathe are merely more brother and sister or more lovers or more siamese twins, etc. but never wholly one thing or the other. This indefinable relationship exists on a continuum, as does the morality of their actions within it.


Even in the last 50 pages, new characters were being introduced. If Musil had finished this novel, it probably would’ve been 3000 pages. What’s surprising is that it continually renews itself despite the lack of any kind of traditional plot. Some chapters hold up better than others, but I rarely felt like he was not moving along at a certain pace of thought, where ideas are continually rising to the surface to form new concoctions. This is truly one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Further Reading: my review of The Man Without Qualities, Volume 1 ( )
1 vote JimmyChanga | Sep 11, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (5 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Musil, Robertprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kivivuori, KristiinaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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This is the 3rd volume of the incomplete 3-volume translation by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser. The contents are different from the 2nd volume of the longer translation by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike, in 2 volumes, which includes a large amount of posthumously published writings. Please DO NOT combine these editions.
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