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The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil
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The Man Without Qualities

by Robert Musil

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» See also 61 mentions

English (10)  Dutch (3)  Italian (2)  German (2)  French (1)  Swedish (1)  Spanish (1)  Portuguese (1)  All (1)  All languages (22)
Showing 1-5 of 10 (next | show all)
(Original Review, 2007-05-05)

I've long waited for someone explain to me what the criteria are to select the best fiction out there. I know when I like a book or when others like a book, yet critics and intellectually sophisticated people often talk about books as if one can assess their value objectively, going beyond mere preference. Yet, mysteriously, the criteria by which literacy value is to be assessed are never stated with sufficient precision so that they can actually be applied. This article is a case in point. Even though saying exactly what literary value is would be of extraordinary importance to make the point the author wants to. In the absence of any solid and justifiable philosophy underpinning assessments of literary value, I fear we have to take pronouncements on what's good and what's bad as a form of virtue signalling in certain circles.

There's a mighty large area between objectivity on the one hand and mere preference on the other. It's the area in which many of our judgments - not just literary or aesthetic, but, say, political or moral, take place. When we judge a book we rarely just say that we like it (in the same way that we might say we like toffee or cats) but rather that we think that it is a good novel. And, whereas there is no possibility of arguing on the basis of someone saying "I like toffee", there is a possibility of constructively debating whether a novel is good or not and, in doing so, we can advance criteria (about which we might also argue), and are able to argue using these criteria and textual evidence. No, it's not science, but it's not mere preference either. It's more like debates about politics or morality which rarely have objective value but which most people don't believe to be mere preference either (though no doubt rationalisation of preference can play a part too).

I'm not criticising all normative judgments.

There's plenty of very convincing, sound and transparent reasoning when it comes to normative judgments. It can be a delight to read. Examples would be about how one ought to decide given an objective (rational choice theory), how one ought to assess the evidence in favour of a claim (scientific method) and even how one ought to choose morally, in politics and ethics, though there is much less of a consensus amongst scholars in those fields. But the key is that it's serious, transparent work. Not obscurantism. If I disagree with a conclusion or argument in moral philosophy, I can identify the premises and principles I reject, and understand their content.

Literary and aesthetic value are much vaguer and fuzzier by comparison. A lack of clarity seems to be required to prevent the whole thing from being exposed as a farce, although I would say that there is serious, transparent work as well as obscurantism in most fields. The literary criticism that most of us read in papers like this bears about as much relation to serious transparent work as a pub argument does to serious transparent philosophy.

But what makes literature (and art in general) more problematic in some ways is that it can (and the best, or perhaps the most radical, generally does) create its own new criteria for judgement, thereby rendering a priori criteria useless. Good literary criticism cannot be overburdened with rigid criteria or methodologies or it risks being inflexible and totally unable to deal with its ever-shifting object. It needs to be reactive to the fact that some novels teach us how to read them. I don't think this means that literary criticism (of the best sort) is vague and obscurantist, but rather that is necessarily tenuous, provisional, open, generous, and essayistic. That's very far from the "this book is a masterpiece and a tour de force of blah fucking blah" mode of broadsheet literary reviewing.

In this instance, the writer just seems to be advancing the idea (entirely unremarkable as it is) that 'difficulty' or complexity is not intrinsically a sound criteria for judging books either as good or bad: good books can be difficult (and perhaps often are), but difficult books are not necessarily good. I wouldn't have thought it needed saying, but apparently it does. Tom Stoppard had a good line about this in one of his plays - where he compared good writing to a good cricket bat. So - you can use any old lump of wood to hit a cricket ball but it will hurt your hands and not work as well as using a cricket bat which will hit it further and with no pain. He (or more correctly, the character in the play) says that good writing does the same with ideas... Made me think of Father Ted, eponymous hero of the 1990s t.v. comedy series, who tried to impress a visiting novelist by putting unread books on display including Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and then had to fake his way through a discussion on its literary merits - funny scene as I recall it.

Pretending to have read more, seen more, done more etc than others is a literary trope that goes back to the earliest origins of literature, at least in the West and Middle East. Historians like Herodotus or geographers like Strabo all inflated their knowledge to further their own reputation and/or political agenda. ‘My library is bigger than your library’ seems to be a boast with a very long history - at least amongst men. I recall back at university very many moons ago, there was a hot shot ethics and social psych tutor, a rising star in academia. I had to visit his office to hand in a delayed essay "Does the existential critique of a common reality lead to nihilism?" I was impressed by his long wall-filling phalanx of books, more apparent than the other older, less shall we say mental-flame buoyant tutors. For some reason without really thinking before departing I inquired, "...a lot of books there, have you actually read them all?" His head snapped back over the shoulder, "NO! But I know what's in'em!!!" Ouch. "The Man Without Qualities was one of those books on display. Back then I used to dip in and out of novel (if I can call it that) regularly, this much thumbed paperback looked slightly tatty, and a good accompaniment on the metro. It was big too big for pockets, however, so it was best read in winter when I wore a big ex-army (Swiss) winter coat with deep pockets which it fits in to. I had bits I like best. The first pages. Then there were long bits that lost me and which I skimmed over. Now I think of it, most long books, maybe all, have bits which are best read fleetingly. The special strength of Musil is that as far as I'm concerned all is best read from a distance, fleetingly :) Over the years I learned the trick to reading "The Man Without Qualities" not to expect anything to happen. The first couple of times I read it, I found, for example, the absence of a clear definite plot quite a bore sometimes - and this goes on for longer than many a modern novel. But after a while it becomes utterly beguiling, the extraordinary rhythm the novel has, its magnificent scope, and above all the love that Musil has for all of us and everything - Ulrich takes every sin into himself and his characters, forgives them all and thereby forgives us. What makes it still enjoyable, for me, is all the intertwined thoughts, histories, references, asides, that make it like hearing someone very knowledgeable telling a long story while mentioning lots of things that happen to come to mind, while overall sticking steadfastly to the central thing, like the juggernaut.

I don't think you should be squeezing “TMWQ” into a two-week summer break; it's not that kind of a book - it's better to read it slowly over the course of a year. Each of the 3 volumes are door-stoppers, so if you just think of it as 3 novels to be read in a year it's not that much of a marathon. Anyway, if you haven't got into after a hundred pages or so then I doubt very much you will - though, of course, you might at a later date like me.

NB: First edition I read was in German, then I read the Portuguese edition translated by our most distinguished Germanist, João Barrento, and then in English. ( )
  antao | Dec 12, 2018 |
ALLIBISCO.
(Per un commento più utile rivolgersi altrove, io sono stupefatto da questo libro che reputo uno dei motivi per cui sono contento di essere al mondo!)
Mi spiace per quelli che non sono riusciti a sintonizzarsi. SI SONO PROPRIO PERSI QUALCOSA! ;-)
Sicuramente però mi sembra più probabile che sia un problema loro (e, pensandoci un po' di più, avrebbero potuto soppesare maggiormente le parole prima di stroncare questo libro come un Baricco qualsiasi) che non di Musil che con quest'opera è entrato nel Pantheon della letteratura mondiale di tutti i tempi. ( )
  downisthenewup | Aug 17, 2017 |
My first shot at TMWQ was almost twenty years ago. Fifty pages into it I knew it was my kind of book. One hundred pages in and I was losing my way. I put it aside for later. Returning to it a couple of years later, the experience was identical. And the patern continued again and again with the passage of time; each times I abandoned it, but not definitively. I had the feeling it was a book that could please me a lot. Here’s a revealing line from it:

one thing … could safely be said about Ulrich: he loved mathematics because of the kind of people who could not endure it.

Some months ago, in compiling a list of books for different occasions, I selected TMWQ for the honour of one book you’ve been meaning to read. Then it made it to the status of new year resolution.

Sadly, the saga ends here. After 800 pages, I’ve abandoned again. I can’t see myself getting back to it; it’s too big an undertaking.

So how was it? Great, amusing, provocative, ironic and dull by turns. The English, presumably consistently with the original German, is beautiful but not exactly vernacular. I found myself reading passages from it to friends and family and recording them in my blog. But it was too long and frequently too dull or, perhaps, too learned for me and so it’s official: I’m moving on with my life. It has been compared with James Joyce’s Ulysses and it has received the same fate on my bookshelf.
1 vote tchelyzt | Jul 15, 2017 |
A strange book, of over one-thousand pages but intriguing. What is life? What is reality? All juxtaposed in the waning days of the dysfunctional Austria-Hungary Empire. Warning: This book is unfinished! Don't expect things to be nicely wrapped up - just like life. ( )
  JVioland | Jul 14, 2014 |
I was very disappointed that, after having followed the story line for so long, and getting the feeling of finally getting somewhere, the book ended. I thought it was an interesting experience to read this book and follow the lenghty reasonings in the book. Robert Musil has a very precise and well-thought way of telling the story, but this makes the story occasionally very difficult to read. And in the end, he unfortunately never got the chance to finish the story. ( )
  JKoetsier | Jul 13, 2010 |
Showing 1-5 of 10 (next | show all)
In einer stark durch essayistische Exkurse und Reflexionen geprägten Prosa entfaltet Musil ein zeitgeschichtliches Panoptikum, das im Mikrokosmos des Romans den Übergang von der durch Aufklärung und Rationalität geprägten großbürgerlichen Gesellschaft zur modernen Massengesellschaft illustriert. Den Verwerfungen zwischen Individuum und Gesellschaft, welche diesen Prozess begleiten, gilt Musils Hauptinteresse.
added by bewogenlucht | editWikipedia-DE (Aug 20, 2015)
 
Musil's monumental novel contains more than 1,700 pages (depending on edition) in three volumes, the last of which was published by Musil's wife after his death. The novel is famous for the irony with which Musil displays Austrian society shortly before World War I. The story takes place in 1913 in Vienna, capital of Austria-Hungary which Musil refers to by the playful name Kakanien...
added by bewogenlucht | editWikipedia-EN (Aug 8, 2015)
 
Robert Musil hat sich mit seinem Hauptwerk eine möglichst umfassende Schilderung des menschlichen Lebens aufgebürdet, die ihr Hauptaugenmerk auf die unterschiedlichsten Gedanken seiner Zeit gerichtet hat. Im "Mann ohne Eigenschaften" finden wir den modernen Menschen in all seinen Widersprüchlichkeiten, in der längst vollzogenen Auflösung eines einheitlichen Glaubens, auf dem steinigen Pfad des Individualismus – und vor der unabwendbaren Katastrophe des Ersten und auch schon Zweiten Weltkrieges samt all seinem Grauen und seinen Gräueln (kühnere Historiker sprechen ja hier sowieso von einem zusammenhängenden Dreissigjährigen Krieg). Dass so ein Vorhaben im Ergebnis fragmentarisch bleiben musste, selbst wenn Musil 100 Jahre länger gelebt hätte, sollte auch dem am wenigsten wohlwollenden Kritiker klar sein. Was dem Leser jedoch bleibt, ist ein breit angelegter Roman voller philosophischer Tiefen, der ihm eine Welt eröffnet, in der er sich gänzlich verlieren kann, weil sie ihn in ihrer Intensität nur aufsaugen oder im Negativfall vollkommen unberührt belassen kann.
 

» Add other authors (65 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Robert Musilprimary authorall editionscalculated
Berger, WolframSprechersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cases, CesareForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Frisé, AdolfEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Frisé, AdolfEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hom, HansEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lesener, IngeborgTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pike, BurtonTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pike, BurtonEditorial consultantsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Radersma, JoEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rebhuhn, WernerCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rho, AnitaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Siebenscheinová, AnnaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wilkins, SophieTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Credo che tutti i precetti della nostra morale siano concessioni a una società di selvaggi.
«Vi sono persone con le quali il più grande degli eroi non avrebbe il coraggio di tacere».
Accesa la luce, i volti illuminati apparvero come venuti a galla, quasi ancora bagnati di oscurità.
… ciascuno può difendere le proprie idee con la vita, ma chi induce altri a morire per le idee altrui è un assassino!
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0394510526, Hardcover)

2 Volume Boxed Set

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:18 -0400)

A novel in four volumes on the dying culture of pre-World War I Vienna. The man without qualities of the title is Ulrich, a skeptical type who views with an amused eye all attempts by the rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to instill in their subjects the nationalistic fervor of neighboring Germany. The author died in 1942.… (more)

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