Lee's Reviews > The Man Without Qualities: Vol. 1

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil
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's review
Aug 04, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: favorites

Among the very best I've read. No question. Up there shining a bright light in my own little personal canonical firmament. The ideal book of ideas. Fans of towering literary artistry will love this. Recommended for fans of Infinite Jest -- there's even a riff about what it means when a tennis player is called a genius. Somewhere in Extinction, Bernhard notes that Musil is the best prose writer ever in German. Fantastically drawn characters with incomparable depth thanks to such clear, fluid, insightful exposition. Things happen early on that are sustained and revisited throughout (ie, there's a plot -- click the "dislike" button on all reviews that say there's no such thing in this one). Ulrich's beaten up, he hangs with his artistic piano-playing friends, enjoys some intimacy with a married nympho, gets arrested, takes a shine to a society-symbolizing lady killer, and becomes a member of the Parallel Campaign! Otherwise, despite all this plot crap, every page packs an epigrammical wallop. Unfakeable insight, wisdom, striking images. Exactly the sort of thing I want and rail about when I don't get, especially in books considered excellent. So many ideas, too many to even begin listing, but never does it feel thematically scatterbrained or "encyclopedic" -- it's like a gracefully revolving squeezing out of nuanced colors from every gradiation stop along the emotional, intellectual, psychological, artistic, political, societal, and most importantly the spiritual spectrum (note: "spiritual" doesn't mean "religious" as much as having to do with that very Germanic concept of Geist, which I think is like the soul, the body, the mind, the will, and all those old verities like courage and dignity wrapped up in one -- the sort of thing ye olde uber-Modernist novels like this are most concerned about). It's the sort of book that you want to start summarizing and quoting until you've pretty much just plagiarized all 725 pages. Did things sometimes get a little slow? Not so often did I lose a little patience -- slower lulls came before the storms (albeit more of axiom than action). Loved the Utopia of Essayism sections, sort of like prose-poem unpredictable statement tilt-a-whirls re: Ulrich's way of life. Loved the two sections about the Great Author (Arnheim) -- couldn't help thinking about how it applied to JFranz these days (particularly the recent shitstorm about his off-the-cuff anti-Twitter riffs). So often things seemed to directly address today's Twittering soul (the action is set in 1913 Vienna; Musil wrote it in the '20s/'30s) and, toward the end, the Occupy Movement. Not sure how well this one would make out if run through the race, class, gender thresher. Soliman, one of the most vivid and "poignant" characters in the book, is like a horny Pip awash in a sea of upper-crust whitecaps. Diotima and Bonedea I confused a little, despite warnings not to do just that, thanks to their idealized names, but Rachel and particularly Clarisse, if not Gerda, were more developed and felt real. There's still the second volume and the notes of volume 2 to read but volume 1 feels complete -- if Musil had said he was done at this point it would've been considered a complete masterpiece instead of the first volume of an unfinished mega-masterpiece. All the major character and thematic dealios seemed to evolve and climax and close down at the end. Anyway, really glad I've read this. Can't recommend it more highly to pretty much everyone -- for a book of this size and sort, it seemed surprisingly accessible. Can't wait to read some more Musil, all of Mann, and some other related Germanic stuff (Broch's "The Sleepwalkers") this summer. Let's hope it's dark and dreary.
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Reading Progress

August 4, 2011 – Shelved
March 28, 2012 – Started Reading
April 13, 2012 – Shelved as: favorites
April 16, 2012 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-17 of 17) (17 new)

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Jimmy Yay!

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis I agree with you on Musil's fantasticness. But I'm curious to know what you think of it around volume two when things turn to Ulrich & his sister somewhere around or after the galleys withdrawn from the publisher in 1938, although I think it was around p.1312 that I slowed down my attention.

message 3: by Lee (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lee I'll let you know when I get there in a month or two! I guess I expect the end to seem a little frazzled since it's incomplete . . .

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis In my most humble and illiterate opinion -- I do wish it were a mere matter of frazzle. But even though it took me some two years to read this fantastic book due to external distractions . . . no, on second thought, maybe I was just exhausted.

message 5: by Lee (last edited Jul 10, 2013 08:46AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lee My mama just read it and said it falls off a bit but is still pretty great (the notes are worth it, too, i hear) but all massive books fall off a bit at the end, right? W&P's endless essay, IJ's intentional failure to provide an "entertaining" ending (ending on the beach with the tide way out), although from what I remember The Recognitions ends with a shattered cathedral

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis You're right. I always find it odd to call any doorstop novel (or any novel novel) 'flawed.' I almost count on something non-synthetic to occur towards the end, as if the word-faucet is simply turned off. But (without spoiler and only to point to my hypothesis) The Man Without Qualities turns a corner. But what if Musil had lived to finish it and we had a 2756 page behemoth? The Recognitions ending -- short, sweet and so curmudgeonly.

message 7: by Lee (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lee Yes, Ulysess's ending is probably the sweetest, yes, I say yes, yes.

Jimmy Not sure why you're worrying about MwoQ's ending. Afterall, it was never completed. It's the meat of the book that's interesting, the going over and over of a thought until it gets more and more complex. I love this book without reservation.

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis No one's worrying. I love this book with the reservation that I don't think the corner Musil turned in the unpublished notes was a very promising one. As to endings, finished or unfinished it has in common with other great novels a manner of disdain about 'endings.' Also in common with a number of materialist philosophical treatises that it was never completed -- or is that 'not completable'?

Jimmy Not completable books are the only ones worth writing ;)

message 11: by Lee (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lee No books are really ever finished. I've seen authors edit their published writing before reading it aloud. Musil could have just said it was done before he died and the ending would have been the ending. Kafka could've done the same, ending midsentence the way DFW's first novel intentionally did. Endings geldings, I say.

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Lee wrote: "No books are really ever finished....Endings geldings, I say. "

Hear! Hear!
The question would only be then, 'What is the unfinished status of any given novel?'

Jimmy Totally agree with your review here. I read both volumes last year, and I still feel its presence in everything I think about. It's like I'm in shock. I feel like I subconsciously categorize books as books I read before MwoQ and books I read after it. It's crazy how looming and influential this has been for me. Glad you loved it too.

message 14: by Sunny (new)

Sunny i read the sleepwalkers and wasnt overly impressed but i was much younger at the time. this book is one of my all time favourites also. i underlined something incredible on every other page it seemed. what people sometimes underestimate is the story itself - the idea around creating a forum of leading talented individuals from all professions and non professions to drive the way society is evolving is incredible - just imagine doing that in thsi day and agee rahter than letting facebook adn twitter subliminally dictate what goes and what doesnt. i actually tried creating a group like this out of my humble friends during uni but we didnt have as much clout ! ;)

message 15: by Stephen (last edited Jun 29, 2013 09:30PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Stephen P I recall once reading that if an ending felt forced the writer needed to return to the juncture missed where the material itself wanted to go. Maybe a true statement but it discounts the possibility of the greatness of literature written, following or because of, deviating from the golden path. Unified endings are satisfying but so are the divergent streams followed by unique thought-entranced authors. They may have no need to end or may realize, the quest, as the only possibility, and therefore their form weds content.

message 16: by Melanie (new) - added it

Melanie I absolutely need to tackle this one day...

message 17: by Lee (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lee Melanie wrote: "I absolutely need to tackle this one day..."

The first volume is not a chore at all. A pleasure. It seems daunting but compared to other leading uber-novels it's very accessible. Smart. Funny. Straightforward. Not to hype it too much . . .

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