When the first volumes of The Man Without Qualities appeared in 1930-33 it was hailed as the representative work of its time. It has since been recognized as one of the great novels of the century and has been placed besides works like Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (À la recherche du temps perdu) and Joyce's Ulysses. Like a platonic dialogue this novel is as much concerned with understanding the world as it is with telling a story. It strives everywhere towards the typical and general and, for this purpose, takes into the process of story-telling a wealth of ideas and problems from philosophy, psychology, ethics, and science.
The title of the book is derived from the definition of its protagonist, Ulrich. A typical product of the modern crisis of identity, he finds that his character is merely an intersection of impersonal qualities (derived from his membership of a particular nation, profession, sex, etc.) accidentally acquired during the course of his life. Thus he calls himself a `man without qualities'. The formula, however, contains not only a threat but also a promise. Together with the principles of experiment, essayism, and irony, they form the basis of an essential openness and fluidity in his approach to the world. The story is of a quest for an authentic self and a true morality. Ulrich, taking stock in his 30th year, decides to take a year's holiday from life. His individual quest is submerged into a general one when he becomes the honorary secretary of a patriotic committee with the aim of finding a guiding idea for the 70th jubilee of the rule of the emperor of Kakania—from `k. und k.', referring to `kaiserlich und königlich', imperial and royal—the quasi-historical equivalent of the Austro-Hungarian empire, but just as much an analogy of any modern state, since Musil's intention was always to write a topical novel (a Zeitroman) developing out of a historical novel.
The fact that the year just happens to be 1913, the last year before World War I, and the celebration of the `emperor of peace' is planned for 1918, puts the whole personal and general enterprise into an ironic frame, apart from giving it a certain sense of urgency. The world presents itself as a chaos of undigested ideas and unresolved contradictions which inevitably seem to lead into the war. The hero's general stocktaking allows Musil to introduce a spectrum of figures representative of the social and intellectual trends of the times: from the aristocrat who believes that everything can in the end be accommodated in the old order, to the revolutionary socialist, from the elegant Jewish industrialist and writer to the crude National Socialist agitator, and from the follower of the Nietzsche cult to the moral do-gooder.
Far from being a dry intellectual exercise, the novel shows Musil as a sparkling satirist, lacking neither warmth nor venom, and possessed of a skill of character drawing which includes such gems as the general `with special cultural responsibilities', drawing up a strategic plan of the confusing array of modern ideas. Many of the figures are, in part, based on characters from public life or Musil's circle of acquaintances, for example, his fellow writer Franz Werfel appears thinly disguised as the expressionist poet Feuermaul, the darling of the salon, and co-formulator of the final contradictory resolution of the patriotic committee.
The breadth of Musil's achievement can be gauged from the fact that he can give a pertinent satiric description of a high level conference as well as finding the delicate touch for the portrayal of a mystical love relationship. While the first book is given over more to satire, the second book (entitled: `Into the Millenium', subtitled, `The Criminals') enters into the description of the relationship between the protagonist and his sister. All his other love relationships are found wanting in one sense or another. Love in The Man Without Qualities is explored from many angles. From the portrayal of the excesses of the nymphomaniac to a send-up of the pretentious quasi-mystical union of two self-important people, from the Socratic investigation of feelings to the utopian union between hero and the figure constructed, as it were, as a negative of the self in the other sex: the sister, the twin, the Siamese twin.
The novel is structured in individual chapters which allow the author to emphasize the principle of analogy and variation. All the characters and all relationships—in the system of ironic reflections—bear a resemblance to the protagonist's. They are all looking for a guiding idea or a state of `enthusiasm' in which their existence would become truly `moral' but all is revealed as illusory—until Ulrich embarks, with the consciousness of the post-Nietzschean vivisecteur—on the dangerous path of the mystics to experience the `ultimate love-story' between the `last Romantics of love'.
Where exactly this `adventure' was to lead the hero is unfortunately uncertain, since Musil did not complete his novel. In his lifetime only Book One and a part of Book Two (38 chapters) were published. A further 20 chapters were given to the printers but then withdrawn again (1937-38) and Musil died in exile from the Nazis in Switzerland while still working on a revision. The last chapter he was working on entitled `Atemzüge ...' seemed particularly to absorb him. It is taken by some critics as a kind of testament, even a kind of conclusion, of the novel in its portrayal of sublimated spiritual love, as brother and sister feel mystically united while sitting in their garden meditating on the spectacle of blossoms floating down. Other critics have disputed this and refer us to the earlier drafts and plans which Musil did not have time to complete but which would have taken him on to a `Journey into Paradise' where their union was to be physically consummated and finally, as with the hero in Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, would have dismissed him into World War I, where he was to become a spy.
The English translation of the book is based on an edition published in 1952 in which the editor had attempted to reconstruct and round off Musil's fragments, using drafts from different periods and going back to the early 1920s. The newer critical edition in Gesammelte Werke, 1978, gives a much truer, more scholarly—though less easily digestible—picture of the state of the posthumous section of this tantalizing torso. It is hoped that a new translation based on this edition will soon be available.