It was a passing reference in Robert Musil’s novel The Man without Qualities to ‘the oracular casting of lead that fate performs with us’ that jogged my memory. When I was a child, on New Year’s Eve, we would melt small lead ingots in a spoon over a candle flame, and drop the silvery liquid into a jug of water. The shape it assumed as it fell, hissing and steaming into the future, was said to predict what the coming year held in store. It is an old German tradition that my father, a refugee from the Third Reich, upheld.
I first read this great and mysterious classic of European literature in my twenties, seeking to understand more about my own Central European heritage. At the time, the only English translation available was the original 1950s version by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser, published by Secker and Warburg and reissued by Picador in three paperback volumes with edgy, Expressionist portraits by Egon Schiele on the covers. I was immediately transfixed.
The year is 1913. Ulrich, a former cavalry officer who has tried to make a career as a civil engineer and mathematician, returns to Vienna from his travels to take ‘a year out from his life’ while he decides what to do next. He embarks on desultory affairs with a nightclub chanteuse and a married woman who rescues him after a mugging, and becomes emotionally entangled with Clarisse, the highly strung wife of his artistic friend Walter, unwittingly opening a secret empty room in her psyche ‘where something tore at chains that might some day rend apart’.
The city in which the action takes place is not the picturesque old Vienna of Baroque churches and pastry shops, but a maelstrom of modernism. From his home in an old hunting lodge, now engulfed by the expanding metropolis, Ulrich looks out on to a violet-blue haze of petrol hanging over the tarmacked streets. Like Andrei Bely’s almost contemporary novel Petersburg, The Man without Qualities presents
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