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The Passing of Old Europe

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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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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 an imperial capital ablaze with neon advertising, gridlocked with motor cars and fizzing with dangerous new ideas. This is the Vienna of Freud, Mahler, Schoenberg, Klimt, Schrödinger, Schumpeter, Wittgenstein . . . and Musil. It is the capital of the state that sparked the conflict that would define the course of the twentieth century. In a prison cell, awaiting judgement, sits Ulrich’s Jungian shadow: the startlingly modern figure of the sex-murderer Moosbrugger, with whom Clarisse is obsessed. An itinerant carpenter whose benign appearance belies his psychopathic crimes, this articulate autodidact has developed an elaborate theoretical justification of his actions. Like Ulrich, he considers himself beyond good and evil (Nietzsche lies just below the surface of the novel), and in that respect both embody their age. The gruesome details of his crimes send a shamefully pleasurable frisson through the newspaper-reading public. ‘If mankind could dream collectively,’ Ulrich thinks, ‘it would dream Moosbrugger.’ Milan Kundera has described Musil, along with Kafka, Hermann Broch, Jaroslaw Hašek and Witold Gombrowicz, as one of ‘the pleiad of great Central European novelists’. The Man without Qualities also belongs to a select group of novels, including Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Broch’s The Sleepwalkers, Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End and Joseph Roth’s Radetsky March, that psychoanalyse the condition of Europe on the brink of the First World War. Like his protagonist, Musil came from a military-scientific background. He made his name as a writer in 1906 with Young Törless, a short, sharp tale of bullying and buggery at a military academy. Brilliant though it is, nothing in it or the novellas and plays that followed could have led anyone to expect this gigantic novel of ideas. The title by which it is known in English is problematic, for Ulrich is not without qualities. Intelligent, handsome, athletic, cultured and urbane, he has them in abundance. The German title, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, is better translated as ‘the man without characteristics’. At 32, Ulrich is bored with life. Espousing a scientific, rationalist outlook, he despises ‘those who comfort their souls with. . . religious, philosophic and fictitious emotions’, because they cannot stomach the hard truth of the intellect. Yet, characteristic of his age, he also betrays an inclination towards mysticism. According to one of the chapter headings, he is ‘a man with all the qualities, but they are a matter of indifference to him’. It is precisely this indifference that makes him dangerous. Ulrich is finally propelled into action by a letter from his father, who discreetly suggests that he will cut off his son’s allowance if he doesn’t get a job. Against his instincts, Ulrich becomes involved, with the assistance of his high-minded cousin Diotima, in the Collateral Committee set up to plan the jubilee of the Emperor Franz Josef in 1918. The aged emperor has reigned since 1848 – the year of revolutions throughout Europe – but, like Musil and his original readers (the first volume was published in 1930), we know these festivities will never take place: Franz Josef will die in 1916 in the midst of the First World War, and by the end of 1918 his hapless successor Karl will have been dispatched into exile. As Ulrich steps through the fustian pomp of the Hofburg to be interviewed, it is the old Austria, not the new, that ensnares him. Musil has invented his own name for this mouldering empire: Kakania, derived from the initials K&K (Kaiserlich und Königlich – Imperial and Royal), used to denote everything official. It also makes playful reference to Kaka, German children’s slang for excrement. Diotima is in fact Ermelinde Tuzzi, the wife of a rising bureaucrat. When Ulrich meets her, she is having an affair with the Prussian financier Paul von Arnheim – as we already know, since Musil slyly affords us a glimpse of the pair enjoying a clandestine tryst in Vienna in the opening pages of the novel. Ulrich and von Arnheim become rivals for both control of the committee and Diotima’s affections. With Part III, the novel – and Ulrich’s life – enters a new phase. On the death of his father, he meets his sister Agathe, whom he has not seen for years. Their emotional and intellectual sympathy slowly, inexorably spirals towards forbidden love, and they set up home together. Agathe describes their attachment as ‘no longer a love story; it is the very last love story there can be’. (Musil himself was haunted by the knowledge that he had had a sister, who died in infancy before he was born.) While the endless deliberations of the Collateral Committee rumble on, the enduring image of this part of the book is of Ulrich and Agathe in the seemingly eternal stasis of their mystical union, moving their deckchairs around the lawn to follow the light like sunflowers. There the Wilkins-Kaiser translation breaks off, and what comes next remained a mystery to me for years. It is a curious reading experience. Most novels – even long, leisurely ones such as The Magic Mountain – accelerate towards their end. The Man without Qualities does the opposite, so that, as the book progresses, time appears to expand and the catastrophe that we, with the benefit of hindsight, know will come, is postponed indefinitely. It is like Zeno’s paradox, in which an arrow must travel half the distance, then half the remaining distance, then half that distance again, never reaching its target. ‘What the story that makes up this novel amounts to,’ Musil wrote in his notebook in 1932, ‘is that the story that was supposed to be told in it is not told.’ Musil struggled against the odds to complete the book. Shortly after Part III appeared at the end of 1932, the Nazis came to power in Germany. Musil, whose wife Martha was Jewish, was forced to relocate to Vienna, and his books were banned. In September 1938, after the annexation of Austria, the Musils fled to Switzerland, and he lost most of his readership, his income and many of his notes. That year, he submitted twenty chapters of Part IV to his publisher, but he withdrew them at proof stage. He was still revising them when he died suddenly in April 1942 of a cerebral haemorrhage while performing the morning gymnastics he kept up with fanatical rigour. His wife, who found him, said that he had a look of ‘mockery and mild astonishment’ on his face. Musil’s widow published the suppressed chapters in 1943. The Wilkins-Kaiser edition tantalizingly promised a further volume, but it never appeared. Then, in 1995, a new translation by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike was published. More literal in places than the earlier version, it lacks its lightness of touch but contains the posthumous chapters, along with a mass of sketches. It was a revelation. After the labyrinthine bureaucratic inertia of the second part and the idyllic, mystical interlude of the third, the fourth plunges us back into the world of action, with the increasingly ominous activities of the young proto-fascist Hans Sepp and a deranged plot to spring Moosbrugger from jail. Then, like a great continent, it breaks off into the sheer cliffs, jagged promontories and rocky islets of its unfinished – and sometimes mutually incompatible – fragments. If there is a challenge in getting through this mighty book, it is not its length, nor its reputed difficulty, but its sheer readability; it is richly comic, and each of its short chapters is so packed with ideas, insights and witticisms that one wants to reread and savour it. On to the great panoramic fiction of the nineteenth century, Musil has grafted the twentieth-century novel of ideas, subjecting an entire civilization to scientific and psychoanalytic examination. To this he adds the modernists’ attempts to capture the individual’s sensations of the swimming beingness of the moment, as did Proust, Joyce and Woolf. There are no heroes or villains among its rich dramatis personae; all of them, even Moosbrugger, act in a way that makes logical sense from their point of view. Their foibles, pretensions and delusions are laid bare with kindly amusement. Kundera has described The Man without Qualities as ‘a matchless existential encyclopaedia about its century; when I feel like rereading this book, I usually open it at random, at any page, without worrying what comes before and what follows’. With each rereading, it becomes more resonant. What we witness in its pages is not so much the demise of a ramshackle empire as the tumultuous birth of the era in which we live. Musil’s Kakania is the crucible in which the modern world was forged (think how much modern art, architecture, science, psychology and economic theory came out of Vienna). In his alienation, Ulrich is the precursor of modern man, possessing ‘fragments of a new way of thinking, and of feeling’. As Walter observes, ‘There are millions of them nowadays. It’s the human type that our time has produced.’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 40 © C. J. Schüler  2013


About the contributor

C. J. Schüler is the author of three illustrated histories of cartography, and reviews fiction in translation for the Independent and other publications: www.cjschuler.com.

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