Still working on the list of books I read this year but number 1 was quite easy to decide. The Man Without Qualities has a forbidding reputation, mainly because of its length and the "difficulty" of ideas it tries to explore and also the fact that it remained unfinished. This book is in every sense a lebenswerk, Musil spent more than twenty years of his life writing it, and when death took him by surprise he still hadn't finished it. Some people are put off by the idea of the absence of closure, specially if the book is such a long one, but reading the novel makes it clear that there could have never have been an ending, at least not in the conventional sense. The book is itself about an impasse, about people and in fact the whole civilization finding itself up against a wall, with no way forward and tries to analyse why and how this came about. This is also the reason why the book has no conventional narrative to speak of - it is not a cross-generational saga about cycle of life, there are no "days-went-by" "winter-followed-summer" kind of linear story-telling. Geometrically if the narrative of a conventional realist novel feels like a straight line then MwQ would be a point, or may be a small circle. There are also no characters in the book you can identify at a surface level, first because there is very little description of their external behaviour, their looks, mannerism, ways of dressing etc and second, because they just belong to a different age. (Unless of course you are the kind of person who likes to gift or receive Complete Works of Nietzsche as a wedding present!) The people in the book belong to a completely different intellectual climate, radically different to our own. Many of these characters are actually based on real-life figures. Ulrich is of course an idealized self-portrait, the character of Arnheim was based the Jewish Foreign Minister of Weimar republic Walter Rathenau who was later assassinated by right-wing thugs, Walter & Clarisse (the Nietzsche couple) are both based on childhood friends of Musil. Diotima herself is modeled after a well-known Viennese society hostess which Musil used to frequent.
Rejection of narrative, well-rounded characters alongwith an absence of major events are only a few aspects of book's difficulty and its innovative style. Much more important is its language itself which is consciously "un-literary." There are no descriptions of nature, the hustle bustle of city life, nothing about weather. In fact it is only in the opening paragraph that we learn about the weather and the way Musil describes it, by taking it to satirical extremes, makes it clear what he thinks about such descriptive language. (I had excerpted it here alongwith an excellent podcast.) Seen from this perspective the length of the book feels even more daunting because it is so unlike the baggy monsters of so much of contemporary fiction, which routinely get called "epic" and "ambitious." So what is inside the book if not a story, events or descriptive language? It is actually written in the style of personal, speculative essay on social, cultural and philosophical questions. The book actually has a chapter which describes in detail what this "essayistic" style of writing really means. It is writing as thinking, writing as solving a problem. Ulrich is after all a professional mathematician. The key according to Musil is tentativeness, scepticism and irony and this is very difficult to achieve in a conventional realist writing, which is based on exact definitions and assertions. The speculative essayistic style also enables Musil to write about individual subjectivity without relinquishing the scientific-analytic position, which is itself the main subject of the book and which also makes it different from other modernist works of its time.
As for the actual philosophical content of the book, I did find it baffling initially since I am not well-read in philosophy, systematically or otherwise. The main philosophical spirit behind the book is Nietzsche but a good understanding of Plato, German philosophy in general and philosophy of science will also help in understanding all the discussions in the book. Ulrich, like Musil himself, is a thinker of Nietzschean bent. He doesn't long for a world of order, a world of false values and false meanings and false "qualities" imposed upon one's self by the outside world. He welcomes the destruction of all these as an opportunity for regeneration, of discovering new meanings and values which are consistent with his scientific worldview. It is true that we can no longer be sure of what is real and what is not but it also means that we now have a sense of "possible" rather than being imprisoned with just a sense of the "real." It means freedom and possibility of rediscovery and knowledge. Although towards the end, the book does get very confusing as Ulrich gets more and more depressed and turns inward alongwith his sister Agathe and frankly it didn't make a lot of sense to me and I was lost somewhere inside it. It was there too that I stopped reading it.
Not many know this but the book is actually very funny. It is essentially a work of satire. Musil's portrait of the Austrian bureaucracy will be familiar to any reader of Kafka. Kafka wasn't making it all up, the whole thing was really as byzantine and ridiculous as he had dreamed in his nightmarish fictions. Even funnier is his portrait of the intellectual class. Paul Arnheim, who is the main villain of the book though a very sympathetic one, wants to achieve "a union of soul and economics." Ulrich himself is a satirical self-portrait of the author. Diotima, like her Platonic namesake and philosopher of Love, is always talking about soul, spirit and the Great Idea even when she is thinking about the act of adultery, which she of course thinks in largely ethical and metaphysical terms. Musil makes her sound like someone out of a Woody Allen movie - think Diane Keaton in Love and Death. It is hilarious and written in a satirical manner but it is actually also a painful and touching portrait of excessive self-consciousness resulting in inaction and confusion. Alongwith Ulrich, Diotima is probably my favourite character in the book. The book actually has a sterling cast of female characters, though some would say that they are all creatures of male fantasies in the sense that they are all highly eroticised and are always discussed in sexual contexts. Funny and erotic, I think I have made a convincing case for the book!
Some personal thoughts about the book before I end the rambling post. The Man Without Qualities tapped into something that has been troubling me for a long time - how to reconcile a deeply ingrained rational and scientific attitude, even to the point of alienating self from the experience of life in the world, with a complete (or at least growing) lack of interest in the external world. Taking refuge in a purely private life is of course the result of not being able to act or take any decisions or make any sense of the confusions that living in the world entails but what is to be done? I have been thinking about the same thing most of the year ever since I read the book, and not surprisingly it is echoed in quite a few other books I read too. The Man Without Qualities didn't offer me any solutions or answers but it did made me realize that the problem is much more serious one. Will the impasse continue in the next year too? I hope not, but probably it will. May be I will reread the book then.