X Close

The last gasps of a European empire An unfinished masterpiece set in imperial Vienna offers our MPs historical parallels — but no easy answers

A gala dinner in Schoenbrunn Palace given by Emperor Franz Joseph to honour members of his "Arcieren-Leibgarde" regiment in 1913. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

A gala dinner in Schoenbrunn Palace given by Emperor Franz Joseph to honour members of his "Arcieren-Leibgarde" regiment in 1913. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)


September 2, 2020   4 mins

As our politicians head back to Westminster, we asked our contributors: what should be on the cabinet’s reading list? What book might bring helpful insight regarding the coming challenges? Matthew Sweet recommends The Man without Qualities, by Robert Musil

 

Guys, it’s a big ask, I know. Some people who teach 20th-century literature for a living have never dared tackle The Man Without Qualities. It’s huge. Well over 1,000 pages long. You can’t vanquish it in a couple of afternoons by the pool. You might even have to put it on the nanny’s luggage allowance.

But don’t let that put you off. Even its author didn’t finish it. In April 1942, Robert Musil suffered a cerebral haemorrhage after his morning gymnastics. He was 62 and had been working on the novel for around two decades. His wife, who found him dead in the bathroom, reported that his corpse bore an expression of “mockery and mild astonishment”.

What happens in The Man Without Qualities? Nothing much. Characters have long and seductive conversations about the soul, bisexuality, the blossom in the garden. There are weather reports. A bit of incest looms in the last few hundred pages, but Musil’s final workout prevented its consummation. It lacks a few other things, too. It doesn’t take place across a great span of time and space — Musil gives you a year in Vienna, starting in the summer of 1913. There’s no big cast of characters of the sort you find in Proust or Dickens. Ulrich, the title character, isn’t a tragic hero, but a privileged and directionless dilettante with a background in mathematics, a married mistress and a slightly misguided philanthropic interest in a sex murderer called Moosbrugger.

But it’s Ulrich’s job that will repay the attention of anyone in power. He is honorary secretary of the Parallel Campaign, a grand project established to celebrate the 70-year jubilee of Emperor Franz Joseph. It is complex, demanding, a salient matter of state, and completely futile.

Ulrich and his fellow appointees have their work cut out for them. They must decide questions such as “What is true patriotism, true progress, the true Austria?” They must plan a series of spectacular events that will form “a glorious demonstration of vitality”, a “mighty stride forward into the outside world, which would at the same time have a salutary influence on conditions at home”. Most of the committee are content to congratulate themselves simply for saying such things aloud. Ulrich is more insightful. He knows the process will produce nothing. But he doesn’t know what we know: even if these nationalist assertions meant anything, or were possible to realise, the state being celebrated will shortly be dissolved by violent forces beyond its control.

If you’d read this book five years ago, you might have found it comforting. It’s a portrait of a vast, overcomplicated and doomed European entity, fond of long discursive meetings. Plenty to engage a Brexiteer of the sanguine or faint-hearted variety. But this is a modernist masterpiece. If it makes you feel good about yourself, then you’re not reading it properly.

So what are you supposed to draw from it? Don’t take the title as an insult to the PM — Polly Toynbee may have described Boris Johnson as “a man without qualities, devoid of public spirit or regard for anyone but himself … a man to shame the country as its figurehead.” But this is unMusilian: to be without qualities is not a state of moral and intellectual poverty. That’s too easy. Musil is a funny writer, but he’s not an easy one. His protagonist is no self-serving charlatan. Ulrich is possessed of great philosophical and spiritual capital. He knows about history, meteorology, criminology, Buddhism, Leibniz. This wealth, however, remains inconvertible: Ulrich’s command of detail, his passion for ideas, his sensitivity to subtlety and scruple, have brought him to an impasse with himself. And yet, Musil does not ask us to condemn his position, nor even to regard it as an error of judgement.

Told you it was difficult.

That difficulty, though, is why I’d urge the book upon you. The Man Without Qualities is a novel about negotiating a relationship with your historical moment. Ulrich’s moment is one of the classics. Pre-war imperial Vienna, where everyone seems fit for some couch-time at Berggasse 19, and not for the mud and the bullets to come. And yours? Well, 2020 might also turn out to be one of those years. Your country is estranged from her neighbours, uneasy with a US president as capricious as a syphilitic Hapsburg, and authorities unaddicted to two-thumbed boosterism have judged its official response to the coronavirus pandemic to be world-beatingly poor.

Here, though, is a kind of consolation. Musil shows us that the world is too complex to be completely understood or mastered, and that it is foolish to pretend otherwise. If a phrase such as  “take back control”, “super-forecasting” or “oven-ready” was inserted into The Man Without Qualities, you could imagine it shrivelling to death on the page. It’s a book that encourages you to express self-doubt and to have some cognisance of your limits. Because even if you can’t see them, others will. This is why Ulrich, despite his paralysis, is hard to despise. He can’t see the catastrophes to come, but when they do arrive to shake his little knot of nations to pieces, they will not find him in a dreamworld built of empty phrases.

So start it. Get halfway through the first volume, maybe. Skip a few pages, leave it behind in the holiday home, possibly not by accident. That’s completely fine. Failure is an option here. It might be the only option.


Matthew Sweet is a broadcaster and writer. His books include Inventing the Victorians and Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers and Themselves.

drmatthewsweet

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

22 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
williamritchie2001
williamritchie2001
3 years ago

It is a fine novel though for me the indispensable book about the end of the empire is ‘The Radetsky March’ by Joseph Roth. A wonderful elegy on family and loss.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Funnily enough I finally got around to ‘The Radetsky March’ by Roth a couple of years ago, having read a lot of his non-fiction/journalism. (Roth is one of the very few people whose journalism is still interesting and readable 100 years later).

I also read the first value of ‘The Man Without Qualities’ a few years a go. The Parallel Campaign is very funny. It reminded me of the vast, empty nonsense of the Millennium Dome. Of course, ‘The Good Solider Sjek’ is essential – and hilarious – reading when it comes to that that time and place, and I recently read a biography of Wittgenstein that taught me a little. Then there’s the guy who wrote the short story on which some parts of ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ is very loosely based (according to the scriptwriter), and of course Rilke emerged from the AH empire around this time. That little lot should keep y’all busy for a few weeks.

Anyway, I wish I could get paid (are Unherd writers paid?) to write about all the books I have read. I would be set up for life!

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Good Soldier Svejk ???
Sadly only one uptick! You deserve 10.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Thanks. Surely this book should be taught in schools as it manages to be extremely entertaining while carrying a serious message and teaching a bit of history. Even 15 or 16 year old boys could get into it.

Sadly, I don’t suppose anybody in our educational infrastructure has even heard of it.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

You should check out “The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin” – it is a bit more depressing because it is Russian.
I once visited Tirana (Albania) for a weekend (don’t go). Someone had painted Svejk in a telephone (?) control box . That made the trip worth it.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Readers, don’t let Jeremy Smith put you off going to Albania. I was there last year. Tirana itself is a bit melancholy – though even there, they were brightening up the streets and adding water features to the main square, and the cafe culture was very lively. But the mountain landscapes are as stunning as any in Europe, Berat is one of the world’s most picturesque small towns, the castles are imposing, the surviving medieval churches have glorious frescoes, the Ottoman-era mosques are cute, the classical ruins are evocative, the food’s lovely and living costs are cheap. I’d say go now before it becomes like everywhere else.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Mosques everywhere? I’m going to Cornwall now before it becomes like Albania.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago

I said Tirana as in the city, not Albania as in the countryside.
Gjirokastra is better than Berat (visited both btw)

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Yes, many people share your preference, but I didn’t think so myself; the setting of Gjirokaster straggling up the hillside is quite amazing, but the architectural heritage there is less coherently preserved. The old parts of Berat are more homogeneous. Still, they’re both extraordinary places!

I was quite taken by the Stalinist-era grandeur of central Tirana. The suburbs are depressing.

williamritchie2001
williamritchie2001
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Since we’re on the topic another writer of that era deserves a mention- Gregor Von Rezzori- a brilliant observer of the rise of fascism and the collapsing world of the ancien regime.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Radetsky March is indeed tremendous. I’ve not read Man Without Qualities, but I did admire Musil’s chilling earlier (and much shorter) novel Young Torless, a few years back.

“I wish I could get paid (are Unherd writers paid?) to write about all the books I have read. I would be set up for life!” Unherd actually does need a proper cultural correspondent, I’d say. You get occasional pieces by writers who usually focus on politics, but there should be a regular slot on literature – and the arts in general.

Maybe we can both apply?

E. E.
E. E.
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

“Then there’s the guy who wrote the short story on which some parts of ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ is very loosely based (according to the scriptwriter)”

That would be Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler, and yes, Eyes Wide Shut is based on that novella.

Alan Girling
Alan Girling
3 years ago

“Musil shows us that the world is too complex to be completely understood or mastered, and that it is foolish to pretend otherwise.” This seems to me to be the essence of conservative thinking, along with the obvious desire to ‘conserve’. Because one reason to conserve is our inevitable ignorance of the consequences of change. One might say the motivation is merely fear of the unknown, which prevents needed reform or improvement. Yes, true to some extent. But it also contains a wise humility, an understanding of natural limitations, that change based on philosophies that claim to ‘know’ the good from the bad, and exactly what the results will be if implemented, is doomed to failure. In other words, any change that comes from our natural liberal impulses should always be rooted in a respect for what already is.

matthewspring
matthewspring
3 years ago
Reply to  Alan Girling

All true. And all of this was lost on the intolerant middle-class radicals who drove the French Revolution forward and off the rails, creating the disastrous train-wreck that we know as the ‘Terror’.

Julian Hartley
Julian Hartley
3 years ago
Reply to  Alan Girling

Have you read War and Peace? Tolstoy argues at great length, through the Russian general Kutuzov, for this philosophy of the nigh-impossibility of meaningful individual control over events.

Alan Girling
Alan Girling
3 years ago
Reply to  Julian Hartley

No I haven’t, thanks. Sounds very Tolstoy to communicate ideas like that.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago

I haven’t read the book so I can not comment on it but I would like to point out that there is a new school of history that questions the (100 year old) position that the AH Empire was doomed.
Despite ethnic conflicts (overwhelmingly peaceful) by most metric of human and economic development index the AH was performing quite well. It took a catastrophic war that destroyed the empire in the end. It destroyed Russia and broke Germany and France.
I would guess (and it is just a guess) that if UK had suffered the same casualty rate as France it would have broken UK too.

williamritchie2001
WR
williamritchie2001
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Had the empire not annexed former Ottoman territories in the Balkans it would have been more inherently stable. The looming issue before 1914 was Czech pressure for a tripartite imperial model, anathema to the Hungarians.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago

True, but Germans/Austrians wanted that – if I remember my history correctly. Franz Ferdinand wanted to give more rights to Czech (Slavs). And since the Czech elite was highly Germanized…
Serbian expansionism in Bosnia would have been unacceptable to Muslims and Croats. Serbia also tried to annex Northern Albania to get access to the Adriatic. Austria and Italy opposed that move.

williamritchie2001
williamritchie2001
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Granting the Czechs equality would probably have meant a showdown with Budapest. Franz Ferdinand famously hated the Hungarians and looked to reduce them. Had he survived that issue would have defined his career.

E. E.
E. E.
3 years ago

I did read Musil’s magnum opus a number of years ago – in its entirety! I was immensely impressed, and parts of the novel were so brilliant I still remember them (this is remarkable because I have a terrible memory). However, I did find it quite tedious at times, though I think it’s well worth the effort. Robert Musil is more of a literary philosopher than a novelist. He took literature so seriously he broke off relations with Elias Canetti because the latter had dared to send a letter to Thomas Mann – in Musil’s view, Thomas Mann was too lightweight an author to spend time on! I cannot imagine how anyone in the cabinet would find the time to read this novel, let alone to enjoy it.

I can offer my own recommendations when it comes to world-on-the-eve-of-catastrophe books. The Good Soldier Svejk has already been mentioned, and it is an excellent choice (curiously, that novel was never completed either). I can also recommend:
1. The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig (it’s not a novel, but there it is).
2. The Memoirs of Elias Canetti (also not a novel, but the final volume deals with the years leading up to WWII).
3. The Leopard by Lampedusa (this one is more of a novel about the loss of one’s world and traditions, but it is no less pertinent).

Val Cox
Val Cox
3 years ago

“You might even have to put it on the nanny’s luggage allowance” WTAF