Extraordinary criminal at the heart of the man without qualities.

Author:Normey, Rob

At our recent meeting of the Who Killed D'Arcy McGee History Club in the hospitable surroundings of the Russian Tea Room in downtown Edmonton we were discussing the early thrillers of Graham Greene, including his short novel The Third Man. Greene had written it after a journey to a bombed and shattered Vienna shortly after the war.

After our meeting, I thought back to my trip to Vienna a number of years ago, taking with me as my guidebook the first volume of Robert Musil's encyclopedic novel, The Man Without Qualities. Musil might be considered an odd choice for my guide, but in fact, his novel surely captured some of the beauty and contradiction and instability of pre-WWI Vienna. The Vienna of today lends itself to thoughts and imaginings of the glittering imperial capital that once existed, precisely at the point the novel captures so splendidly and insightfully--the eve of the cataclysm that was the First World War. Musil's never-completed work, stretching to three volumes, is multifaceted, leisurely and, like many other modernist novels, barely concerned with plot. Perhaps, it makes sense to refer to Musil's "pseudo-plot", which depicts the efforts of some of Vienna's political and cultural elite to plan a gigantic celebration of the pending 70th anniversary of The Hapsburg Emperor's ascension to the throne and rule over the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire. This Collateral Campaign leading up to the jubilee is set in the fateful year of 1913--readers know that the following year will destroy all hope for a celebration, and indeed, will by the end of the brutal four-year struggle of World War I, result in the total collapse of the Empire.

Ulrich, the main character, is our "man without qualities"--a brilliant but unfocussed member of the upper class: trained as a mathematician but taking a lengthy sabbatical from all practical concerns. He serves as the vital connection to another of the central themes of the novel, the role of the criminal defendant Moosbrugger. By de-emphasizing plot and revealing the characters and their thoughts, ruminations and absorption in the cause celebre of the Moosbrugger Affair, Musil offers penetrating insights with wit, irony and erudition. Vienna becomes a key location in which many of the themes of modernity are studied. The narrator takes us from the upper class salons of Diotima, Ulrich's name for his cousin (after the female Greek philosopher of love) who is a leader of the Collateral Campaign...

To continue reading