From the first page of The Man Without Qualities, it becomes clear that Robert Musil is likely to be employing a radical form of irony. Sometimes I read a passage and find it unsettling without being able to fully understand why that might be so. But it niggles and reverberates until I take the time to explore more deeply.
It could almost be a clichéd opening, describing the weather in great detail on “a fine day in August 1913”. But Musil then starts the second paragraph: “Automobiles shot out of deep, narrow streets into the shallows of bright squares”. Later in the paragraph we learn that Musil is writing of the Imperial Capital and Royal City of Vienna. He goes on to say, “Cities, like people, can be recognised by their walk”, which I like very much though I’m not entirely convinced,
This afternoon I’ve been comparing photographs and film of Vienna in 1910-1913 to the city during the 1920s and 1930s. In 1913 Vienna was the centre of a huge empire that covered 20% of Europe. Five years later the empire was dissolved and Vienna was the capital of a small republic. I’m reasonably certain that in 1913, Vienna was a city of electric trams, with horse drawn carriages more common than automobiles. Musil’s speeding automobiles and the trucks and ambulances that follow, make up a familiar landscape of urban sounds as written by the modernists of 1920s and 1930s but I suspect would be less familiar to the streetscape of 1913. The coming war brought the city for automobiles we are only beginning to recover from today.
It seems part of Musil’s project is to explore how the past is prefigured in the future, which plays a part in catalysing the personalities of those living through a particular period and set of events. Musil writes later, “It is reality that awakens possibilities, and nothing would be more perverse than deny it.” The world opened up by history, reverts to possibilities that await actualisation, what Musil later terms a sense of the possible. Possibilities persist until people bring them to life.
Half of pleasure of reading is trying to figure out what the writer is trying to do, especially with a novel as rich as The Man Without Qualities.
I can’t help it but this immediately puts me in mind of Walser, especially Berlin Stories, which is a flâneur’s evocation of a city. I know Musil was an admirer.
Musil is a very different writer than Walser and aside from these opening pages doesn’t spend a huge amount of time, so far anyway, narrating the city. They both employ a high degree of irony but this was not uncommon in Austria and Germany at the time, legacy of Goethe, and similar in Mann, to whom Musil is closer in style than Walser.