Friday, May 21, 2010

The Man Without Qualities

Do certain books exist largely to remind us of our own intellectual inadequacies? If so, this one will do for me. So many writers I admire have raved over this novel that I long felt that it was practically my duty to read it, even back in the '70s when the only edition available in the US was the old Capricorn paperback that sneakily concealed the fact that it only contained a small fraction of the work Musil wrote.

I tried reading The Man Without Qualities three or four times over a period of years. Each time, after I had bogged down and given up, sooner or later I would come across another essay about the book that convinced me that it really was something I owed it to myself to finish. So I'd pick it up again, start from the beginning, and push ahead a little further than the last time, but in the end I never made it past the first section, "A Sort of Introduction." And that's as far as I'll go with it, I think. Either something's lost in translation or it's just too steeped in a fundamentally Central European sensibility for me to appreciate.

Anyway, back in the '90s I picked up the first two volumes of this Secker & Warburg set in a used bookstore. (As it happens, they were sold to the store by a friend of mine, whose name is still written inside them and who bought them in London in 1973.) I can't remember where I picked up the third -- probably at a book sale. The cover treatment on Volume 3, which was first published in 1960 and reprinted five years later, must be the original design. The earlier pair are reprints from 1966-67; the designer is Ian Miller and the figure in the cover photo, which looks like a still from some classic '50s or early '60s black and white British film, is unidentified but presumably not Robert Musil. There's a newer, more complete translation now, but I've never tried it.

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