The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil (Shane's book 41, 2011)

Well, I finished The Man Without Qualities, which is more than its author managed to do. Robert Musil died in 1942, aged 61, a mere 21 years after he began writing this mammoth book. The published edition runs to more than 650,000 words and it's thought that the finished work would have been twice as long. I suspect that Musil would never have finished, even if he had lived until 81, or 101, or 181. The book would just have gone on and on and on.

There isn't much of a story here. Ulrich, the 'man without qualities', is disconnected from life. Having spent time as a poet, a soldier and, more recently, a mathematician, he has come adrift. His father suggests that he take a job as secretary to a count, which leads to his involvement in a committee charged with organising a celebration to mark the Austrian emperor's 70th anniversary.

The book is considered a 20th century classic, a modernist landmark to rank alongside Proust's The Remembrance of Things Past and Joyce's Ulysses. If you read James's 26 Books review, you'll find that this is his favourite novel. I'm afraid I cannot find the appeal at all.

This is a novel of ideas, a book about nationalism, morality, crime, justice, family, art, intellectualism, commerce, philosophy, militarism, sexual deviance, pacifism, mental health, society, the media and love. Had Musil lived, he would probably have gone on to cover umbrellas, chagrin and sausages too, for all I know. It's a book about everything and that's pretty much my problem with it.

The Man Without Qualities is like a map of the world in 1:1 scale or a gigantic photograph in which everything is in focus. It feels like there is no discernment. A work of art is more about what you leave out than what you put in and Musil seems unable to leave anything out. By attempting to say everything, he ends up not saying anything.

For 700 pages or so the book meanders. The long deliberations of the committee, which is led by Ulrich's cousin, are satirised mercilessly. Having established that the committee is foolish and peopled by fools, Musil then goes on to repeat the point in various ways for hundreds and hundreds of pages. I found it hard to care. There is no emotion to connect to, just a series of abstract intellectual ideas that are ultimately meaningless.

After about 800 pages the book becomes more compelling. Ulrich's father dies and he travels back home to settle affairs. There he meets his sister, Agathe, from whom he has been estranged for some time. They find a deep connection that draws them together and, since they are siblings, also makes them uncomfortable. Suddenly Ulrich seems to have found the meaning that he was looking for but it is forbidden to him. He and his sister are two halves that can never be properly whole.

The pair alter their father's will so that Agathe's husband is disinherited. Her marriage had been an unhappy one and she planned to leave him anyway. Ulrich becomes consumed with the question of whether their action was justifiable.

It's here that Musil's obsessive attention to the tiniest detail of intellectual process finally finds a worthy target. There is emotional weight to this dilemma. What Ulrich and Agathe have done is illegal but is it also immoral? That question finds a parallel in their relationship.

This is compelling in a way that a satire about a committee can never be, at least for me. About three hundred of the final four hundred pages in this book could be edited into a wonderful novel.

And what of the rest? I've tried to understand what people see in this book but I remain puzzled. The blurb on the back of my copy says: "There is scarcely a page that does not provide new thoughts or offer new insights."

It's certainly true that there are plenty of insightful passages and thought-provoking sections here but they are diluted amid the pages of detailed examination of nothing of consequence. Worse, Musil devotes equal time and energy to expounding ideas that are just nonsense.

Here's Arnheim, a wealthy German industrialist who worms his way onto the committee, considering money:

"And the same is true of morality: if our acts were unrepeatable then there would be nothing to be expected of us, and a morality that could not tell people what was expected of them would be no fun at all. This quality of repetitiveness that inheres in the workings of the mind and morality inheres also, and to the highest degree, in money. Money positively consists of this quality. As long as it keeps its value, it carves up all the world's pleasures into those little blocks of purchasing power that can then be combined into whatever one pleases. Money is accordingly both moral and rational; and since we all know that the converse is not the case, i.e., not every moral and reasonable person has money, we may conclude that money is the original source of these qualities, or at least that money is the crowning reward of a moral and rational life."

That "no fun at all" is wonderfully placed and is indicative of the frequent brilliance of Musil's writing. However, the argument itself is obviously nonsense. Of course money isn't a moral and rational force, any more than trousers or bassoons are. We can see the flaw in Arnheim's argument immediately. He's a fool - and given that he's supposedly a respected author, Musil is implying that Arnheim's readers are fools too. But why spend so long unfolding a worthless argument?

Every single character has these obsessive, laborious thought processes. In Ulrich's case, the ideas are most often interesting and illuminating, though by no means always. Other characters are almost always talking - or thinking - nonsense. At great length. It becomes tiresome very quickly.

There is no shortage of critics far more learned and well-read than me who will tell you that this book is a masterpiece. If you are curious then you should probably make up your own mind. I can't recommend it.