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.

Open Doors and Three Novellas by Leonardo Sciascia (Shane's book 6, 2011)

To describe Leonardo Sciascia as a crime writer might be to do him a disservice. From the evidence of these stories at least, his concerns are more literary than those of a typical genre writer; he is more interested in examining the motives and desires of those committing and investigating crime than he is in detailing whodunnit and how. [amtap book:isbn=0679735615]

That said, to elevate Sciascia above the genre simply because he is more literary is probably to perpetuate the stereotype that genre writing cannot be literary writing. Of course if one defines 'genre fiction' to mean 'non-literary fiction', and many do, then it is obviously true that there can be no overlap between the two but such a definition could be just such an example of the lazy stereotype.Depending on your view, Sciascia either writes literary fiction about crime or crime fiction with literary preoccupations. In truth, it doesn't really matter which.

Though most of Sciascia's fiction was written in the Sixties and Seventies, after which he focused on essays, he returned to the crime genre towards the end of his life and wrote the four novellas in this volume.

The title story is set in Palermo under Mussolini and tells of a judge who has to decide whether to give a death sentence to a man accused of murdering three people, one of whom was an important local fascist. Though the man is unquestionably guilty, the judge does not want to impose the death penalty even though he knows that failing to do so would damage his career. Furthermore, a higher court would in all probability overrule his decision and sentence the man to death anyway. Thus his dilemma is irrelevant in practical terms but it is the moral question that Sciascia explores in fascinating depth: should you stick to what you believe is right even when doing so is pointless?

The second story, Death and the Knight, was written in 1988 - a year before Sciascia died - and deals with a terminally ill policeman who is caught in a murder investigation that is crippled by corruption. Sciascia's interest is in the detective, rather than the investigation.

A Straightforward Tale follows and it is indeed straightforward. A diplomat is found dead in his remote house but what appears to be a suicide does not make sense, leading a police Brigadier to dig further and expose a murder. Sciascia highlights the rivalry between the local police and the Carabinieri and leaves the ending somewhat open but this is still the most conventional story in the book.

The first two stories both contain lots of historical detail that is probably well known to Italians but which will not be obvious to foreign readers. Sciascia often delivers this detail in a style that feels better suited to an essay than a novella and this is particularly true in the final story, 1912+1. Here Sciascia examines a celebrated murder case from 1913 and proposes his own solution. This is more like a speculative essay than a novella and I found it the least effective story in the book, though perhaps a lack of historical knowledge played a part there.

All four novellas are preoccupied with injustice and corruption. There are no comfortable endings to be found. Though this is something that gives the stories a literary feel, it's also a fairly common feature of the Italian crime genre. Sciascia's writing, thoughtful and philosophical, transforms these themes into art.

The Erasers by Alain Robbe-Grillet (Shane's book 36, 2010)

I was part of the way through this book when I realised that Alain Robbe-Grillet wrote the screenplay for Last Year at Marienbad, a film that is widely considered a classic but remains without doubt the most boring film I have ever seen. I saw it in the cinema so I had no way of knowing when it would end and I swear I actually started to hurt with boredom.

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Thankfully, The Erasers is much better, though it's more like an intellectual and philosophical exercise than a novel. Robbe-Grillet deconstructs the detective story in this cryptic and faintly humorous book.

The plot is reminiscent of Borges, with Wallas, a police inspector, traversing a labyrinthine town in search of a murderer. What Wallas doesn't know is that the murder attempt was unsuccessful but the intended victim, Daniel Dupont, has faked his death so as to thwart any further attempts on his life.

As Wallas pieces things together - all the while trying to buy himself an eraser - the plot remains one step ahead of him and Robbe-Grillet brings things to a pleasingly surprising conclusion.

The chronology of the novel is broken up and events repeat oddly - sometimes identically and sometimes with subtle differences. It is, as I say, something of an intellectual exercise with no real emotional impact but that was partly Robbe-Grillet's objective. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in stylistic experiments in fiction and in the wilder reaches of the detective novel.

The Day Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko (Shane's book 25, 2010)

This is the second part in a four-part series of fantasy novels that chronicles the battle between Light and Dark magicians - known as the Others - in Moscow. The two sides are in a long stand-off that parallels the Cold War and Lukyanenko brings elements of the spy novel into these books. There's also an amusing mundanity to the lives of the magicians, who are worn down by paperwork and admin. [amtap book:isbn=0099489937]

I read the first part, which focuses on the Light magicians, a couple of years ago. This second part turns its attention to the Dark side. Perhaps it's simply a case of diminishing returns or maybe I was just not in the right mood, but I didn't enjoy this anywhere near as much as the first novel.As with the first novel, Lukyanenko splits the book into three short stories, which gradually prove to be linked - each is part of a grand move on the part of Zabulon, who leads the dark magicians. Zabulon is head of the Day Watch, which monitors the Light magicians to ensure that they do not break the terms of the treaty that keeps the two sides in stalemate. In turn, the Dark is kept in check by the Night Watch.

In the first story Alisa Donnikova is sent to a youth camp near the Black Sea to recuperate after an operation in which she drained her powers. Alisa falls in love with someone who turns out to be a Light magician. It's fairly lightweight but picks up at the end with a surprising twist.

That story is followed by one in which a mysteriously powerful Other, Vitaliy Ragoza, comes to Moscow. Ragoza has no idea of who he is or where he has come from but turns out to be highly dangerous. The third and final story deals with an investigation into the events of the first two stories and the resulting trial. During the trial we discover a little more about what happened at the end of the first book and find out some of the details of the machinations that have driven events in this book.

It's all fairly silly. Lukyanenko is at his best when revealing the plots of Zabulon and his rival Gesar - the two magicians are constantly planning two or three moves ahead, like chess players, and unpicking their plans is fascinating. At his worst, though, he gets bogged down in sentimentality and resorts to lyrics from Russian heavy metal songs to convey emotion. That's not even as good as it sounds, believe me.

It's entertaining enough but I'm in no rush to read book three.

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco (Shane's book 15, 2010)

"Beware of faking, people will believe you." The power of fiction, the need to create and, most of all, to believe something are all key themes in Foucault's Pendulum, Eco's second novel. It's a kind of intellectual Da Vinci Code, one that piles conspiracy theory upon conspiracy theory but always with tongue in cheek.

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The book opens with Casaubon, an Italian intellectual and publisher, hiding in a Paris museum at night waiting for a mysterious group who, he thinks, have kidnapped his colleague, Belbo. While he waits he considers the events leading to this point and we drift into flashback. Eco layers the flashbacks, creating a labyrinthine narrative with frequent digressions into the history of assorted medieval sects, the occult and extracts from Belbo's aborted attempts to write fiction.

Casaubon, Belbo and their colleague Diotallevi work for a small publishing house that deals with a lot of manuscripts from conspiracy theorists. They term these authors "the Diabolicals" and at first mock them. Later they have the idea of coming up with their own conspiracy theory, one that combines all of the crazy theories that cross their desks. What starts as an amusement eventually becomes something that they take more seriously and becomes dangerous once they realise that there are groups out there who believe that the trio really have uncovered a secret.

"Dan Brown is one of the characters in my novel," Eco told the New York Times in 2007. Life is too short to read books by Dan Brown so I can't speak from experience here but I'd guess that the difference between the two books is that Eco seeks to satirise and deconstruct conspiracy theories while Brown seeks to titillate. Eco fills pages with arcane references and history and after a while I stopped wonder what was true, what was legend and what he had invented. It doesn't matter - the content of the conspiracies is not the point of the book.

There is genuine tension in places and quite a lot of comedy but mostly this is an intellectual adventure concerned with the love of books and the pleasure of knowledge. It's also a pleasingly ironic exploration of worlds within worlds, reminiscent of Borges. It's a lengthy read but nowhere near as inaccessible as it might appear at the outset.