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.

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov (Shane's book 19, 2011)

This was Nabokov's first novel in English. It can be read as the story of one man's search for his brother, a novel about literature or a post-modern intellectual puzzle. However you choose to approach it, it functions brilliantly as all three and it's a worthy addition to my mini-exploration of post-modern and experimental fiction. [amtap book:isbn=0141185996]

The book's narrator, known only as V, is writing a biography of his half brother, the noted author Sebastian Knight. V feels that Knight, a Russian who made his name writing in English, has been unfairly treated in a recent biography and plans to set the record straight.

V was not close to Knight so he has to piece together his half-brother's life from the little he knows and from the reminiscences of others. He travels across Europe to gather his material and spends a lot of time trying to track down the mystery woman who, he has become convinced, was the love of Knight's later years.

Explaining the post-modern aspect of this book requires a couple of spoilers so skip the next paragraph if you'd rather not know too much about how things develop.

As V's journey unfolds, he offers summaries and reviews of Knight's novels. These books are strikingly similar to aspects of V's journey, raising the question of what is really going on here. Does Knight exist at all or is he a character V has invented? Or are we in fact reading one of Knight's books, in which V is an invented character? The third possibility, is that both V and Knight exist and that V is, whether consciously or not, echoing his half-brother's novels in his narration.

Nabokov's writing is wonderful throughout. He creates a set of compelling characters and their story is fascinating. Equally brilliant are his parodies and imitations of other styles. In particular, the book reviews he 'quotes' are hilarious.

This is an excellent book and, I'm ashamed to say, the first Nabokov I've read. It won't be the last.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (Shane's book 13, 2010)

Published in 1930, William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying follows Anse Bundren, his sons and daughter on their journey to bury Addie, Anse's wife and the childrens' mother. The story is a patchwork of the viewpoints of 15 different characters, each of whose 'narration' is simply a stream-of-consciousness monologue. The effect is as entrancing as it is bewildering. [amtap book:isbn=0099479311]

While there is much to admire in the novel - the strong evocation of place, for example, and the ear for country vernacular - it's the unusual narrative technique that makes the greatest impression. Faulkner makes the reader work hard; his characters do not provide helpful recaps of prior events or of their relationships with one another, which is exactly how real people think. The result is a story that emerges slowly, with questions often remaining unanswered for long periods and the reader forced to fill in the blanks with guesswork.

On the one hand, as I've said, this narratorial approach is more authentic. On the other, not having all the information you need to make sense of the story serves as a constant reminder that this is a novel. It constantly draws one's attention back to the narrative device - or at least that's the effect that it had on me. It distanced me from the characters, making me feel that I never really understood them. But, paradoxically, that is what it's like in real life - we can't ever truly know what it's like inside somebody else's head. Then again, isn't the point of fiction to take us inside others, where we can't ever go in reality? Faulkner's technique reminds us that we're reading fiction and in doing so offers a more realistic view of a character than a traditional first-person narrative would, which perhaps defeats the point of writing a novel in the first place. To me, it is both a more authentic and a more artificial narrative voice.

Of course, 80 years later, this technique no longer feels innovative. However, Faulkner carries it off so much better than most authors that its power is undiminished. It is the conviction with which he draws his characters and the strictness with which he controls his narratorial eye that allow him to succeed where lesser authors would fail.

The strictly subjective approach means that it's often unclear whether things are really happening, and even when it's clear what's happened Faulkner often shows us two contrasting perspectives on events without offering a judgement about which we should believe. For example, is Anse's determination to travel so far to bury his wife an act of devotion, an ill-advised piece of bloody-mindedness or simply selfishness? The answer is unclear until the very last page of the book.

The conflicting motives of the characters may not always be clear but their voices are - each character's inner monologue is distinct and recognisable without being being caricature. It is clear, without anyone saying so, that Vardaman is a small boy, for example, and that Jewel is a doer, not a thinker.

There's a sadness about the book that grows as it becomes clear that the family's quest will not be worth price that they have paid along the way. It is the reverse of Homer's quest in The Odyssey - from where the title is drawn - instead of returning to home and order, the Bundren's are leaving home for a place of chaos and uncertainty. The family should have stayed at home, the reader, however, will benefit from having taken the journey.

Carry On, Jeeves by PG Wodehouse (Shane's book 31, 2009)

I've never read any Wodehouse. The idea of a posh twit gadding about town with his servant just didn't appeal to me. Still, I kept hearing how funny his books are so I thought I'd give one a try. It turns out my prejudice was wrong: Wodehouse is indeed funny and enjoyable.

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The stories here are formulaic. Bertie Wooster or one of his friends gets into some kind of difficulty, usually involving an inappropriate engagement or a threat of disinheritance, and Bertie turns to Jeeves for help. Jeeves's plan back fires at first - or at least appears to until the manservant comes up with an ingenious twist that saves the day.

There's nothing challenging in these stories and the characters being satirised are now so familiar that they are basically stereotypes. I suspect they were caricatures even at the time, though. That's not really the point.

Everything is there only to showcase Wodehouse's witty, descriptive writing: "Honoria, you see, is one of those robust, dynamic girls with muscles of a welter weight and a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge. A beastly thing to have to face over the breakfast table."

It breezes by effortlessly and each story is like being wrapped in a warm blanket beside a roaring fire. This is about as good as comfort reading gets. I'll certainly be going back for more.

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (Shane's book 25, 2009)

It may seem unlikely, given the title, but Dead Souls is a comedy. Envisaged as a trilogy, only the first part was published during Gogol's lifetime. Elements of the second part, which Gogol attempted to destroy shortly before his death, were published posthumously.

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Dead Souls is a social satire detailing the efforts of Chichikov, a mid-ranking gentleman turned social-climbing conman, as he travels the Russian provinces with a bizarre plan. Chichikov approaches landowners and offers to "buy" those of their peasants who have died since the last census. Russian law at the time dictated that landowners had to pay tax on the serfs they had at the last census, regardless of whether they are still alive. By taking these 'dead souls' off the hands of the landowners, Chichikov appears to be doing them a favour. But what does he want them for?

His plan is little more than a MacGuffin and not terribly important to the novel. Instead, the focus is on Gogol's portrayal of the various landowners Chichikov meets. For Gogol, they too are dead souls, as is Chichikov himself.

Gogol's writing, translated here by Robert A Maguire, is exquisite. There is some wonderfully descriptive writing and his characters are drawn with wit and precision. Gogol's narrator is endearingly strange, frequently wandering off into poetic asides about the state of Russia or a certain kind of person.

It's a voice that would nowadays be described as postmodern. At one point the narrator apologises for the characters he's bringing to us: "And so, readers should not feel indignant towards the author if the persons who have been appearing so far have not been to their taste. This is Chichikov's fault, he is fully in charge here, and wherever he takes it into his head to go, we must plod along in the same direction too."

The Penguin edition presents the scraps of Gogol's second volume after the first. It's worth reading as a curiosity but is altogether more cumbersome, with a heavier tone and no clear sense of direction. Of course, it's highly unlikely to be anything like what Gogol would have wished to have published.

Clearly, Dead Souls should be judged solely on the first part. Elements of it reach across to Dostoevsky, back to Homer and extend forwards to Kafka. It's a masterpiece and essential reading for all.