The central character in The Man Without Qualities, Ulrich, a modern man, wonders what to do with his life (fortunately a private income gives him various choices!). He gets drawn into elaborate and seemingly endless preparations for an event suitable to mark the 70th anniversary of the Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Before long he finds himself drawn into a world of committees and their members, and this provides Musil with the opportunity to reflect (at great length) on meaning in a meaningless world.
Musil’s characters are human in every sense. In addition to their commitment to their work (celebrating the great anniversary), they have relationships of varying depth and quality, and as they are drawn into their work, they are attracted or repelled by one another, with inevitable consequences.
Musil delights in showing the hidden motives in human relationships and satirises the tendency of the most high-minded people to spiritualise basic human conflicts: extra-marital affairs have a tragic and heroic gloss put on them enabling the lovers to see themselves as participating in a high-minded tragedy rather than the usual philanderings of those who are less-exalted.
Musil digresses at length on philosophical matters and most readers will need to skim through some of the hundreds of pages where the main characters get lost in their train of thought. And of course, in the back of the readers mind is the thought that all the preparation will be brought to nought by the onset of the First World War. However, an underlying sense of humour pervades this book and there are a number of more comic characters who’s antics bring light relief to what is on the whole an extremely dense narrative.
I am not sure I would recommend this book to anyone other than those who are used to reading extremely long and discursive texts. Those who enjoy reading James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust will find themselves at home here, but for others, the book will be an arduous slog through its nearly 1200 pages. Of course, it is a classic, of course it is a master-work, but if you are going to tackle this book, you will need a high level of commitment to literature.