Austria is beautiful! It is paradise on Earth! I know this from my visit to the country on a weekend in 2007. I was in Germany for work. Me and a colleague flew to Vienna and took a train to the salt mines of Salzburg. We climbed a short while and took a cable car to cover the rest of the distance to the entrance of the cave. The view of the village below and the Salzach river passing through it is one of my happiest memories to go to. If there is a country I would love to visit again, Austria would be it!
A highly mountainous terrain lying in the Alps, Austria was once one of the great powers of Europe and played an important role in deciding the course of European history. The world, unfortunately, remembers Austria for starting World War I by issuing an ultimatum to Serbia when the archduke of Austria and his wife were murdered in a terrorist attack.
A deeply religious community with the majority following Catholicism, literary experimentation was not encouraged historically. The country still gave birth to several literary greats. We are entering the territory of literary giants here with the likes of Franz Kafka and Thomas Bernhard being from Austria.
I had a tough time choosing a book for my reading from the many options available here. After scanning several reviews, I decided on the “Man Without Qualities” by Robert Musil. The praise for the book is magnanimous. It is hailed as one of the best novels ever written. Looking forward to reading this literary masterpiece.
“The Man Without Qualities” is a Modernist novel. It is about nothing. It has no plot, but has characters and ideas. The central character, the titular “Man” without qualities is Ullrich. He doesn’t desire anything, isn’t too keen on anything but comprises of a bit of everything. He has a cousin Diotima and a mistress Bonadea. Diotima has a lover, Arnheim, and a servant Rachel, pronounced by her as Rachelle., as the French do. Ullrich has a friend Walter, who is the Man with qualities and the anti-thesis of Ullrich. Walter has a wife Clarissa, who is friends with Ullrich as well. At times, this circle tries to get involved in the politics of the day or rather try to create their own spin-off by creating a parallel system of governance. They have regular gatherings to achieve this. However, in the end, even these gatherings amount to nothing.
The narration progresses in a playful tone, half chiding, half trying to understand the actions of the participants. Some passages are brilliantly novelistic. Some are pure disjointed rant. Now, I have nothing against rants. However I find them to be more fun when they are from the character rather than from the author – some passages from Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” come to mind. The intended takeaway from Musil’s work is his exploration of ideas. I quote a few of the better ones below:
“A man going quietly about his business all day long expends far more muscular energy than an athlete who lifts a huge weight once a day. This has been proved physiologically, and so the social sum total of everybody’s little everyday efforts, especially when added together, doubtless releases far more energy into the world than do rare heroic feats. This total even makes the single heroic feat look positively minuscule, like a grain of sand on a mountaintop with a megalomaniacal sense of its own importance.”
“Ultimately a thing exists only by virtue of its boundaries, which means by a more or less hostile act against its surroundings: without the Pope there would have been no Luther, and without the pagans no Pope, so there is no getting away from the fact that man’s deepest social instinct is his antisocial instinct.”
“The soul is formed by what you accomplish, whereas what you desire without achieving, it merely warps the soul. Happiness depends very little on what we want, but only on achieving whatever it is.”
While the ideas themselves are brilliant, they are spread across in disjointed spurts and an unifying theme is not always apparent. The novel is hailed as one of the greatest of all times. But, mere mortal that I am, I found it hard to engage with it even after putting up a good struggle.
Other Options from Austria:
Dream Story – Arthur Schitzler
Confessions between husband and wife lead to erotic revenge.
The Piano Teacher – Elfride Jelinik
A subdued teacher is lead into the path of sexual exploration and human degradation by one of her student.