A gala dinner in Schoenbrunn Palace given by Emperor Franz Joseph to honour members of his "Arcieren-Leibgarde" regiment in 1913. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

September 2, 2020   4 mins

As our politicians head back to Westminster, we asked our contributors: what should be on the cabinet’s reading list? What book might bring helpful insight regarding the coming challenges? Matthew Sweet recommends The Man without Qualities, by Robert Musil


Guys, it’s a big ask, I know. Some people who teach 20th-century literature for a living have never dared tackle The Man Without Qualities. It’s huge. Well over 1,000 pages long. You can’t vanquish it in a couple of afternoons by the pool. You might even have to put it on the nanny’s luggage allowance.

But don’t let that put you off. Even its author didn’t finish it. In April 1942, Robert Musil suffered a cerebral haemorrhage after his morning gymnastics. He was 62 and had been working on the novel for around two decades. His wife, who found him dead in the bathroom, reported that his corpse bore an expression of “mockery and mild astonishment”.

What happens in The Man Without Qualities? Nothing much. Characters have long and seductive conversations about the soul, bisexuality, the blossom in the garden. There are weather reports. A bit of incest looms in the last few hundred pages, but Musil’s final workout prevented its consummation. It lacks a few other things, too. It doesn’t take place across a great span of time and space — Musil gives you a year in Vienna, starting in the summer of 1913. There’s no big cast of characters of the sort you find in Proust or Dickens. Ulrich, the title character, isn’t a tragic hero, but a privileged and directionless dilettante with a background in mathematics, a married mistress and a slightly misguided philanthropic interest in a sex murderer called Moosbrugger.

But it’s Ulrich’s job that will repay the attention of anyone in power. He is honorary secretary of the Parallel Campaign, a grand project established to celebrate the 70-year jubilee of Emperor Franz Joseph. It is complex, demanding, a salient matter of state, and completely futile.

Ulrich and his fellow appointees have their work cut out for them. They must decide questions such as “What is true patriotism, true progress, the true Austria?” They must plan a series of spectacular events that will form “a glorious demonstration of vitality”, a “mighty stride forward into the outside world, which would at the same time have a salutary influence on conditions at home”. Most of the committee are content to congratulate themselves simply for saying such things aloud. Ulrich is more insightful. He knows the process will produce nothing. But he doesn’t know what we know: even if these nationalist assertions meant anything, or were possible to realise, the state being celebrated will shortly be dissolved by violent forces beyond its control.

If you’d read this book five years ago, you might have found it comforting. It’s a portrait of a vast, overcomplicated and doomed European entity, fond of long discursive meetings. Plenty to engage a Brexiteer of the sanguine or faint-hearted variety. But this is a modernist masterpiece. If it makes you feel good about yourself, then you’re not reading it properly.

So what are you supposed to draw from it? Don’t take the title as an insult to the PM — Polly Toynbee may have described Boris Johnson as “a man without qualities, devoid of public spirit or regard for anyone but himself … a man to shame the country as its figurehead.” But this is unMusilian: to be without qualities is not a state of moral and intellectual poverty. That’s too easy. Musil is a funny writer, but he’s not an easy one. His protagonist is no self-serving charlatan. Ulrich is possessed of great philosophical and spiritual capital. He knows about history, meteorology, criminology, Buddhism, Leibniz. This wealth, however, remains inconvertible: Ulrich’s command of detail, his passion for ideas, his sensitivity to subtlety and scruple, have brought him to an impasse with himself. And yet, Musil does not ask us to condemn his position, nor even to regard it as an error of judgement.

Told you it was difficult.

That difficulty, though, is why I’d urge the book upon you. The Man Without Qualities is a novel about negotiating a relationship with your historical moment. Ulrich’s moment is one of the classics. Pre-war imperial Vienna, where everyone seems fit for some couch-time at Berggasse 19, and not for the mud and the bullets to come. And yours? Well, 2020 might also turn out to be one of those years. Your country is estranged from her neighbours, uneasy with a US president as capricious as a syphilitic Hapsburg, and authorities unaddicted to two-thumbed boosterism have judged its official response to the coronavirus pandemic to be world-beatingly poor.

Here, though, is a kind of consolation. Musil shows us that the world is too complex to be completely understood or mastered, and that it is foolish to pretend otherwise. If a phrase such as  “take back control”, “super-forecasting” or “oven-ready” was inserted into The Man Without Qualities, you could imagine it shrivelling to death on the page. It’s a book that encourages you to express self-doubt and to have some cognisance of your limits. Because even if you can’t see them, others will. This is why Ulrich, despite his paralysis, is hard to despise. He can’t see the catastrophes to come, but when they do arrive to shake his little knot of nations to pieces, they will not find him in a dreamworld built of empty phrases.

So start it. Get halfway through the first volume, maybe. Skip a few pages, leave it behind in the holiday home, possibly not by accident. That’s completely fine. Failure is an option here. It might be the only option.

Matthew Sweet is a broadcaster and writer. His books include Inventing the Victorians and Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers and Themselves.