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Hux

The Man Without Qualities

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A glorious epic of political satire.

The year is 1913. A celebration is planned for the 70th jubilee of emperor Franz Joseph's reign in the upcoming year of 1918; a committee is brought together to come up with a theme for this celebration and noted thinkers, politicians, and artists are invited to the meetings held at the house of Ermelinda Tuzzi, better known as Diotima.

Her cousin is Ulrich, a 32-year-old mathematician who is also invited. Ulrich is the man without qualities.

Where to begin with this book? Firstly, it's huge, at over a 1000 pages long in three volumes, and is quite daunting as a result of that; but the writing is Proustian in its exquisiteness. Every single chapter is like a work of art in its own right with magnificent prose, lyrical fluidity, and beautiful metaphors. That being said there are chapters that probably don't need to exist, where details are provided in sumptuous language for something that quite frankly doesn't add anything to the story. And that brings me to my second point: there is no story here. Hence why I loved it so much. Despite its 19th century style of flowing language, this book is very much considered a modern novel, this most prominently seen in its utter lack of a plot. The details I gave above essentially cover everything, several characters discussing a theme for the celebration and thus, discussing art, politics, morality, progress, philosophy, meaning, you name it. The book is a satire on western European civilisation and its inability to capture purpose without endless contradiction. The book revels in the big ideas of existence, society, and progress. It delves into philosophical discussion on virtually every page and has characters embodying these debates and questions. Yet the most opinionated character of all is the third person narrator, his thoughts and ideas being the most thoroughly explored and expressed (not sure I've encountered such an opinionated omniscient third person narrator in a book before).

There's a host of characters that orbit Ulrich such as Count Leindsdorf, his childhood friend Walter and his wife Clarisse (who is in love with Ulrich). His mistress Bonadea, the Prussian business man Arnheim, his black servant Soliman, and the maid Rachel. Then there's the murderer Moosbrugger who serves as a kid of floating question throughout the book on human nature and morality . They all spiral around Ulrich and add to his search for meaning and understanding. Then, towards the very end of the book, Ulrich (and Musil) abandons all of them entirely and spends several chapters focusing exclusively on Ulrich's sister Agathe, a woman with whom he has a quasi incestuous relationship (Musil is very deliberately vague on this yet equally quite clear). She is a stand-out character but only emerges at the very end of the book as a kind of other half for Ulrich, a Siamese twin as they describe it.

This book contains some of the most astonishingly wonderful writing I've come across but I wouldn't recommend it lightly. It's far too long and many chapters, while being beautifully written, offer little in terms of the themes being explored. For that reason, it's a 9 rather than a 10.

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