The Man Without Qualities  

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"There was a depression over the Atlantic." -- incipit The Man Without Qualities (1930–1943) by Robert Musil

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The Man without Qualities (1930–1943, German original title: Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften) is a novel in three books by the Austrian novelist and essayist Robert Musil. The novel deals with the moral and intellectual decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire through the eyes of the book's protagonist Ulrich, an ex-mathematician who has failed to engage with the world around him in a manner that would allow him to possess 'qualities'. It is set in Vienna on the eve of World War I. Musil served as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army at the front between 1914 - 1918.

The main issue of the "story of ideas", which takes place in the time of Austria-Hungarian monarchy's last days, is the need of preserving the order in a shaken world (never considering the fact that World War I would start in a couple of months).

The German-language title is a pun on the phrase Mann mit Eigenschaften—literally "man with qualities"—equivalent to the English-language phrase "self-made man".

The history of the novel

Musil worked on his masterpiece for more than twenty years. He started in 1921 and spent the rest of his life writing it. When he died in 1942, the novel was not completed. The first two books were published in 1930, the last and unfinished one posthumously by his wife Martha in 1942. He worked on his novel almost every day, leaving his family in dire financial straits. The combination of material poverty and a multitude of ideas is one of the most striking characteristics of Musil's biography.

The novel brought neither fame nor fortune to Musil or his family. This was one of the reasons why he felt bitter and unrecognized during the last two decades of his lifetime.

There are strong autobiographical features to be found in the text, as the main character's ideas and attitudes are believed to be those of Musil. Most of the aspects of the Viennese life in the novel are based on historical fact and Musil's own life experience. However, the plot and the characters (with the exception of a short appearance of the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I) are pure invention (although some of them had their living inspirations in eminent Austrian and German men and women).

His detailed portrait of the decaying fin-de-siècle world is similar to those of Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers, Karl Kraus's The Last Days of Mankind or Stefan Zweig's World of Yesterday.

See also

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