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A reconstructed novel that brings a “forgotten sister” to play in a winding narrative.

Now considered a classic of early-20th-century literature, Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1943) presents a neurasthenic fellow who lives entirely too much inside his own head, a mathematician who is indifferent to bourgeois life but partakes of it all the same. At the start of the present novel, Frankensteined from chapters of the former and bits of the thousands of pages of manuscript Musil left behind, Ulrich is disembarking from a train: “Drops of the general conversation that had seeped into him during the trip were now draining away,” and now, preparing for the funeral of his father—who has helpfully sent notice of his own impending death—he’s left to his own musings. There’s plenty to think about: His long-lost younger sister, Agathe, widowed and remarried, is in town for the occasion, and she announces that she’s leaving her husband, a bore of a pedagogue. “Let him sue!” she says brightly, whereupon Ulrich is moved to remark, in his otherworldly way, “inner oblivion is more loathsome than anything.” In time, Agathe has moved in with Ulrich, and the relationship becomes—well, let’s just say there are universal strictures governing their behavior, which, though more cerebral than physical, in fact does have something of the physical to it “that with great tenderness paralyzed their limbs and at the same time enchanted them with an indescribable sensitivity.” This is very much a European sort of tale, reminiscent of Goethe here and Pessoa there, without much in the way of action but very long on talk—talk of love here, of misunderstanding and grief there: “Someone who talks a lot," says Ulrich, “discharges another person’s grief drop by drop, the way rain discharges the electricity in a cloud.” That, or the chatterbox numbs the listener, which happens from time to time even as Musil carefully structures his twisting, unexpected storyline.

Not entirely to contemporary tastes but a valuable addition to modernist European literature.

Pub Date: Dec. 3rd, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-68137-383-6
Page count: 464pp
Publisher: New York Review Books
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2019