First there was Robert Musil the mechanical engineer, who invented a chroma meter, a device for evaluating color. Then there was Musil the philosophical scientist, interested in probability theory and logical positivism, as well as in the workings of the mind and the soul. Neither Musil seems a likely candidate for the role of novelist, even in that hotbed of modernism that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire during its dying liberal decades. Yet Musil went on to write “The Man Without Qualities,” an achievement that ranked him with Proust and Joyce.
It could just as easily have been otherwise, Ulrich, Musil’s antiheroic protagonist, might have interjected. He’s a character so ironical, so open to possibility, that no attributes stick, certainly not long enough for him to develop the kind of passionate conviction that, Musil makes clear, the worst in his time are prone to.
Musil’s scientific background is undoubtedly what gives his great human comedy its singular aspect. Packed with incisive essayistic excursions, explorations of chance, traffic accidents, pathology, probability and the weather, along with extravagant characters, picaresque sexual encounters and a rebellious questioning of love, gender and morality in a world then newly abandoned by God, “The Man Without Qualities,” which is set in 1913 and runs nearly 2,000 pages, has a contemporary flavor. Epigrammatic reflections jump from the pages: “The ideal obligation to love one’s neighbor is obeyed in two parts, the first consisting in not being able to stand the human race, and the second in compensating for that by engaging in sexual relations with one half of it.” As Ulrich thinks this thought, he is desultorily wandering the streets of Vienna, ogling a pretty woman.
The novel is famously unfinished: In a world poised to enter a cataclysmic war, definitive resolutions are elusive. Only death marks a terminus. Musil began the novel in 1921, published the first volume in 1930 to some acclaim, the second in 1933 as the Nazis came to power, only to die of a stroke while in exile in Switzerland in 1942. His wife found him in the tub shortly after he’d completed a version of a much reworked chapter called “Breaths of a Summer Day,” in which Ulrich and his sister, Agathe, in a state of contemplative enchantment, watch blossoms drift “like snow through sunshine” in his Viennese garden.
This scene constitutes the finale of AGATHE, OR THE FORGOTTEN SISTER (New York Review Books, paper, $17.95), a new stand-alone volume comprising material culled from prior editions of “The Man Without Qualities” as well as the substantial Musil archive, and appearing in English for the first time, in a translation by Joel Agee. The idea was to create a concentrated narrative focused on the twinlike siblings and what Agathe calls, at once in jest and in earnest, “the last possible love story.” Gone are the comic antics of the Parallel Campaign, that committee of the great and good searching for a big idea to celebrate the emperor’s impending 70th jubilee. (Might that be better sex for women? its leader, the beautiful Diotima, suggests in a chapter not included in this volume.) Gone is Moosbrugger, the pathological sex-murderer with the face of a saint, now interned in an asylum and awaiting trial. Gone, too, is the hysterical Clarisse, who thinks she may also be a boy and is enamored both of Ulrich and of a self-styled prophet not unlike Hitler.
In Agee’s vividly contemporary and sensuous translation, “Agathe” zeros in on a quasi-mystical adventure in living and loving. Musil’s emphasis on spiritual experience — what he calls the “other condition” — may well be in part a reaction to Nazism; in the face of the regime’s terrors, he, like so many writers of the period, retreated inward. He had initially toyed with featuring a sister in his vast novel’s title — a double for his sometimes lonely hero. He, himself, was haunted by a sister who had died four years before his birth.
“Agathe” opens with the death of Ulrich’s father. In the family home in the provinces, where his father’s body lies in state, he meets, for nearly the first time since childhood, his married younger sister, Agathe. She appears in a replica of the Pierrot-style pajamas he wears; she looks like him and, as their conversations over long walks underscore, is his double — his mirror image in a woman’s body, his “lost self-love.” Brother and sister are both skeptical of received wisdom, dissatisfied with their lives and attuned to each other’s need for something other than what experience has provided so far.
Agathe alters her father’s will so that her pompous, lackluster husband, whom she wants to divorce, gets nothing. She then follows Ulrich to Vienna, where they set up house together. Ulrich has made a study of Christian mystics, spiritual exercises and Buddhism. He mansplains all this to Agathe, who falls into states of rapturous contemplation far more readily than he does. If Musil’s science of the soul doesn’t always convince, the atmosphere between the siblings does. The erotic charge is palpable.
When Agathe’s husband writes to say that he can understand her need for a divorce only as a sign of feeble-mindedness, she feels thoroughly undermined and considers suicide.
“Am I the up-to-date, economically or intellectually active woman?” she asks Ulrich. “No. Am I the woman in love? I’m not that either. Am I the good, harmonizing, simplifying nest-building helpmeet and mother? That least of all. So what is left then? What am I in the world for?”
Ulrich has no ready answer — for himself either. He admits that he often feels hostility toward the women he sleeps with (and toward himself, afterward). So, when he isn’t otherwise tempted, he wants companionship with his sister. “What each of us feels,” he explains to Agathe, “is the shadowy doubling of one’s own self in the other’s opposite nature. I am a man, you are a woman; it’s widely believed that every human being bears within him- or herself the shadowlike or repressed opposite to each of his or her qualities: At any rate one possesses the longing for it, if one is not hopelessly satisfied with oneself. So here my counterself has come to light and slipped into you, and yours into me, and they feel grand in their transposed bodies, simply because they don’t have a great deal of respect for their former environs and the view to be had from there.”
Musil was fascinated by notions of androgyny and bisexuality. He meant by the term an inner bisexuality of the kind Sigmund Freud and the Viennese philosopher Otto Weininger wrote about. All genders, in their view, contained masculine and feminine in varying measure. At one point, Ulrich says to Agathe, “I would want to be a woman if only — women did not love men.”
In their clownlike twinning, brother and sister also share a childlike quality that makes everything possible — except the ultimate incestuous trespass. They experience the world in a kind of floating ecstasy underpinned by companionship and contemplation. And in this way, they pose a challenge to a world on the brink of disaster. Witty, sensuous and desiring, but shunning what Ulrich calls “appetitive” striving, the siblings represent a particularly vibrant experiment in living at a time when few such options remain.
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