Robert Musil once shared a street with James Joyce, though the two rarely spoke; it was the late 1920s, and both were expat writers in Trieste, separated by a few doorways. The fact that one of these writers did the work of situating the other nagged Musil for most of his career. He was often bitter about his lack of fame. It wasn’t until after his death in 1942, and the publication of his unfinished masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities, that Musil would be regarded as one of the twentieth century’s great modernists. With chapter headings such as “A chapter that may be skipped by anyone not particularly impressed by thinking as an occupation,” the novel is an achingly funny work of metafiction; more overtly ironic than Joyce, Proust, or Woolf, though every bit as erudite. Of the group, Musil is the writer who prefigures postmodernism in all its schizophrenic splendor.
The Man Without Qualities tells the story of Ulrich, an aimless, ex-mathematician who finds himself on a committee tasked with commemorating the jubilee of Emperor Franz Josef. It’s the waning days of Austro-Hungarian reign—the eve of World War I; a truly mordant undertaking. It’s a world Musil knew from experience.
Ulrich traverses the bourgeoisie milieu of Vienna, mentally swinging between Übermensch and Letzermensch. There’s love, politics, and tons of Nietzsche. A rich cast of characters surrounds Ulrich, vividly described by a detached, omniscient voice (if you can imagine Thomas Mann inserting himself as the central character in The Magic Mountain, it might be an approximation). The novel is composed of short chapters, some plotty and filled with domestic drama; others that take a high-altitude survey of the mechanics of culture. Occasionally there are sections that stopped this reader short—paragraphs with such philosophical profundity that the text seemed to articulate the very conditions under which I found myself struggling.
I have a two year old named Lilly. She’s a wonder. In the months before her birth, my partner Robin and I left behind the restaurant-rich blocks of our cherished neighborhood for a small apartment on the southwest corner of Prospect Park, Brooklyn. The park added substantial acreage to our 650 sq. foot lot.
The summer before last, when Lilly was nine months, she turned fussy after waking. I began taking her for morning walks that stretched into hours, weather permitting, as we made our way along the pebbled path at the edge of the park and then deep into the expanse of sprawling lawns within.
Gradually, and then all at once, I saw the replicas: white, vaguely hipster dads who mimicked my every move. Earbuds in, one hand gripping the handle. They even sounded like me when talking on their phones. And it wasn’t just that they were disheveled and bearded—pushing their babies in the same model stroller whose same drink attachment cradled a $5 cold brew—this dad-mass was an ontological expression I couldn’t comprehend.
The following spring, after a frigid winter off, we the fathers returned. We’d come to acknowledge one another with subtle head-nods of confused import. Were we affirming our pitiful sameness? Relieved that we aren’t alone? Casting judgment? I’m not like you, I’d think, my iced-coffee perspiring.
Around this time, I started reading Musil’s novel. I was stunned by the first of innumerable descriptions of my postmodern predicament. These dudes, these dads, were all part of some “loosely fitting group soul,” per Musil. I’d always intuited my lack of uniqueness, while inside, of course, I contained multitudes. Outside were the multitudes, however they were all me.
To expand the idea, I updated the social conditions of the novel with those of late capitalism. It was my key, in the parlance of Lilly, who’d since begun to talk. We the fathers were all marked by our purchases: from Everlane T-shirts to New Balance sneakers. It was like every decision we made had furnished the conditions that had arranged us just so. “Stopping to think is dangerous,” Musil warns, but I couldn’t help myself. He’d provided the fodder:
“Few people in mid-life really know how they got to be where they are…What is even more peculiar is that few people even notice it; they adopt the man who has come to them.”
It was me: a complacent agent in the Market’s schematic. Perhaps I’d been given these qualities by some dad-gorithm. I thought of Ulrich, walking along the boulevards of pre-war Vienna, and felt a kind of kinship. I could hear Musil’s words, his breath “resting intangibly on the surface of the reality the world offers us.” I wondered who was writing my story, how I’d gotten here. What does it mean for my notions of individuality and selfhood that there are so many others?
“Therefore he had to suppose that the personal qualities he had achieved in this way had more to do with one another than with him; that every one of them, in fact, looked at closely, was no more intimately bound up with him than with anyone else who happened to possess them.”
This was all I could hope to convey in my resigned glances at the others. I was a Dad Without Qualities. But soon I realized something, the detail that set me apart. We the fathers all had kids, but none had Lilly.
With prescience and acuity, Robert Musil revealed something about my lived experience, writing nearly a century ago. Surely this is among the greatest rewards of literature.
He lived his life with slavish dedication to his art, dying before he could finish the third and final part of his magnum opus. He’d spent twenty years trying.
Musil didn’t have children of his own, though his wife Martha had two from a previous marriage. He never reached the heights of success he’d imagined, and struggled to financially support his family. I wonder what kind of father figure he was, how much his quest as a writer imposed on the children.
As for Ulrich, his fate is open-ended. I still have hundreds of pages to go, and his story lacks a true end. I’ve read that Ulrich’s sister enters the story in its later stages, and the novel flirts with incest. I’m not sure I’ll ever finish, what with a toddler and all, but I recently found a copy of Musil’s debut, The Confusions of Young Törless, a book with a far less demanding page count.
The fathers will still be out there strolling, and so will I. We’ll pass each other on the heavily trafficked sidewalk, which I now call the Baby Bahn. Though I can sense that the fly has been long caught in the fly paper, to invoke Musil one last time, I’m partial to an alternate reading. Lilly, too, has ideas about flies. She’s curious—a little frightened when one lights on a bench mere inches from her fingertips. The insect twitches and she jumps. A moment later, her eyes marvel.