Robert Musil: The Man Without Qualities

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 12.02.34 PMWritten between 1928-1940 by Robert Musil, “The Man Without Qualities” (1,100 pages) has been ranked with those of Joyce, Mann, and Proust as one of the great novels of the 20th century. It is set in Vienna in 1913, and is quite unlike any other novel I’ve read in its explorations of the mental interiors of the characters.

Some of Musil’s literary inventiveness may be gleaned from the list below of similes and metaphors in the novel, many of which are startlingly original, at least to me.

Musil has a fine way of skewering his characters by probing their peccadilloes in full. For instance, here is a speech by the aristocratic Count Leinsdorf capturing his evaluation of the Jewish question in 1913 Vienna:

“The whole so-called Jewish Question would disappear without a trace if the Jews would only make up their minds to speak Hebrew, go back to their old names, and wear Eastern dress,” he explained. “Frankly, a Galician Jew who has just recently made his fortune in Vienna doesn’t look right on the Esplanade at Ischl, wearing Tyrolean costume with a chamois tuft on his hat. But put him in a long, flowing robe, as rich as you like so long as it covers his legs, and you’ll see how admirably his face and his grand sweeping gestures go with his costume! All those things people tend to joke about would then be in their proper place – even the showy rings they like to wear. I am against assimilation the way the English nobility practice it; it’s a tedious and uncertain process. But give the Jews back their true character and watch them become a veritable ornament, a genuine aristocracy of a rare and special kind among the nations gratefully thronging around His Majesty’s throne – or, if you’d prefer to see it in everyday terms, imagine them strolling along on our Ringstrasse, the only place in the world where you can see, in the midst of Western European elegance at its finest, a Mohammedan with his red fez, a Slovak in sheepskins, or a bare-legged Tryolean!”

Thomas Lemann



Similes and Metaphors in Musil:

Vice-Consul Tuzzi, who looked like a leather steamer trunk with two dark eyes. – p. 104

her house swelled with people as the sea swells when moon and wind tug at it together. – p. 244

it seized him like a faint, blissful hyperbole dropped into his heart. – p. 275

like a man busily getting equipment together while losing interest in what it is meant for. – p. 275

even moral garbage may contain unused heavenly fuels. – p. 359

His blood pressed upward through his head like antlers with eighteen dagger points. – p. 365

like a huge farm wagon overloaded with hay and fruit, with its brakes out of order, this huge ballast of feelings went rolling out of control inside her. – p. 367

those thoughts that take huge strides on stilts, touching experience only with tiny soles. – p. 389

edifying remarks by superior officers that one must be able to repeat at command but should not really take to heart, or else one might just as well ride home bareback on a porcupine. – p. 410

all roads to the mind start in the soul, but none lead back there again. – p. 425

things fell into place again, like water closing over a dead rat that had fallen in. – p. 427

clinging to the things around him like a cobweb stiffened and made useless by the frost. – p. 430

Such discussions move an odd ways, as though the contending parties had been assembled blindfolded in a polyhedron, each armed with a stick and ordered to go straight ahead. – p. 438

The soft sound of her drinking purled like lovers’ whisperings behind a wall. – p. 465

Clarisse sat there feeling like an actress during intermission. – p. 481

Every schoolboy could understand each thing as it happened, but as to what it all meant in general, nobody really knew except for a very few persons, and even they were not sure. Only a short time later it might as well have happened in a different sequence, or the other way around, and nobody would have known the difference, except for a few changes that inexplicably establish themselves in the course of time and so constitute the slimy track made by the snail of history. – p. 488

To find a secure foothold in this flow of phenomena is like trying to hammer a nail into a fountain’s jet of water. – p. 494

That voice of Aunt Jane’s sounded as if it had been dusted with flour. – p. 495

the emancipated men stood their ground in creaseless trousers that rose up like curling smoke. – p. 497

The talkers in Diotima’s salon were never entirely wrong about anything, for their concepts were as misty as the outlines of bodies in a steambath. – p. 498

I don’t believe in the Devil, but if I did I should think of him as the trainer who drives Heaven to break its own records. – p. 539

she realized that this mutual involvement constricted her breathing like a tight dress when crouching at a keyhole. – p. 541

the look he sent after her–for that was all of him that caught up with her–as inflamed as the red-hot tip of a burning arrow… – p. 546

After this answer, as equivocal as the seductive yellow deep inside the chaste lily… – p. 578

Arnheim spoke with disapproval of desire, even as he felt it struggling like a blinded slave in the cellar. – p. 549

He was bored with everything he did, as if he had to keep stirring a pot of glue. – p. 578

his foaming torrent of speech in which some filmy fragment of his true self hung trapped, like the skin from a flayed heart. – p. 611

his face was sometimes a grayish yellow, slack and tired, like a room with the bed still unmade at noon. – p. 619

For this third solution there was as yet no libretto, as it were, only some great harmonic chords. – p. 623

At night her head, heavy with unappeased cravings, sat on her shoulders like a coconut with its mat of monkeylike hair growing freakishly inside the shell. – p. 629

Count Leinsdorf’s eyes now reflected something between the impassivity of a frog’s gaze and irritability of a bull’s. – p. 642

The effect on Ulrich was to perk him up, as if he had been chewing on a coffee bean. – p. 649

what remained was like trying to pick up the contents of a glass of water without the glass. – p. 753

In the darkness of the room her face glowed with eagerness like a rose standing in the shade. – p. 831

Her right arm had to give way, and was clasped at the elbow by Meingast’s long fingers as by the sinewy talons of an extremely absentminded eagle crumpling something like a silk handkerchief in its claws. – p. 854

ideas as restless as bees that stream out for miles but are sure to return in their own good time, laden with honey. – p. 919

giving him a look like a fat flower nodding on its stem. – p. 951

He could see her body beneath her dress like a big white fish just under the surface of the water. – p. 952

kissed her on that unchaste mouth with a heroic effort that would have been enough to make her press her lips on the blood-dripping bristles of a lion’s beard. – p. 957

her soul with its enigmas eluded her like a fish one tries to hold bare-handed. – p. 957

He cleared out closets like a hunter disemboweling an animal. – p. 972

his gleaming leather slippers remained, abandoned on the floor like an offended lapdog evicted from its basket. – p. 973

She suddenly saw in his eyes yellow clouds that seemed to be driven on a desert wind. – p. 998

with a smile as astringent as a good dry wine. – p. 1020

he smiled at them, as he was introduced, like an acrobat climbing a ladder for a death-defying performance. – p. 1062

This was a short, squat fellow with a pointy head, who instantly stood at attention and, answering smartly, showed two rows of teeth that dubiously suggested two rows of grave stones. – p. 1075

the naïve contrast between the voluptuous and the meager, as expressed in these two women, loomed as large to him as that between pasture and rock at the timberline. – p. 1101

such civilities are wrapped in an extra something that is like a pair of thick gloves in which one must struggle to pick up a single match out of a full box. – p. 1102

Like a bunch of weeds an angler catches on his hook instead of a fish, the General’s question was baited with a tangled bunch of theories. – p. 1107

4 Responses to “Robert Musil: The Man Without Qualities”

  1. Thank you for the list of the wonderfully original, inventive and amusing similes and metaphors.

    Also when reading Count Leinsdorf’s cynical, amusing and patronizing evaluation of the “Jewish question” we should be reminded that Musil’s wife was Jewish and that he was apparently in a mutual admiration society with both Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka.

  2. absolutely fascinating. I will read before we go to Vienna this April.

  3. start now donna! it has been staring at me for years (embarrassingly decades) from my to read now pile.
    i’ve given up on ever getting to finnegans wake but now have incentive to tackle mwq.
    thanks for the great review (and reminder) above.

  4. Astonishing metaphors.

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