New Translation Spotlights Austrian Author's Greatness

The Man Without Qualities

By Robert Musil. Translated from the German by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike.

Alfred A. Knopf,. 1774 pp. in 2 volumes, $60

As we approach the end of the current millennium, it seems ever more undeniable that the greatest masterpieces of 20th-century literature were the work of writers born the century before: Joyce, Proust, Mann, Kafka, Yeats, Rilke, Valery, Lawrence, and Musil.

A native of Austria who ended his days in exile in Switzerland, Robert Musil (1880-1942) is still one of the least known modern masters, perhaps because ''The Man Without Qualities,'' the book upon which his reputation rests, was never quite completed and, until very recently, was not available in a form that adequately represented its author's complex intentions.

One of its earliest admirers, Thomas Mann, ranked it among the finest works of the age: ''without a doubt the greatest writing ... a book that will survive the decades ... and be held in high esteem by the future.''

Begun in 1924, this intricately conceived, philosophically speculative novel became Musil's lifework. Its first two parts, ''A Sort of Introduction'' and ''Pseudoreality Prevails,'' appeared in 1930, a third, ''Into the Millennium,'' in 1933. Musil intended to end with ''A Sort of Conclusion,'' but seemingly didn't get around to writing it.

Musil was dissatisfied even with the parts he had published. The copious papers he left behind contain his plans for the novel's continuation as well as ideas about possible changes to the already published parts.

But, insofar as ''The Man Without Qualities'' is not a novel one reads for the sake of the plot, Musil's second, third, and fourth thoughts about his work-in-progress, along with his notes on the characters and their relationships, can only enhance our appreciation of his vast undertaking.

''Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature,'' was the conclusion of no less an authority than the late Italo Calvino in his marvelously succinct set of essays, ''Six Memos for the Next Millennium.''

Musil's ambition was to create a novel of limitless possibilities, a kind of open-ended experiment examining the ideas, emotions, attitudes, and actions of a group of people living on the brink of an unforeseen turning point in history: World War I.

The eponymous ''man without qualities'' is Ulrich, an athletic-looking, skeptical-minded mathematician in his early 20s. (Musil at one point considered leaving him nameless to underscore his lack of -- or freedom from -- ''qualities.'')

Ulrich's milieu is Vienna, 1913, the complacent yet nervous capital of an empire on the verge of dissolution. The powers-that-be are planning a grand celebration, scheduled for 1918, the 70th anniversary of the reign of Emperor Franz Josef. The irony, of course, is that a devastating war and the death of the emperor in 1916 will render these plans even more pointless than Ulrich already deems them.

In contrast to those around him, Ulrich maintains a kind of ironic skeptical detachment toward everything.

This outlook is linked to Musil's own beliefs, expressed in his nonfiction writings (''Precision and Soul: Essays and Addresses,'' edited and translated by Burton Pike and David S. Luft, University of Chicago Press) that ethical life rests on the individual's recognition of his ability to transcend the trappings and preconceptions of class, nationality, race, ideology, even personality, in order to make objective moral choices.

Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike's new translation, the first English edition to incorporate much of the important and fascinating material from Musil's posthumous papers, presents this magnum opus in a form that does justice to the cogency of Musil's intellect and the scope of his endlessly inventive imagination.

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