This unfinished tome of a book is an extremely strange one to experience. Written in a very Magic-Mountain-like way, we find ourselves party to the life of Ulrich, a minor official in the vast machine of empire that is the Austro-Hungarian empire in the early 20th century.
Ulrich finds himself involved in various projects of state that consume the lives and ambitions of those in government around him. There are relations with various women and other officials and there are long discussions of how things ought to be done and plans carried out.
No clear conclusions are ever reached and, as a result, nothing ever seems to get done however. In this, Musil has composed a dense satire not only of his day, but rather prophetically pretty much every major infrastructure project attempted by the British government of the early 21st century. Quite an achievement.
It is testimony to the quality of the immense work that Musil put into this in the 20 years leading up to his death that I find myself at a loss to describe what it’s actually about other than a satire on the pointlessness of ‘civilised society’. You can pick that up (and write it down) in 150 pages. You don’t need 1,500 at 300 pages a year.
This however, is not a novel without qualities. Its prose is readable and the characters are memorable characatures. Satire, however, is subtle humour at best, and German humour is subtler still. Once you’ve got the gist, the whole thing becomes very boring. You’ll need to be really keen to get to one of the many endings.
You’d have to have something of a death wish to read all of those many endings. The novel disintegrates like it was fed into a shredder and has been reassembled by zealous Iranian hostage takers. It’s a mess best left for specialists of 20th century German literature to pore over.
Most of the world can leave this work calmly gathering dust on the shelf as I did when I put it back in the library in Saudi Arabia pretty confident that I was the only one who had ever read it and the only who ever would read it. There are better satires of government out there. Just dial up some back episodes of Yes Minister on YouTube. They’re a lot easier to consume and you’ll come away with the same conviction that, however we vote, the government always gets in.