Perhaps the most under-rated and unread great novel of the 20th century was Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities.” Mr. Musil was an Austrian living in Vienna, and the novel is set in 1913, the year of the 300th anniversary of the Hapsburg dynasty’s rule over the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was, of course, also the year before the beginning of World War I, that global disaster which ended both the empire and Europe’s domination of world politics, and which also introduced violence, terrorism, armaments and military slaughter at levels not previously seen. Almost 100 years later, its consequences still resonate, including the territorial and ethnic conflicts it created in the Balkans, Middle East and Asia, and in the provisional world we have today.
I am a bit surprised this novel is not better read, because, unlike James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” the other two great novels with which it is often compared, it is quite readable, even in translation. In fact, it is written, on one level, as a literary soap opera, with elaborate love affairs and messy personal ambitions mixed deftly with matters of state, philosophy and politics that were to matter a great deal in the world then and now. (It might have much higher ratings than “West Wing” or “American Idol” or “24” if it were properly serialized on television.) It is also the perfect book for those who love reading about history, but usually hate novels, because it captures — as if the author were a great photographer and filmmaker as well — an extraordinary moment of pretense and calm that would proceed the whole planet being hit by an asteroid of unceasing world war, upheaval and conflict that continues to this day.
I first read this novel several years ago, and have reread it, but recently I realized how much in its story continues to have meaning today. (If I were to attempt to date its modern and American sequel, I would use the year 2000 instead of 1913. The predictions, of course, were that the year 2000 would be momentous because it was the “millennium” year. It turns out, however, that it was the year before the storm of September 11, which has changed everything here and abroad.) We have no such novel or other literary work today that illuminates our time on such a scale, and I see little evidence of any author with the ambition and talent to do so. As with contemporary poetry, the novel has become primarily a vehicle for entertainment and escape, and when our current literary authors do approach politics they use a sledgehammer instead of art.
The same is true, I’m sorry to say, of most of our essayists and others who attempt to explain the world to us. These writers have as much intelligence and skill as those of the past, but their preoccupation is with the charm of obfuscating the real world, its true motives, and, most seriously, its consequences. This is often entertaining, but rarely useful.
A book written about the same time as Mr. Musil’s great novel was “The Revolt of the Masses” by Jose Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher and essayist. This is another book ignored in our own time, although for decades it was required reading all over the world. Mr. Ortega, writing in 1928 in Madrid (while Mr. Musil was writing his masterpiece then in Vienna), was looking forward by looking back almost 600 years, and tracing a profound long-term movement in European society in which political and economic power was gradually ebbing from Europe’s aristocratic elites and flowing to the European masses. In the still-smoldering ashes of World War I, however, Mr. Ortega perceived some disturbing elements in this process, and isolated two new political movements (fascism and communism, then in their infancies), as grave threats to the world. In 1928, he openly predicted the catastrophe that would come. Mr. Musil himself, 20 years before, had treated in a very literary way the theme of fascism in his first novel “Young Torless.” Messrs. Musil and Ortega y Gasset were giants of clarity in the last century. There were other great writers, probably greater literary stylists, but few who gave their readers a larger picture of the world, a sense of illumination amid the dangerous confusion of those times.
There are a few today who are trying to answer anew the question (if I may slightly paraphrase Mr. Ortega): What are the radical defects from which modern Western culture suffers? Totalitarianism and terror did not disappear in the conflagrations of two world wars, and a cold war. They are dark qualities of humanity given new forms in the 20th century, and once again, even more ominously, in the century we have just entered.
It is not enough to think the clouds above us will clear just because we want them to go away.
Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.