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Calum Marsh: The obsession of the very long book is more comprehensive than the compulsive frenzy of the page-turner
“The Man Without Qualities is one of the two or three novels that I love the most,” Milan Kundera told the The Paris Review in 1985. “But don’t ask me to admire its gigantic unfinished expanse! There are anthropological limits — human proportions — that should not be breached.”
This prodigious novel by the Austrian writer Robert Musil, one of the major works of 20th-century literature, comprises a foreboding 1700 pages, its text set tiny and tight. Musil started writing it in the early 1920s, and he was still writing it when he died suddenly, one afternoon in the spring of 1942, after a morning as usual at his desk. The notes he left behind reveal no planned conclusion; reading it, one never senses closure in the distance, no denouement drawing near. The book just looms — extraordinarily long and literally endless.
“All great works,” Kundera said elsewhere in the same interview, “are partly incomplete.” Musil’s seemed somehow fated to remain that way.
Musil worked on The Man Without Qualities for more than 20 years without cessation, and once begun did little else, living at first on the generous advances of his German publisher and then, when Hitler rose to power and these advances stopped coming, on the even more generous patronage of people of means who trusted in the importance of his project. You feel some of this all-consuming fervour when you read The Man Without Qualities , if, like Musil, you allow yourself to do little else, dedicating your energies entirely to its completion. It’ll still take you almost a month to get through it, by which point you’ll be so overwhelmed by the arcane vicissitudes of Austro-Hungarian politics at the dawn of the 20th century that you’ll feel they’ve infected your brain.
Even if you love the book — and it’s not an easy book to love — you’ll probably agree with Kundera. The Man Without Qualities is just incredibly, outrageously long. It’s too long to get through comfortably. Certain anthropological limits would have been breached.
Something funny happens when you read a very long book. The book comes to command regions of your mind ordinarily unoccupied and available for passing interests, so that it pervades, deeply and unshakeably, your attention and imagination.
It’s not only that an intriguing story has seized you, stoking a need to discover how it ends. The obsession of the very long book is more comprehensive than the compulsive frenzy of the page-turner; less acute but longer-lived. Its fixations start to become your fixations. Its point of view on the world becomes a default vantage. You may find yourself speaking like one of its characters, or more alarming, thinking in the style of the book’s narrator, taking on in your own private monologue the rhythm, the syntax, of the prose. In the way that tofu tastes like what it’s cooked with, your mind takes on the flavour of the book.
This doesn’t happen with books of average length, which you can read over the course of a week and summarily abandon for another, much different book. The qualities of a text don’t have the time, in the span of 200 or 300 pages, to really seep in and leave their mark. It’s when you reach 800 or 900 pages and linger in the world of one mind for weeks or months that you feel the effects of sustained immersion.
It isn’t only novels that work this way. Any book, given enough heft, will do. Plunge into Boswell’s 1400-page Life of Samuel Johnson and you will emerge saturated with the wisdom of the good doctor. Attempt to scale Karl Ove Knausgaard’s gargantuan My Struggle , sprawling to almost 4000 pages total, and you’ll reach solid ground again incapable of eating breakfast without hearing every random thought in the Norwegian’s probing voice. A couple of years ago, I sidled up to David Irving’s biography of Winston Churchill, Churchill’s War , and at a comparatively concise 700 pages it satisfied my interest in the subject a dozen times over; by the end, I was talking mainly in dry, aphoristic witticisms and seriously considering the merits of a magnum of champagne with lunch. It’s unavoidable. If it takes time to read, it’s bound to affect you.
IOf course, this sensation may be so intense in part because we experience it so infrequently — unless you are an English professor or in the habit of regular self-discipline, you are not likely to crack the spine on a thousand-page epic often. When we reach to pluck a new volume from the shelf, the heavy-duty reads — those dust-coated copies of Remembrance of Things Past, The Brothers Karamazov or War and Peace — strike us as too daunting to commit to just yet, so we leave them and promise to build the nerve one day.
In some ways, this seems counterintuitive: If we enjoy reading, and can manage to sneak a few pages in on our daily commute, why should it be any harder to plug away at Infinite Jest (just over 1100 words) than a half-dozen books at 200 pages each, read over the same period of time? Yet the scale of the former intimidates, and indeed deters, because of the commitment it seems to require of the prospective reader. The very long book is more difficult to tackle than several short ones in the same way it’s harder to run a marathon than it is to run eight separate 5 km jogs. The long book takes endurance. The reader must have stamina to make it all the way through.
This difficulty is essential to the endeavour. As with a marathon there is a sense of achievement, of having overcome something big and seemingly impossible, whose satisfaction feels commensurate to the scope of the task. Besides the usual pleasures of reading, in other words, there are the rewards of having triumphed over a book of demanding magnitude, including, incomparably, a full-body whimper of terminal relief.
When you reach the last page of Don Quixote , hugely wearied by its 950 pages of circular, episodic anti-adventure and grim black comedy, the sense of release, even freedom, is almost physical. It occurs to you that there will be no more ill-advised skirmishes with packs of muleteers in the countryside. No more near-deadly drubbings at the hands of slaves or priests or goat herders. No more rambling anecdotes from travellers with amusing stories to report. No more pranks contrived by the Duke and Duchess for the cruel amusement of their court at the expense of Don Quixote of La Mancha, such as the late episode in which a bag of cats is let into the Don’s quarters in the middle of the night:
“Then, turning round upon the cats, who were running about the room, he dealt them many blows. And all of them rushed to the window and jumped out, except one which, finding itself hard pressed by Don Quixote’s sword-thrusts, jumped at his face and dug its claws and teeth into his nose, whereupon Don Quixote began to roar his very loudest in pain.”
It’s an encounter which the poor Don Quixote leaves “with a scratched face and not too whole a nose,” in addition to the further loss in dignity. The manic energy of this passage is fairly typical of the novel on the whole, but by this point one has had about enough of such escapades to be thrilled by their comic abandon once more. When the end comes, there’s a cheering realization that Don Quixote will never be beaten, scratched, sliced, pricked or spat upon again.
This is a welcome deliverance, despite the frequent joys reading Don Quixote affords. Reaching the end, you are glad to have made it; delightful, funny and brilliant as Don Quixote may be, you are grateful it’s over. It’s not about pride or the bragging rights. It’s not that, having finished Don Quixote , you will forever be a person who has read Don Quixote . It’s the simple feeling that you confronted something difficult and prevailed. Don Quixote tried to wear you down with its spontaneous digressions and wretched violence, but you could not be beaten.
Literature is not a competition, but it does rather feel, tossing a completed Quixote aside, that you’ve won. Even by the standards of the very long book, The Man Without Qualities is unusually tough. Even at a more manageable length than its 1700 pages, divided into three volumes for ease of handling, it would be a strenuous read.
The book is about Ulrich, an idle, intelligent mathematician in his early 30s who, as the story begins, is coerced by his moneyed father into better integrating himself in the country’s high society, among whom the lady Ermelinda Tuzzi, one of Ulrich’s cousins, is an influential member. Ulrich, seen as something of an intellectual, soon accepts a prominent role in the founding of the Collateral Campaign, a nebulous coterie of local politicians and socialites whose mission is to organize a national celebration in honour of the Emperor Franz Joseph.
The members regularly meet, talk and especially drink, but their plans for the event never materialize. Ulrich has friends, Walter and Clarisse, with whom he likes to debate art and ethics. He has a rival, a Prussian journalist named Arnheim, of whom everyone in the Campaign seems enamoured. And he has a pet obsession, a jailed murderer called Moosbrugger, whose case, Ulrich, and by extension the reader, follows with diligent interest. These people and their private, often obscure concerns are the subject of the book in its entirety.
The Man Without Qualities is typically described as “a novel of ideas.” What this means is that the book is intricate and heady, full of long passages about economics, law and philosophy. It covers — in staggering depth — the history of the final years of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and the psychological profiles of a web of fictional characters whose motivations and desires are knotted thick and convolutedly. Musil muses more than he explains, shows or describes.
Here’s a representative slab of rumination:
“And so in this matter too the carefully avoided question whether it was justifiable to regard every human being as morally free — in other words, the good old question about the freedom of the will — constituted a perspectival centre of all the various differences of opinion. For if man is morally free, he must in practice be subjected, by means of penalties, to a compulsion in which, theoretically, no one believes; if, on the contrary, he is regarded as not being free, but as the meeting-place for irrevocably linked natural processes, then, though one may cause him effective discomfort by means of penalties, one cannot consider him morally accountable for what he does.”
This isn’t a soliloquy. It’s narration, and let me tell you, it goes on like that — and on, and on, way beyond human proportions.
This particular meditation on the matter of free will and crime and punishment arises after Ulrich and his father have enjoyed some debate about it in correspondence. Gliding through the mire of this stuff, approaching the novel’s halfway point, you’ll find the freedom of the will is all you want to think about when you set the book down, too. Musil’s interests have bled too deep into your head. They’re your interests now — at least until you make it through The Man Without Qualities and crack the spine of another, and ideally shorter, book.
“Imagine a castle so huge that the eye cannot take it all in at a glance,” Milan Kundera said of Musil’s achievement. “Imagine a string quartet that lasts nine hours.”
One can imagine, in a more modern cast of mind, a nine-season TV series that one can’t binge in a weekend, or a sprawling video game that takes 80 hours to complete. But these comparisons don’t quite capture the essence of what it is to read a very long book.
You have to actively push through a book; you must absorb every word, every sentence. You can’t sit back on the sofa and let it wash over you, as you can with a stretch of Battlestar Galactica. You have to engage with a book like The Man Without Qualities , and it’s that sustained, intensive engagement, which never lets up over the extraordinary course, that both makes the effort so difficult and creates the unique effect.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019