Reading Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (Vol. 1): a 5 Week Course

A stereoscope card of Vienna’s Ringstraße from 1898

Robert Musil’s unfinished modernist epic The Man Without Qualities is one of those literary ‘masterpieces’ of the 20th century that people mean to read one day but never get around to skimming for more than a chapter or two. I’ve seen the Knopf two volume boxed-set on bookshelves for years–I mean, when people still have bookshelves; the apartments I go to lately have a lot of Ottolenghi cookbooks, and that’s about it–but the novel is untouched, an aspiration or a thwarted ambition rather than book to freely live with. I can understand why the novel and all its heady, high-modernist ironies can seem like a lot to take on; but I can tell you as someone who has taken on Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (well, a lot of The Man Without Qualities, anyway) over and over again, it’s a ridiculously fun reading experience, and it’s about something very fundamental: how to live.

In this way, The Man Without Qualities has more in common with Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, or Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, than it does with other ‘difficult’ modernist novels from the 20th Century that people aspire to read one day, like James Joyce’s Ulysses.

I’m going to try something new this winter break and offer a special 5-week course on Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. I’ve taught the book before at different levels, but this will be a condensed “deep” read of Volume One of the Sophie Wilkins/Burton Pike translation for Knopf from 1996, which includes the first two volumes of the novel Musil published in his lifetime, ‘A Sort of Introduction’ and ‘Pseudo Reality Prevails.’ That second phrase alone: ‘pseudo reality prevails.’ I hear it in my ear every time I see Marjorie Taylor Greene in my news feed, or when Ye pulls on his black hood for another interview with a white conspiracy profiteer.

The class will use a free and easy-to-navigate platform for communication, sharing files, and keeping up with the weekly reading assignments : Google Classroom. [UPDATE: after experimenting with a few different platforms, I have started a private Substack for the class. Once you join, I’ll send an invitation.] We’ll also meet on Zoom three times, and I’ll be preparing a few audio lectures on specialized subject areas. Since the novel is so deliberately set in the Vienna of the Ringstraße, the Secession movement and its Art Nouveau totality, the thriving literary culture of Cafe Griensteidl and other haunts, we’ll touch on some of the novel’s cultural influences, including:

Freud and the dreamwork of early psychoanalysis.
The literary feuilleton and its masters: Peter Altenberg, Joseph Roth.
The aphorisms and political satire of Kark Kraus.
The Secession Building in Vienna and Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze.
Atonal music, esp. Alban Berg and his opera “Wozzeck.”
Architect Adolf Loos and his modernist reaction against ornament–we’ll look closely at his highly problematic design (unbuilt) of a home in Paris for Josephine Baker, featuring an indoor swimming pool with glass sides, to showcase her swimming body.

A digital rendering of Loos’s design for an interior swimming pool for Josephine Baker, by Stephen Atkinson and Farès el-Dahdah.

I’ve also commissioned new translations of some phenomenally unsettling short prose pieces by the feminist experimental writer known only as “El Hor” or “El Ha,” who had a meteorically brief career–her identity has never been uncovered by scholars. She even signed her publishing contracts with her pseudonyms.

This background material will be presented in compelling ways, and any additional reading, looking, or listening will be purely optional. This course is designed to help guide your own reading of The Man Without Qualities, to ease your journey through Vol.1 and open up the vanished world of the novel.

There are just two required books:

Musil’s first novel, The Confusions of Young Törless (translated by Mike Mitchell), Oxford World’s Classics, ISBN 978-0199669400 ($13).

The Man Without Qualities, Vol. 1: A Sort of Introduction and Pseudo Reality Prevails (translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike), Vintage, ISBN 978-0679767879 ($25).

It’s essential that you purchase these editions and not the alternate translations that are floating around. You’ll have to order these books on your own before the class starts, preferably from your local independent bookseller or through Bookshop.

The course will begin with a ‘soft launch’ on January 9, 2023, for those who’d like to start the New Year by reading Musil’s first novel, Young Törless. Let’s call this first week a ‘sort of introduction,’ too. Registration for the class will remain open during this optional week.

Then the rest of the class will begin with five weekly installments dedicated to The Man Without Qualities, from January 16 until February 20.

I will be scheduling the Zoom meetings closer to the start date.

The cost for the class is $250, payable by Venmo, Zelle or personal check before January 9 or January 16 (depending when you begin). There is a discount for senior citizens and for students. I can also offer you a discount if you’re facing economic stress. I am keeping the cost of this class low so that it’s accessible to as many readers as possible.

If you have any questions or you’d like to register, send me an email at [email protected]. I can also be reached on my Facebook page.

And spread the word if you know a reader who might be interested.

Robert Musil in 1918, Literaturmuseum Klagenfurt

This Peace of the Never



“I know how to die. I have been dying since I was little. And it hurts but we pretend it doesn’t. I miss God so badly.”

Clarice Lispector, “Brasília: Five Days,” translated by Katrina Dodson

I’ve been a writer and a semi-regular book critic for long enough now that I rarely meet a piece of writing that I can’t classify, pretty much immediately, under one of the existing literary forms. What does it mean? I can struggle over this question—and the more struggle the better, I think—for as long as I have an ongoing relationship with something that I’ve read. Do I think it’s any good? I’m rarely won over slowly, especially when it comes to more literary writing; I don’t need love at first sentence, but I do need to detect a spark of life from the outset that promises a re-ordering of the reader’s expectations. Some evidence of things unseen, as the famous line of scripture goes. Why keep on reading if the only promise a book holds within its covers is to reveal the author’s design in a mind-numbingly literal way? (This is why I’ve never been able to enjoy Ian McEwan. Sorry, but to me his fiction is overly plodding and determined to death at the writing desk.)

For the last month or so, while working on a review of The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, the visionary Brazilian writer who’s in the midst of a revival in the U.S., I’ve been captivated by the strangeness of her work, the difficulty it presents to anyone who approaches it—out of laziness, or reflex—with a binary, “either/or” mindset. Lispector is a writer who used metafictional techniques from her earliest stories onward that Robbe-Grillet and the other practitioners of the nouveau roman thought they had invented—but she was nothing like a doctrinaire post-modernist. She diagnosed the symptoms of “the problem that has no name” in her well-heeled female characters (again, long before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique appeared in the U.S.)—but there’s little else that makes her work overtly feminist. Her novels are essentially plotless, almost exclusively interior, and they have more in common with Hermann Hesse than they do with the writers of the Latin American “Boom” (García Márquez, Fuentes, etc.), a movement that coincided with the years of her greatest fame in Brazil. Then there are the pieces of her writing that are almost undefinable, like the twin crônicas Lispector wrote in 1962 and 1974 after visiting Brasília, the Modernist insta-Capital dreamed up by urban planner Lúcio Costa and populated with mirage-like landmark buildings by the architect Oscar Niemeyer.

There wasn’t enough space in the review to talk about Lispector’s Brasília essays—I’m calling them “essays” out of default; they’re really more like prayers-in-prose, or prophetic language hallucinations—and since I still don’t know what they are, really, aside from being fucking brilliant in every way, I thought I would try and get closer to the bottom of them here. Continue reading…

The Selma Opening

When I was younger and just starting to review books on a regular basis I went through an emotional ‘spin’ cycle every time I faced the prospect of being edited. It started with the elation of finishing an assignment—I hadn’t learned yet how to put a piece aside before handing it in, to sleep on it for a night and let it grow strange again—and the inevitable letdown that came from attaching it to an email and hitting send. Why couldn’t my editor respond instantly, as soon as my message landed in their in-box? Didn’t they know how many hours I’d spent reading and underlining to prepare for the review, the effort I’d given to writing a piece that analyzed the author’s work, put it in a critical context, and still managed to stay light on its feet? Couldn’t they recognize that it was real writing rather than mere ‘book coverage’? (I had ambitions as a book reviewer: what can I say.)

I handled the inevitable pause before hearing back as well as I could. I left the house and went to the gym. I took the subway into Manhattan and spent some time with my favorite paintings at the old MoMA or the Frick. When I logged onto the internet, using my dial-up connection, and finally got the edit back from whoever I was writing the review for, I would immediately plunge into a fugue state of anger and recrimination—a kind of spell that I have associated with the computer screen ever since. They wanted me to cut what from my review? How could they? Didn’t they know I WROTE IT THAT WAY DELIBERATELY? And who told them they could just go in and muck around with my hard-won sentences?

I hated to be edited at that time in my life—it felt like a much deeper violation than it is—but I also loved to publish. So I seethed, cringed, and fumed away the hours that it took me to finish my rewrite. I haggled smaller points, argued larger ones, and, in general, made a nuisance of myself to editors who had a lot more experience at book reviewing than I did. And when the review was published soon afterwards, it was almost always stronger and more cogent than the piece I had originally handed in—I can think of a few exceptions to this rule, but not many. The reviews of mine I find unreadable now when I dredge them up online all bear the marks of my weaknesses as a writer, the faults of neurological habit and blind-spots of imagination, rather than the telltale signs of bad editing.

This is all prelude to an outtake I’m publishing here from my recent piece for The New Republic, “Teaching the Controversy,” about a class on Richard Wright and James Baldwin that I taught last fall at Bennington College. I was already working on the essay—or trying to work on it, anyway—when President Obama gave his speech in Selma, Alabama commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was a powerful moment, watching the Obama speak that day, John Lewis and the other surviving marchers sitting to his side, the iron bridge looming behind him; from certain camera angles, the name EDMUND PETTUS was hovering right over the President’s head. Pettus, of course, was a former Confederate Army General and Grand Wizard of the Klan in Alabama who was elected to the U.S. Senate twice during Reconstruction. In my essay, I write about how teaching a class on Wright and Baldwin in the post-Ferguson era helped me see, among other things, that it was Wright—with his education in the Jim Crow South and segregated north—who really knew America when it came to race. Baldwin’s doctrine of love is harder to reconcile with the legacy of racism and white supremacy that’s been unmasked all over again by the Obama presidency. Unmasked, that is, for those of us who don’t already have to negotiate it on a regular basis; who can remain, to use a word that Baldwin found so monstrous, “innocent.”

All of this was on my mind when I opened the first draft of my Wright and Baldwin essay with a long passage (about 800 words) on the march on Selma and the Obama presidency. I can see now that this discussion of the Selma speech doesn’t belong in the essay. My editor, Ted Ross, who I’d worked with once before at Harper’s Magazine, was quite right to cut it. When I was younger, I would have trembled with rage. I would have fired off a tortured email and used the only leverage I thought I had by threatening to pull the piece. (To which every editor in history has replied, “Sorry you feel that way. Best of luck placing it elsewhere.”) Now, with the benefit of experience, I wrote Ted: “I figured you would cut the opening. No problem. Let me look at the rest of the edits and get back to you.” It was a classic example of first-draft throat-clearing, and the essay is much stronger without the passage.

All of us write alone, in a vacuum of our own making; being edited, when it’s done well, frees us from the solipsism of self-flattery and the attachments that form so easily at the writing desk.

Here is the Selma opening—in all its discarded glory:

Continue reading…

The 9/11 Memorial Eraser

The 9/11 Memorial Eraser. $4.50 at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum gift shop.


Why I Wrote About the 9/11 Museum

My essay “Atrocity Exhibition” for The Los Angeles Review of Books is an attempt to describe what I’ve found so strange and unsettling about the new 9/11 Museum at Ground Zero over several visits there, dating back to May of this year, when the museum first opened. Like many New Yorkers, I think, I had profound misgivings about the idea of a 9/11 museum in the first place: though I didn’t lose anyone I’d known well in the attacks on the Twin Towers, that day and the weeks that followed were bewildering like none other I’d ever lived through, filled with dread and sorrow and a confusion that slowed time. My city had been attacked–those planes slicing into the towers had been act of war, the terror and disbelief a deliberate by-product–and we pored over the Times when each day’s issue made it to the newsstands (this was print media’s last hurrah, the End Days of its primacy) for explanations of what we’d witnessed, stayed glued to cable news for the slow-drip of information and the endless replay of the same dream-like images. When the posters for the 9/11 Museum started appearing on the subway this spring, featuring a marketing slogan with an uncomfortably Orwellian ring to it (“History Remembered”), I felt repelled by the whole business on a gut-level, but I was also intrigued. What would a museum look like that sought to memorialize a series of terrorist attacks that two billion people around the world had witnessed more or less in real time? Would it inflame the old memories–we all had them, after all–or inform them further? Was descending into a $700 million bad-memory regenerator even a good idea?

If you’ve read the essay on LARB, you already know what I think. The museum, to me, is another example of how 9/11, having no precedent in recent American history, has short-circuited the institutions entrusted to respond to it, inspiring epic over-reactions (the Homeland Security Advisory System, the invasion of Iraq, data mining by the NSA, etc.) and blunders so elaborate that they hardly seem real. Continue reading…

“Boys With a Synth”

Before my generation it was impossible to be a teenage boy with a fetish for the synthesizer. The piano did nothing to stir my blood; it might as well have been a shipping crate with a keyboard and a couple of pedals. I’d played the violin for a few years in grammar school during the Suzuki method craze, but I hated carrying around that hardshell case, and practicing got in the way of “Hogan’s Heroes,” “The Brady Bunch,” and all of the other afternoon reruns that filled the hours between school and dinnertime. My one and only performance on the violin had been a letdown–I’d gotten so nervous beforehand that I tried to fake my way out of it by pretending I had a stomach bug (no dice), and any sense of triumph I might have felt by gutting it out and taking the stage with the rest of my class was instantly marred by how awful we sounded. The bass guitar did hold some allure, especially once my brother became a straight-edge Hardcore hero, but my favorite bands all had a synth player, sometimes more than one, and I liked the way that synthesizers seemed like the electronic brain of a band, a bank of mainframes wired together by engineers and programmed to emit the music’s heartbeat, its arpeggiated pulse.

I wrote an essay recently about my early love of synths for The Common, a newish literary magazine published out of Amherst College. Originally they were going to use an image of the first and only synthesizer that I ever bought, a Roland Juno 6, for the magazine’s cover, but when that proved too unwieldy for the design team, they settled on the image of a ping pong racket–the essay is also about the lopsided games of ping pong I used to play with my best friend in high school. Here’s the cover of the issue:

06 cover lowres

You can purchase a copy of the Issue number 6 of The Common here, either in print, a pdf, or a digital copy for your Kindle.


The Summer of My Verdienstausfallbedauern

I keep my net worth in a white cardboard box. Right now it’s sitting in the front hallway of my summer sublet in Brooklyn, a wet pair of kid’s sneakers on top to dry (they got soaked in a thunderstorm). At other times I’ve stored this box under my dining room table, at the bottom of the closet in my son’s room, and in the back seat of my car. Don’t worry: this isn’t the kind of wealth that anyone can steal. I don’t have to track its quarterly performance and pay fees to an investment brokerage for managing it; I’ve never had to sweat out a panic sell-off or a market downturn. That cardboard box, and what I keep inside, has its own kind of magic. It is safer than an annuity, more dependable then gold. It keeps growing and growing. Pretty soon I’ll have to get another box to take the overflow.

So what’s my secret investment strategy? Maybe you’ve figured it out already. That white cardboard box is labeled BILLS. My net worth is in the negative, just like an estimated 20% of American households, and God knows how many of the legion who keep arriving in New York City every year with nothing more than the fancy degrees their student loans paid for and the ambition to make their way in the underpaid precincts of “culture.” I’m a writer, which means, by definition, that I am a gambling addict; every project undertaken is a bet on future earnings, a way of borrowing against the present in the expectation of beating the house. As F. Scott Fitzgerald put in his essay “Early Success,” about the manuscript that would become This Side of Paradise: “That novel … was my ace in the hole.” The box in my front hallway is where I store the paper trail of the bets I’ve lost; others that paid off, but without a life-changing windfall; the accumulated liabilities of my literary habit and the calamities that make life such a gamble no matter what you do for a living. It is the anti-fortune I’ve built by caring more about what I wanted to write next than how I could afford it.

Go ahead, have at me. Call me just another artist type who feels entitled to a free ride while he scribbles to no one’s benefit in an $18 notebook. I’ve heard worse, and that was on Goodreads. The line about scribbling in an $18 notebook? I sometimes turn it on myself. I am trying, at 44, to change my attitude about money, and that involves some soul searching. It’s not easy to stare down an ever-shrinking road to the thing that used to be called “retirement” and realize that you’ll be working until you drop—that is, if I am lucky enough to still have my teaching job. It’s not a given, and with tenure-track jobs in academia in steady decline, according to Inside Higher Ed, I might just be looking at a future measured out in temporary contracts. That seems great now, but what about if I’m up for review again at 55 while my son is applying to college? With no savings to fall back on for his tuition payments and that white box still following me around?

The future is already here, and I am not prepared for it. Elvis Costello has a phrase for everything, and this is mine: I’m a man out of time. Continue reading…

The Reluctant Memoirist

I wrote this brief essay recently for Blackfriars, the new digital imprint at Little, Brown U.K. that published Too Good to Be True last month. It tells the story of how I came to write a memoir, a literary form I spent most of my early career ruthlessly mocking, and how the daily process of bringing the memoir to life helped restore my relationship to writing.

There are two kinds of people in the world: memoirists and everyone else. We all have a memoirist in the family, or sleeping in our bed, or working at the next cubicle over with a headset on; they’re the ones who share their lives with an eerie fluency no matter how intimate their disclosures or how many strangers are within earshot. Often they’re lurking in a train compartment nearby, fingering their iPads harmlessly or tapping out a private code on their laptops—until the phone lets out a chime, the air in the train car changes, and the memoirist suddenly starts to write.

“I’ve been thinking about my first margarita all day. I’m obsessed, I really am. Rocks with a rimful of salt …”

“The team doesn’t know Brian. I’m telling you: the team knows nothing about Brian. They know zilch. He’s a chameleon. He’s a hanger-on … That’s the thing about Brian.”

“On Thursday there’s my colonoscopy. My colonoscopy, I said. Can you hear me? I said it’s my—can you hear me? Are you still there?”

“I love you, kitten. I do. Oodles and oodles of noodles. Now pass the phone to Momma.”

Memoir is all around us. There has never been more of it in our daily lives. It doesn’t take an interesting life to qualify, or a literary apprenticeship to get one off the ground. You don’t even need a publisher to share your memoir with an audience, should you be the literary type; you can post it on your blog for next to nothing, tell it episodically to your Twitter followers in 140-character chapters. If you work in one of the more renegade forms of memoir from which none of us can escape—the Cell Phone Rant, the Bodily Function Update, the Decision About What to Make for Dinner—this your golden age. Continue reading…

Goodbye to Twitter Village, Part II: Lessons Learned

This is the second part of a two-part essay on writers and Twitter. The first part is here. The essay also appeared in full on The Daily Beast.

Reader, I did it anyway. I put my qualms aside and continued my experimental foray into the Twittersphere. I even kept on following Salman Rushdie, and his Twitter feed grew on me a little, although I did find that when I turned back to my favorite book of his—Midnight’s Children—the entire enterprise was newly suspect. Does Saleem Sinai really have to be born at the stroke of midnight when India gains its independence? Why not 12:05 or 11:47? And the telepathic powers he shares with the other “midnight’s children”—isn’t the whole contrivance just a little Twittery? This is part of what makes spending time on Twitter so tiresome, at least for me: the endless personalizing of events both great and small, the human need to play pundit with the forces that overarch our lives, to feel like we’re participating.


I did like exploring Twitter as a new written territory, though: seeing what was possible to communicate in a 140-character tweet. Who did it well and found a voice of their own despite the limitations. Who didn’t bother to tweet coherently most of the time and still had a million followers begging for attention. I clicked more links on Twitter than I ever do on Facebook, partly because the veneer of personal connection has been stripped away and the communication is so much more telegraphic. Facebook is where you post your vacation pictures or connect with old friends; Twitter is all about work.

That’s another reason why I never cottoned to it. It did feel like work—and the wrong kind at that. It’s all ephemera, meant for instant consumption and destined for replacement by the avalanche of tweets to follow. (If you don’t believe me, look at some of the estimates for the lifespan of a typical tweet. This excludes, of course, the data being hoarded by the N.S.A.) I’d done some homework, so I had a pretty good idea of how often I should tweet in a day; that I should be sparing when it came to retweets; that following was a good way to gain followers; that if I wanted to gain an audience on Twitter—and keep as many of them as possible from un-following me—I had to offer something beyond a promotional platform for my book, an endless stream of reviews, events, links to Q&As, retweets of the users who read the book and tweeted me directly. Then you might as well be Tide laundry detergent. (But wait, Tide has 101,983 followers on Twitter! Who are they? What’s wrong with them?) I had to give my followers ‘me’ the writer, or at least some version of me that would amuse, enlighten, or strike a chord in 140-character bursts, make their lives better for following me, or at least more interesting. If I could do that, the marketing wisdom goes, they would show their loyalty by buying my book, pushing it on friends and coming out to my readings. Or at least I hoped they would.

That was the bargain. It wasn’t quite a devil’s bargain. But it felt murky enough to me that I could never quite buy in all the way. I felt needy.

I came to Twitter because I had a book to sell, and my misgivings about the whole enterprise meant that I would never be any good at it. A phrase comes to mind: I was “pissing into the void.” Continue reading…

Goodbye to Twitter Village

I never could get used to the name: Twitter. That “twit” dressed up for the office in a second syllable, taking a word we already knew—Twitter, v., a condition of twittering or tremulous excitement (from eager desire, fear, etc.); a state of agitation; a flutter, a tremble—and re-branding it for a social media platform where everyone becomes an avatar, churning out individual news feeds for their followers in 140-character microbursts that beg for our attention, each and every one.


It’s a natural enough impulse to find a nice high perch in the trees and start broadcasting. I mean, isn’t this what the birds do? The name, though—Twitter—was an obstacle for me from the start, in part because it was so patently stupid, but also because I recognized that it was stupid in just the right way and would probably make the people who coined it billionaires. I’d seen this principle at work during the Tech Boom of the late 90s, albeit in nascent form—take a pre-existing idea, like home-delivery service, slap a goofy name on it that could only have originated in a conference room with a whiteboard (!), offer the product online for free, then wait for the V.C. money to start falling from the sky.

It was thrilling, in a way, to watch whole swaths of New York get remade by Silicon Alley before the tech bubble started to deflate, to see the packs of start-up rascals with their exalted titles, younger than me by less than a decade but already a generation apart, palming their mysterious devices on the subway, bouncing with energy in their $150 retro sneakers, free of the self-consciousness and fear that I’d always understood to be necessary for survival in the city.

“How did the world change so quickly?” I used to wonder from my seat nearby, holding a notebook open in my lap, full of tiny scribbles, or a paper copy of the Times before it shrank to its current size, which will never look right to me in proportion to the world. “Why is what they have so fucking valuable?”

I’ll admit it: I did a lot of muttering then, both aloud and under my breath, about the stupidification of New York by dot com capital, and whenever I was in a mood I used to howl at the Yahoo billboard on Houston Street, or give a surreptitious kick to the drop box at Ciao Bella on Mott while I was walking out with my fancy ice cream. It was professional envy, plain and simple, one small revolt against the change in natural order that was already underway—and still hasn’t stopped. Print would be dethroned by the glowing screen; authority was no longer earned, but freely available to anyone who seized it; forget about reflection, care, “craft,” meaning, value, and all the other slow-twitch talents I’d spent my life trying to master, the age of fast-twitch thinking had arrived, and the click was now king.

It’s not as simple as that, of course. I have learned that outcomes, at least when it comes to technology, are not as Manichean as we believe them to be in the moment. I’ll take my media intake today—and that includes the links I click on thanks to the far worldlier people I follow on Twitter and Facebook—over what was available to me in the year 2000 any day of the week. It’s no contest.

And yet. I’m leaving Twitter. I’ve had enough. Just writing those last two sentences makes me feel better than a guy with sideburns describing his first Cronut on Yelp. My stay in Twitter Village was brief: 1 year, 4 months and 22 days. I’ll freely admit that I never really got the hang of it, never felt the buzz of a perfectly composed tweet, the thrill of communion with a multitude of fellow travelers united by a hashtag. I came. I saw. And now I’ve had it. No más.

I’ve written my last tweet.

I’ll be posting an essay here on my experience with Twitter and why I think the social media presence typically recommended to writers when they’re publishing a book is a tremendous waste of time.

What follows is Part One: “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” Continue reading…