BOOKS: a book that changed me

LISA JARDINE on Robert Musil's 'A Man Without Qualities'
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When did you first read it? I was a graduate student at Cambridge when someone lent me a copy of Robert Musil's unfinished novel, A Man Without Qualities (written between the World Wars). I'd gone to Cambridge to read mathematics, which I loved, then changed to English rather unhappily after two years, when I found that university maths wasn't the exciting subject it had been as I was growing up. I didn't know where I was going next. Musil's hero, Ulrich, is an unhappy, self-ironising mathematician living in Vienna during the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, trying vainly to make sense of a collapsing culture, and a world spiralling into decline around him. I suppose I identified with him.

Why did it strike you so much? I needed a scientist hero. It's astonishing, as you grow up studying science, how few role models there are in fiction. Musil's Ulrich has a self-distancing, self-conscious awareness of his own insignificance in the scale of things. It is this alienated state which defines humanity at the end of the 20th century. Musil shows us that it's not a failing but part of the scheme of things, and that it's also rather funny. It's a novel about how we try to make our everyday lives match the precious intellectual aspirations inside our heads.

Have you re-read it? When I was writing Worldly Goods my editor gave me a copy of the Knopf edition of Sophie Wilkins' and Burton Pike's new translation. It didn't feel quite the same, because I wasn't "lost" the way I was when I first discovered Musil. But I was shocked to realise how much of myself I could still recognise. Before that I'd re-read bits I particularly liked. I loved the "end", which had seemed particularly daring in the Sixties, where Musil breaks off because the plot is leading inexorably towards incest between his hero and his sister - the only person whose interior self he discovers is enough akin to his for him to give his love unreservedly to her.

Do you recommend it? Absolutely. Anyone who wants to understand where they belong in the cultural life of Britain at the twilight of the 20th century needs to read A Man Without Qualities.

! Lisa Jardine and Alan Stewart's new biography 'Hostage to Fortune: The Troubled Life of Francis Bacon' is published by Gollancz at pounds 25