In his introduction to Robert Musil’s Agathe, or The Forgotten Sister, NYRB editor Edwin Frank writes that,
Essay, in this quintessentially essayistic novel, is the mode for depicting a mind so active that it nearly constitutes a character independent of the man whose mind it is. That man is a thirty-two-year-old Austrian mathematician known to the reader only by his first name, Ulrich, who, disillusioned in his quest for intellectual glory after reading a newspaper about a racehorse of genius, decides to take a year-long ‘vacation from life,’ which he conceives of as an experiment in pure philosophic contemplation — ‘living essayistically,’ he calls it — in the hope of perhaps, by that pathless route, discovering an occupation better suited to his abilities. If he does not find it within a year, he will put an end to his life, because, to his fanatically logical and consequent mind, an unjustified life is not worth living.
I’ll confess I’ve never read Musil, despite two lukewarm milquetoast attempts, but I liked Frank’s introduction. Seems like I need to read The Man without Qualities before this. Here’s the NYRB blurb:
Agathe is the sister of Ulrich, the restless and elusive “man without qualities” at the center of Robert Musil’s great, unfinished novel of the same name. For years Agathe and Ulrich have ignored each other, but when brother and sister find themselves reunited over the bier of their dead father, they are electrified. Each is the other’s spitting image, and Agathe, who has just separated from her husband, is even more defiant and inquiring than Ulrich. Beginning with a series of increasingly intense “holy conversations,” the two gradually enlarge the boundaries of sexuality, sensuality, identity, and understanding in pursuit of a new, true form of being that they are seeking to discover.
Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities is perhaps the most profoundly exploratory and unsettling masterpiece of twentieth-century fiction. Agathe; or, The Forgotten Sister reveals with new clarity a particular dimension of this multidimensional book—the dimension that meant the most to Musil himself and that inspired some of his most searching writing. The outstanding translator Joel Agee captures the acuity, audacity, and unsettling poetry of a book that is meant to be nothing short of life-changing.
Agathe’s English translation is by Joel Agee.