Musil, Robert

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MUSIL, Robert

Nationality: Austrian. Born: Klagenfurt, 6 November 1880. Education: A school in Steyr; military school in Eisenstadt, 1892-94, and in Mährisch-Weisskirchen, 1895-98; studied engineering at Technische Nochschule, Brno, 1898-1901; studied philosophy, University of Berlin, 1903-05, Ph.D. 1908. Military Service: 1901-02; served in Austrian army, 1914-16; hospitalized, 1916, then editor of army newspaper, 1916-18; bronze cross. Family: Married Martha Marcovaldi in 1911. Career: Engineer in Stuttgart, 1902-03; in Berlin until 1911; archivist, 1911-13; editor, Die neue Rundschau, Berlin, 1914; in press section of Office of Foreign Affairs, Vienna, 1919-20, and consultant to Defense Ministry, 1920-23; then freelance writer in Berlin, 1931-33, Vienna, 1933-38, and Switzerland, 1938-42. Awards: Kleist prize, 1923; City of Vienna prize, 1924. Died: 15 April 1942.



Gesammelte Werke, edited by Adolf Frisé. 3 vols., 1952-57; revised edition, 2 vols., 1978.

Short Stories

Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless (novella). 1906; as Young Törless, 1955.

Vereinigungen. 1911; as Unions, 1965.

Drei Frauen (includes "Grigia"; "Die Portugiesin," and "Tonka").1924; as Three Women, 1965; as Tonka and Other Stories (also includes translation of Vereinigungen), 1965.


Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, completed by Martha Musil. 3 vols., 1930-43; edited by Adolf Frisé, 1952, revised edition, 1965; as The Man without Qualities, 3 vols., 1953-60.


Die Schwärmer. 1921; as The Enthusiasts, 1982.

Vinzenz und die Freundin bedeutender Männer. 1923.


Das hilflose Europa. 1922.

Nachlass zu Lebzeiten. 1936; as Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, 1987.

Theater: Kritisches und Theoretisches, edited by Marie-LouiseRoth. 1965.

Der Deutsche Mensch als Symptom, edited by Karl Corino and Elisabeth Albertsen. 1967.

Briefe nach Prag, edited by Barbara Köpplova and Kurt Krolop. 1971.

Tagebücher, edited by Adolf Frisé. 2 vols., 1976.

Texte aus dem Nachlass. 1980.

Beitrag zur Beurteilung der Lehren Machs (dissertation), edited by Adolf Frisé. 1980; as On Mach's Theories, 1983.

Briefe 1901-1942, edited by Adolf Frisé. 1981.

Selected Writings, edited by Burton Pike. 1986.

Precision and Soul: Essays and Addresses, edited by Burton Pike and David S. Luft. 1990.


Critical Studies:

Musil: An Introduction to His Work by Burton Pike, 1961; Femininity and the Creative Imagination: A Study ofHenry James, Musil, and Marcel Proust by Lisa Appignanesi, 1973; Musil, Master of the Hovering Life by Frederick G. Peters, 1978; Musil: "Die Mann ohne Eigenschaften": An Examination of the Relationship Between Author, Narrator, and Protagonist by Alan Holmes, 1978; Musil and the Crisis of European Culture 1880-1942 by David S. Luft, 1980; Musil and the Ineffable: Hieroglyph, Myth, Fairy Tale, and Sign by Ronald M. Paulson, 1982; Musil in Focus: Papers from a Centenary Symposium, 1982, and Musil and the Literary Landscape of His Time: Papers of an International Symposium, 1991, both edited by Lothar Huber and John J. White; Musil and the Culture of Vienna by Hannah Hickman, 1984; Proust and Musil: The Novel as Research Instrument by Gene M. Moore, 1985; Sympathy for the Abyss: A Study in the Novel of German Modernism: Kafka, Broch, Musil and Thomas Mann by Stephen D. Dowden, 1986; Musil's Works, 1906-1924: A Critical Introduction, 1987, and Musil's "The Man Without Qualities": A Critical Study, 1988, both by Philip Payne; Musil by Lowell A. Bangerter, 1988; "Images of Woman in Musil's Tonka: Mystical Encounters and Borderlines Between Self and Other" by Barbara Mabee, in Michigan Academician, 1992; Implied Dramaturgy: Robert Musil and the Crisis of Modern Drama by Christian Rogowski, 1993; Distinguished Outsider: Robert Musil and His Critics by Christian Rogowski, 1994.

* * *

As a writer Robert Musil was too academic and analytic to excel in the conventional literary genres. All his work turns on the effort to resolve by action the tension between intellection and feeling. It is that tension that is Törless's weakness in Musil's first, successful short novel, Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless (Young Törless). In the final, unfinished three-volume panorama of life in Austro-Hungarian Vienna just before World War I, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man without Qualities), finished by his wife, this same tension causes Ulrich's withdrawal from any situation requiring decisive action.

Musil left mounds of personal papers that tell us about his life and reflections, and we have his notebooks, drafts, and sketches but very little published work: the early Young Törless of 1906, which had been rejected by several publishing houses and succeeded thanks only to Alfred Kerr's review in Der Tag; two short stories published in 1911 as Vereinigungen (Unions); two plays, one a disastrous failure, the other only a moderate success; three other short stories in Drei Frauen (Three Women); a final short story "The Blackbird," first published in 1927; and the vast masterpiece The Man without Qualities.

The rest of Musil's published work consisted of essays, prose poems, fables, sketches, speeches, and journalism. Although he was formed in a Vienna where Wedekind was examining psycho-sexual problems on the stage at the same time that Freud was writing his first papers and his interest in experimental psychology can be traced to that city, Musil regarded himself primarily as a German-speaking European. It is in an anonymous review in the Times Literary Supplement of London (October 1949) that his subsequent fame is rooted. In postwar Europe Musil's fame spread back to German-speaking Europe from England.

The short fiction, written between the decision to make a career of writing and the gestation of the great novel, must be seen as part of Musil's quest to define his own personal style in such a way as to integrate as far as possible the affective and intellective sides of his personality. There are only five stories, six with the enigmatic "The Blackbird." The first, originally titled "The Enchanted House," was published in Hyperion in 1908. The editor asked for a second piece. Called "The Perfecting of a Love," the story consisted of 40 pages that cost Musil most of his energy for over two years. It was published together with the reworked version of the first story, retitled "The Temptation of Quiet Veronica," as Unions in 1911, and the volume was not well received.

In "The Perfecting of a Love" the central figure, Claudine, incorporates into a life of complete devotion to her husband a brief adulterous relationship with a stranger. The story starts at home, the day before Claudine goes off to the boarding school to visit her 13-year-old child, Lilli, the result of a casual affair during her first marriage. On her journey she begins to feel revulsion against the rational perfection of her tranquil, happy marriage. She needs to give in to the world of passion within her, from which she has become alienated, and does so with a shadowy senior official she meets on the train and with whom she is cut off by the snow in the remote village near the school. He is proud of what he regards as his conquest. She forgets Lilli, whom she does not try to see; the man she is with is unimportant to her; and she feels at peace with her absent husband and with the world. The interest of the story resides in the way in which the narrator recounts Claudine's thoughts and feelings in minute detail, drawing on his knowledge of human psychological mechanisms. By the use of images, metaphors, and other stylistic devices, he achieves a powerful fictionalization of the precise experience he is describing. It is a complex, obviously brilliant account of emotionally sterilized events.

"The Temptation of Quiet Veronica" is closer to being case notes. Veronica lives with her elderly aunt. The precise status of two male characters, the aggressive Demeter and the meditative Johannes, is left undefined. What makes the story is again not the clinical state but its emotional context, as communicated through the imagery. What little happens is filtered by the narrator through Veronica's consciousness so that the reader is left with the chiaroscuro of her vision. Her life, clearly monotonous and emotionally empty, is evoked in her unbidden recollections of fragments of earlier conversation with Johannes. Indeed, just as Musil derived from the Vienna of Freud and Wedekind, so also he shares, during the same time period, Proust's fascination of the workings of indeliberate memory. Veronica begins to discover the stirrings of a repressed sensuality. She had once nearly yielded to Demeter when he taunted her with inevitable sexlessly senile desiccation in the old house, but she had remembered Johannes. Johannes had suggested leaving with him, but in the end she refuses and he goes off, threatening to commit suicide. Through stylistic effects of remarkable brilliance, very clear in a series of paragraph openings, we learn how Veronica, for one night, feels herself ecstatically and sensually united with the external world. Wind, blood, animals, "streams of life," light-headedness come into her feelings, somehow connected with her speculations about the time and manner of Johannes's suicide. She undresses, just for the fun of it. Then the letter came, "as it had to come." Johannes had rediscovered himself. Veronica's semi-autism returns. From the arrival of the letter to the end takes scarcely two pages out of nearly thirty.

Three Women, comprising "Grigia," "The Lady from Portugal," and "Tonka," sees the women through the eyes of the men involved. In "Grigia" the man, called simply "Homo," is a geologist. He has a liaison with Grigia while remaining mentally faithful to his wife. Grigia refuses to meet him in the habitual barn but consents to make love for the last time in a disused mine-shaft. Her husband appears; a boulder falls, blocking the way out; Grigia escapes but Homo dies. The writing is less experimental than in Unions, but the point of the brief story is the build-up to death, the event that consummates the skillfully delineated disintegration of Homo's relationship with the world. The male character's relationship to the world is also the focus of "The Lady from Portugal," in which the medieval warrior lord, nearly dead after a mere mosquito sting, fights his way back to physical fitness—a frequently recurring Musil theme, often associated with animals. In the finalstory of Three Women, "Tonka," there is specific allusion toNovalis, but also to Nietzsche. The unnamed male scientist inrevolt is deeply disturbed by the apparent infidelity of the girl withwhom he has run away, and realizes the rights of instinct only afterher death.

—A. H. T. Levi

Musil, Robert

views updated May 29 2018


MUSIL, ROBERT (1880–1942), Austrian novelist and essayist.

Robert Musil was one of the most important minds of the twentieth century. He is best known as a German novelist from the generation of Thomas Mann, Hermann Broch, and Franz Kafka, but his intellectual significance has sometimes been overlooked, partly because he was not an academic philosopher or social scientist. Musil's great achievements as a novelist and essayist came during the interwar years—the first two volumes of his most important novel, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man without Qualities) appeared in 1930 and 1932 respectively and most of his essays appeared after World War I—but he saw himself as representative of the experience of European intellectuals in the generation that reached maturity in the decade before the war.

Musil grew up in the smaller cities of Austria and Moravia, and he spent most of his adult life in Vienna and Berlin. He was powerfully influenced by modern physics and mathematics, but also by French aestheticism, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. His first novel, Young Törless (1906), was a story of adolescent crisis and conflict in an Austrian military academy, and his second volume of fiction (1911) brought together two novellas that were written from the perspectives of women. These fictional accounts of sexual experience departed from the conventions of German literature and established many of the psychological and epistemological themes of his later work. After completing his doctorate in Berlin with a dissertation on Ernst Mach, Musil turned away from an academic career in psychology and philosophy to pursue his interest in ethics as a writer. He married Martha Marcovaldi (née Heimann) in 1911 and worked as an editor for the prestigious Neue Rundschau (New review) in Berlin, where he experienced the internationalism of European intellectual life before 1914. Musil felt the intensity of August 1914 and went to war as an officer on the Italian front. During the last two decades of his life, his creative work was a reflection on the experience of nineteenth-century Europe and the possibilities it opened up for life in a modern, technological society.

Musil was an advocate of modern science and civilization and a critic of anti-rationalism and nationalism, but he also thought of himself as a German writer who had inherited the ethical and aesthetic concerns of Nietzsche. He drew on the tradition of the Enlightenment and modern science, but he wanted to apply these intellectual values to emotional life in new ways. He argued that Europe in the early twentieth century did not suffer from too much intellect and too little soul, as many of his contemporaries believed, but rather from too little understanding in matters of the soul (or the emotional life). His work aimed to bring thinking and feeling into more flexible relation to one another and to the demands of modern life, to contribute to the creation of a new culture and a spirituality commensurate with life in modern society. He believed that liberalism, socialism, and Christianity had all failed under the pressures of modern civilization and World War I, and he was an astute critic of the new political forms that emerged in the interwar years.

Musil spent most of his life writing a huge and never finished novel, which is set in Vienna in 1913. The Man without Qualities seems at first to be a historical novel about the old-fashioned problems of a multinational monarchy on the verge of disintegration. In fact, it is an intellectual adventure, an inquiry into the ideological and emotional problems of modernity, which has continued to gain in significance over the years, especially with the U.S. translations of Musil's works in the 1990s. The originality of Musil's approach to feelings and metaphor is apparent throughout the novel, but this dimension becomes more explicit in the second volume, as he concentrates on the relationship between the protagonist and his sister and their conversations about gender, ethics, and a heightened relation to experience.

Musil was one of the great clarifying minds of the twentieth century, who saw in the transformations of modernity and World War I new possibilities for living differently and creatively. He aimed at a constant refashioning of the way the world is viewed, but also wanted to recover the relation to experience, which he believed lay at the basis of world religions and ideologies.

See alsoBerlin; Mann, Thomas; Modernism; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Vienna.


Musil, Robert von. Young Törless. Translated by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser. New York, 1955.

——. Selected Writings. Edited by Burton Pike. New York, 1986.

——. Precision and Soul: Essays and Addresses. Edited and translated by Burton Pike and David S. Luft. Chicago, 1990.

——. The Man without Qualities. Translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike. Edited by Burton Pike. 2 vols. New York, 1995.

——. Diaries, 1899–1941. Translated by Philip Payne. Edited by Mark Mirsky. New York, 1998. Original German version of the diaries edited by Adolf Frisé. Offers fascinating pathways into Musil's ideas and his historical world.

Secondary Sources

Corino, Karl. Robert Musil: Eine Biographie. Reinbek, Germany, 2003.

Luft, David S. Robert Musil and the Crisis of European Culture, 1880–1942, Berkeley, Calif., 1980. Addresses Musil's intellectual development in relation to the broader context of central European intellectual and political life in the early twentieth century.

——. Eros and Inwardness: Weininger, Musil, Doderer. Chicago, 2003.

Rogowski, Christian. Distinguished Outsider: Robert Musil and His Critics. Columbia, S.C., 1994. Excellent overview.

David S. Luft

Musil, Robert

views updated Jun 27 2018

Musil, Robert (1880–1942) Austrian novelist. His masterpiece is the epic novel The Man Without Qualities (1930–43), on the closing years of the Habsburg Empire.

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