Robert Musil

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Robert Musil

Robert Musil (Klagenfurt, Austria, November 6, 1880 - April 15, 1942 in Geneva, Switzerland) was an Austrian writer, author of the unfinished long novel The Man Without Qualities (Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften), one of the most important Modernist novels ever written. Musil led a unique life for a literary author; as a young man he studied engineering, and for several years after graduating from college he worked as an engineer and mathematician. When he ultimately became dissatisfied with science and engineering, Musil switched his focus towards philosophy, earning a doctorate in philosophy and psychology from the University of Berlin. Although Musil had been fascinated by literature most of his life, it was not until well into his academic career as a philosopher that he published his first novel and subsequently dedicated himself to writing fiction.

As a result of Musil's background, he is an instrumental figure in an emerging field in the scholarly study of literature known as "science studies," or the study of the relation between the sciences and the arts. Musil's fiction, most notably his enormous, unfinished novel The Man Without Qualities is infused with the sharp, philosophical acuity and insight one would expect from an author who had rigorously studied science. In his "novel of ideas" Musil dissects modern European society, with his main character serving as a metaphor for the lack of clarity of vision that allowed the rise of nationalism and ultimately national socialism in Central Europe.

As a writer, Musil proclaimed that, in his fiction, he was always searching for genauenheit, which roughly translates as "exactitude." Musil is often compared to that other author of a mammoth, modern novel, Marcel Proust, and like Proust, Musil was nearly obsessed with finding "the perfect word" and an almost mathematical level of precision in his use of language. Moreover, like all the major novelists of Modernism, from Proust, to James Joyce, to Henry James, Musil's fiction was eminently concerned with conducting a psychological "study" of mankind, and particularly the German people on the eve of First World War. In his pursuit of this goal, Musil created an all-encompassing oeuvre; pursuing the nature of humanity with the fastidiousness of a scientist, and the genius of a master philosopher. Despite being largely ignored in his own time, Musil is now respected as one of the most ambitious and most insightful of all the titans of modern fiction.


Musil was the son of Alfred Musil (1846-1924) and his wife Hermine (1853-1924), who lived together with an unrelated "uncle" Heinrich Reiter (b. 1856). The elder Musil was an engineer, appointed in 1891 to the chair of Mechanical Engineering at the German Technical University in Brno, and awarded a hereditary peerage in the Austro-Hungarian empire shortly before it collapsed. The younger Musil was a bit short, but strong and skilled at wrestling, and by his early teens already more than his parents could handle. Accordingly they sent him to military boarding school at Eisenstadt (1892-1894) and then Mährisch-Weisskirchen (1894-1897). These school experiences are reflected in his first novel, Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless (The Confusions of Young Törless).

After graduating as a cadet, Musil briefly studied at a military college in Vienna during the fall of 1897, but then switched to engineering, joining his father's department at Brno. During his college career he studied engineering by day, but at night read literature and philosophy, and went to the theater and art exhibits. Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Ernst Mach were particular interests during his college years. Musil finished his studies in three years, then in 1902-1903 served as an unpaid assistant to Professor Julius Carl von Bach, in Stuttgart. During this time he began work on Young Törless.

Even at this early stage, however, Musil was growing tired of engineering and the limited worldview of engineers, and rather than settle into an engineering career, he launched a new round of doctoral studies (1903-1908) in psychology and philosophy at the University of Berlin under the renowned Professor, Carl Stumpf. In 1905, Musil met Martha Marcovaldi, who was in subsequent years to become his wife. In the midst of doctoral studies, Young Törless, his first novel, was published in 1906.

In 1909, Musil completed his doctorate and was offered a position by Professor Alexius Meinong, at the University of Graz, which he turned down to concentrate on literature. Over the next two years, he wrote and published two stories ("The Temptation of Quiet Veronica" and "The Perfecting of a Love") in a book entitled Vereinigungen (Unions) in 1911. During this same year, Martha's divorce was complete, and she and Musil married. Until this time, Musil had been supported by his family, but he now found employment first as a librarian in the Technical University of Vienna, and then in an editorial role with the Berlin Literary Journal, during which time he worked on a play entitled Die Schwärmer (The Enthusiasts), eventually published in 1921.

When World War I began, Musil joined the Austrian army, stationed first in the South Tyrol, and then away from danger at Austria's Supreme Army Command in Bolzano. In 1916 Musil came to Prague and met Franz Kafka whose work he highly esteemed, as he did the work of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. After the war's end, with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Musil returned to a fulltime literary life in Vienna. He published a collection of short stories, Drei Frauen (Three Women), in 1924, and then in 1930 and 1932 the first two volumes of his masterpiece, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities).

In the early 1920s Musil lived mostly in Berlin. In Vienna Musil was a frequent visitor of Eugenie Schwarzwald, whose extravagant salons of artists and politicians would become a model for the character of Diotima in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften. In 1932 The Robert Musil Society was founded in Berlin on the initiative of Thomas Mann. The same year Thomas Mann was asked to name an eminent contemporary novel and he cited exclusively The Man Without Qualities.

In 1936 Musil suffered a stroke. The last years of his life were dominated by failing health, Nazism, and World War II. Musil saw early Nazism first-hand during 1931-1933 in a stay in Berlin, and later, after Anschluss when Austria became a part of the Third Reich in 1938, Musil left for exile in Switzerland, where he died of a stroke on April 15, 1942; as legend has it, he collapsed in the middle of calisthenic exercises, and died with an expression of ironic amusement on his face. He was 61.

After his death Musil´s work was almost forgotten in German-speaking countries. His writings started to reappear at the beginning of the 1950s. The first translation of The Man Without Qualities in English was also published around that time, leading to a gradual resurgence of Musil scholarship in English-speaking universities, and the ultimate recognition by scholars the world over of Musil's enormous contribution to Modernism.

The Man Without Qualities

The Man without Qualities is a mammoth work of fiction in three volumes which Musil never lived to see fully completed. Speculation abounds as to how long the novel might have been had Musil lived to complete it; many scholars, using Musil's manuscripts and notes as evidence, believe that, had it been completed, The Man Without Qualities would have spanned over six volumes, and may very possibly have been the longest novel ever written in any language. Some scholars have even argued that there could have been no possible satisfactory conclusion to the book, and that Musil intentionally never finished it. Besides its mammoth size, however, and the myths that surround Musil's unfortunate death, The Man Without Qualities is notable as one of the greatest works of German literature produced in the 20th century. Thomas Mann considered it the only contemporary German novel worthy of serious consideration, and a number of authors since have praised it as one of the greatest achievements in literature in any language in recent history; such diverse figures as Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera and New York poet John Ashbery have lauded the book with acclaim. Although long underappreciated, The Man Without Qualities is now increasingly viewed as the third major novel of modernism, alongside Joyce's epic Ulysses and Proust's In Search of Lost Time.

The novel, or "story of ideas" as Musil called it, takes place in the time of the Austria-Hungarian monarchy's last days. The novel's primary theme is the need to preserve order in a shaken world; much of the action of the first volume is focused on the "Parallel Campaign," a loose organization of leading political and intellectual figures in Austria that attempts to find a new sense of certainty for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, even as World War I looms on the horizon.

The German-language title is a pun on the phrase Mann mit Eigenschaften—literally "man with qualities"—equivalent to the English-language phrase "self-made man."

Plot summary

A summary of the novel is somewhat difficult because, despite its immense length, not very much occurs according to the traditional notion of action or plot. The novel is much more an exploration of ideas through a variety of characters, and as a result the following summary will be little more than a character sketch. The first book, entitled A Sort of Introduction, is an introduction of the main character of the story, a 32-year old mathematician named Ulrich who is futilely searching for a sense of the purpose of life and reality. His ambiguity to morals and indifference to life has brought him to the state of becoming "a man without qualities"; Ulrich, quite literally, has no character, and is indifferent to everything. This makes him (ironically) immensely attractive to a number of characters in the book, both romantically and intellectually, because he always seem to be entirely aloof from the world around him. In a sense, Ulrich represents an ironical version of Nietzsche's ubermensch, or superman, for he has overcome all doubt and turmoil and his actions are purely a matter of his own, disinterested will.

While we are introduced to Ulrich, we also meet maniacal murderer and rapist Moosbrugger, who is condemned for his murder of a prostitute. Although Moosbrugger's story is almost entirely independent of Ulrich's, he is a highly important character in the novel, and acts as a sort of perfect counterpoint to Ulrich. While Ulrich is lost in his own thoughts and largely indifferent to the physical world, Moosbrugger lives an almost animalistic existence, driven purely by his instincts. Together, the two represent two halves of the human psyche, and as the story proceeds a number of secondary characters become fascinated in comparing the two.

Other protagonists who are introduced in this early chapter are Ulrich´s nymphomaniac mistress Bonadea and his friend Walter and Walter's wife, Clarisse. Walter is another character who largely exists as a foil or counterpart to Ulrich; Walter resembles Ulrich in many ways: the two are both recognized as geniuses, and both have largely become disillusioned with the world around them. But, while Ulrich has adopted an attitude of total indifference to the world, Walter has become a passionate artist who been largely consumed by the very world Ulrich rejects, wasting all of his talent and energy worrying over quotidian trifles. Clarisse wishes to restore Walter to his youthful, artistic intensity, but increasingly finds herself attracted to Ulrich instead, in whom she finds an incarnation of the ideal ubermensch: a man of action and willpower, who unlike Walter is completely unconcerned by the worries of the world.

In the second book, entitled Pseudoreality Prevails, Ulrich joins the so-called "Parallel Campaign," an organization designed to celebrate the strength and superiority of the Austrian people over their German neighbors. In particular, it is the intent of the organizers of the Parallel Campaign to host a feast of all the world's greatest intellectuals and artists in Austria, creating (it is hoped) an event of such importance that it will eclipse all the rest of German history. Many bright ideas and visions are discussed for the Parallel Campaign's planned great event, and, predictably, very little gets done.

The Parallel Campaign in large part is the brainchild of Ermelinda Tuzzi, called Diotima, the wife of a civil servant who dreams of becoming the Viennese muse of philosophy, inspiring and encouraging whomever crosses her path. Diotima runs a salon out of her sizeable estate that largely serves as the meeting-place for all the major players in the Parallel Campaign. Diotima complicates matters further by finding herself romantically attracted to both Ulrich and Paul Arnheim, a German man who resembles Ulrich in a number of ways.

Among the other characters who appear at Diotima's salon is Count Leinsdorf, a nobleman who is incapable of deciding anything, General Stumm von Bordwehr, an unpopular grump who attempts to make things systematic, like in the army, and Count Paul Arnheim (modeled after German politician Walter Rathenau). Count Arnheim is an admirer of Diotima who, like Ulrich, feels largely removed from the world but who, unlike Ulrich, is not entirely aloof. Arnheim has a number of earthly plans and ambitions, which he hopes to achieve through the assistance of the Parallel Campaign.

While most of the participants (none more than Diotima) try to combine the reign of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with a general idea of humanity, progress, tradition and happiness, the only level-headed members of the Campaign who do not entirely lose themselves in idyllism are the ever-unpopular General von Bordwehr and Arnheim, who plans to exploit Diotima's generosity in order to build an oil-drilling empire in the east of Austria.

The last volume of the book, Into The Millennium, is even more difficult to summarize as it is largely unfinished and fragmentary, and there is little plot to speak of. The central theme of this last volume revolves around Ulrich´s sister, Agathe, who enters the novel at the end of Psuedoreality Prevails. Ulrich and Agathe experience a mystical and vaguely incestuous stirring of feeling upon meeting after their father's death. They see themselves as soul mates or, as the book says, "siamese-twins." Beyond this theme of sibling connection, much of the rest of Into the Millennium consists of fragmentary sketches and ideas that Musil, sadly, never had the time to fully explicate.

History of the novel

Musil worked on his masterpiece for more than 20 years. He started in 1921 and spent the rest of his life working on it. When he died in 1941, the novel was not yet complete. The first two books were published in 1930, the last and unfinished one posthumously by his wife Martha in 1942. He worked on his novel almost every day, leaving his family in a dire need of money. The combination of material poverty and multiplicity of ideas is one of the most striking characteristics of Musil´s life and work.

The novel brought neither fame nor fortune to Musil or his family later on. That was one of the reasons why he felt bitter and unrecognized during the last two decades of his lifetime.

There are strong autobiographical features to be found in the text, as the main character´s ideas and attitudes are believed to be those of Musil. Most of the aspects of the Viennese life in the novel are based on facts and Musil´s own life experience. However, the plot and the characters (with the exception of a short appearance of the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I) are purely the invention of the author, although some of them had their living inspirations in eminent Austrian and German men and women.

His detailed portrait of the decaying fin-de-siècle world is similar to those of Hermann Broch´s The Sleepwalkers, Karl Kraus´s The Last Days of Mankind, or Stefan Zweig´s The World of Yesterday.

Legacy of the novel

Musil´s monumental novel contains more than 1700 pages (depending on edition) across three books. The novel is famous for its intelligence and the irony with which Musil displays the Austrian society shortly before World War I. The plot takes place in the capital of a fictitious European country named Kakanien. The name of Kakanien is derived from the German abbreviation K und K ("kaiserlich und königlich" or "Imperial and Royal“) which demonstrates the lack of political and administrative unity in Austria of those times. Musil further says "By its constitution it was liberal, but the system of government was clerical. The system of government was clerical, but the general attitude to life was liberal. Before the law all citizens were equal, but not everyone, of course, was a citizen." (Musil: The Man without Qualities, Vol. 1: A Sort of Introduction, Chapter 8 - Kakanien).


  • Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless (The Confusions of Young Torless. 1906), Penguin edition translated by Shaun Whiteside. Later made into a movie Der junge Törless
  • Vereinigungen (1911)
  • Die Schwärmer (1921)
  • Vinzenz und die Freundin bedeutender Männer (1924)
  • Drei Frauen (1924) (Five Women - a collection of five short stories)
  • Nachlass zu Lebzeiten (1936)
  • Über die Dummheit (1937)
  • Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities. 1930, 1933, 1943, published in two volumes) Vintage ed. 1996 newly translated by Sophie Wilkins.
  • Diaries: 1899-1941. Edited and translated by Adolf Frise and Philip Payne. Basic Books, 1990.

External links

All links retrieved December 15, 2022.


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