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by Bamber Gascoigne

Robert Edler von Musil (1880-1942)


Austrian novelist, best known for his monumental unfinished novel Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities) in three volumes. Robert Musil devoted the last two decades of his life to his opus, but was not able to complete it. The first book was published in 1930, part of the second book in 1933, and remaining texts posthumously in 1943. Musil also wrote plays, essays, and short stories. His works, which often deal with the protagonist's self-sustaining intellectual and emotional life, have been compared to those of Marcel Proust.

"It is always wrong to explain the phenomena of a country by the character of its inhabitants. For the inhabitant of a country has at least nine characters: a professional one, a civic one, a class one, a geographical one, a sex one, a conscious, and unconscious and perhaps even too a private one; he combines them all in himself, but they dissolve him, and he is really nothing but a little channel washed out by all these trickling streams, which flow into it and drain out again in order to join other little streams filling another channel." (from The Man Without Qualities)

Robert Musil was born in Klagenfurt, Austria, the only son of Alfred Musil, a professor of engineering at the Technical University of Brünn and arms manufacturer, and Hermine Musil, a highly temperamental and sometimes hysterical woman. While her husband devoted himself to his career, she carried on a forty-year liaison with a teacher who lived with the family. Musil was babtized Catholic, but religion played no role in his early years. It was later in life when he developed an interest in Catholicism.

As a boy, Musil was introverted, socially withdrawn, and often sick and in bed. In the third grade Musil had a nervous breakdown. At the age of 12 he was sent to a military academy in Eisenstadt, then in a senior military academy in Mährisch-Weisskirchen and the Technical Military Academy of Vienna. From 1898 to 1901 he studied mechanical engineering in Brünn, where his father taught, and passed his second engineering examination. 

The days Musil devoted to science, but the night was reserved for fin de siècle poets and philosophers such as Socrates, Schopenhauer, Emerson, and Nietzsche. At this time, Musil also began ponder over how to restructure his life and recorded his thoughts in his diary. In March 1902 Musil noted that he is undergoing treatment for syphilis, which was at that time still treated with mercury. For decades Musil anguished over the possibility that the disease would recur. (A Companion to the Works of Robert Musil, edited by Philip Payne, Graham Bartram, and Galin Tihanov, 2007, p. 426) Although Musil had associated with prostitutes, he could not free himself from the thought that he had contracted syphilis from his mistress, Herma Dietz. Musil made relatively few diary references to her. Herma had miscarriage in 1906.

After military service Musil spent a year as an unpaid assistant at the Technical University in Stuttgart. In 1908 he earned a Ph.D. from the University of Berlin. His doctoral dissertation dealt with the epistemology of the Viennese philosopher Ernest Mach, who claimed that the reality we know is constituted only in our sensations.

Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß (1906, Young Törless), Musil' first novel, was set in an exclusive military academy. It came out while he was still a student. The story about adolescent self-discovery and the nature of power gained a huge success. A pupil, Basini, has been stealing from his fellow students, and is subjected to all kinds of humiliations and homosexual games by his schoolmates. The young Törless of the title is a member of this group, but tries to remain more as an observer than participant. To end his misery, Basini confesses his crime, is expelled, but also Törless leaves the school in moral confusion. Many critics have later read the work as an investigation of the roots of German fascism.

Later in life Musil denied that the book was about his own youthful experiences. However, the military academy portrayed was without doubts the one at Weisskirchen, which Musil and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke had attended. "It was here that the sons of the best families in the country received their education, going on then to the university, or into the army or the service of the State; in all such careers, as well as for general social reasons, it was particular advantage to have been educated at W." (from Young Törless)

In 1911 Musil married Martha Marcovaldi (née Heimann), a Berlin artist, who had been married twice before, and published two novellas about women, 'Die Vollendung der Liebe' and 'Die Versuchung der stillen Veronika' under the title Vereinigungen (1912-1914). This work, dealing with repressed sexual feelings, did not attract attention at the time of its appearance. After Musil's death it was considered major fiction. Noteworthy, the heroine of most of Musil's fiction is his wife, whom he once referred in his notebooks as "The Crow"; Martha's nickname was "Raven".

Musil's immersion to into his writing led him to the point of exhaustion. From 1911 to 1914 Musil worked as a librarian at the Technological University in Vienna. Against his expectations, the job took so much of his time, that  he had no energy to write. Eventually, on the threshold of a nervous breakdown, he was granted an indefinite leave from his post.

During World War I Musil served in the Austrian army. At first he believed  that he was defending German culture and German values. Gradually he took the view that the war was an outburst of irrationality. Musil was first stationed in South Tirol. Some of the brutality of the fighting he witnessed on the front line.

While on leave in Prague from his service, he visited Kafka, who wrote in a postcard to Felice Bauer, that "Musil – do you remember him? – came to see me today, a first lieutenant in the infantry – ill, and yet in fairly good shape." (Letters to Felice by F. Kafka, 2016, p. 465) In 1916-18 Musil edited an army newspaper, Tiroler Soldaten-Zeitung. After the war, he worked as a civil servant for some years at Defence Ministry in various posts. When government cutbacks had led to the termination of Musil's job, he became a full-time writer and freelance journalist.

"Our ancestors wrote prose in long, beautiful sentences, convoluted like curls; although we still learn to do it that way in school, we write in short sentences that cut more quickly to the heart of the matter; and no one in the world can free his thinking from the manner in which his time wears the cloak of language. Thus no man can know to what extent he actually means what he writes and in writing, it is far less that people twist words than it is that words twist people." (from 'The Paintspreader' in Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, 1936)

The success Musil achieved in the 1920s with his plays and satires did not last. His two plays, Die Schwärmer (1921), which received the Kleist Prize, and Vinzenz und die Freundin bedeutender Männer (1923), were commercial failures. His financial situation became worse when he started to devote more time with his monumental novel The Man without Qualities, an intellectual, cultural, and social analysis of the times in the Habsburg Empire. In 1929 he suffered mental breakdown. Musil lived in Berlin (1931-33) and in Vienna (1933-38). While writing his masterwork Musil composed a collection of short pieces, in which he viewed familiar things from new, almost surreal perspectives. "The woman wears a hairdo of little curls - any minute now she'll arrange them according to the latest fashion from the time before she fell asleep. And they're smiling at each other; a long, a very long smile. You look away: And they still go on smiling. This faithful, proper, middle class, beloved look has lasted centuries; it was sent forth in ancient Rome and crosses your glance today."

The Nazis entered Vienna in 1938, and Musil went with his Jewish wife into self-imposed exile in Switzerland. His books were banned in Germany and Austria. To the Italian politician and writer Ignazio Silone, who asked why he had left Vienna, Musil  explained: "Nearly all of my readers and critics were Jewish. In the last few years they have all left one after another. Should I have stayed behind alone, and what for?" (Robert Musil and The Crisis of European Culture, 1880-1942 by David S. Luft, 1980, p. 270)  His final years Musil spent in poverty and obscurity. Robert Musil died of a brain infarction in Geneva on April 15, 1942. He was buried in the Cimetière des Rois (Cemetery of Kings).

In The Man Without Qualities Musil brought the novel toward philosophy. The work portraits life in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, called 'Kakania' (kaiserlich und königlich) in 1913-14. Ulrich von..., the thirty-two-year old Viennese protagonist, has tried to make a career as a soldier, engineer and in mathematics. He is highly trained but feels to be merely the convergence of impersonal qualities. One day he decides to take a holiday and search for the meaning of modern life beyond the ordinary aspects of the everyday. "Probably the dissolution of the anthropocentric point of view, which for a long time considered man the be the center of the universe but which has been fading away for centuries, has finally arrived at the 'I' itself." The second part of the first volume deals with the preparations to celebrate the Habsburg rule, the 70th year of the reign of the Emperor Francis Joseph in 1918 because the Germans are planning celebrations for Kaiser Wilhelm's 30th, which also falls in 1918. The reader knows that the Empire will collapse and there will be no celebrations. In the second volume Ulrich undergoes a kind of spiritually incestuous relationship with his sister Agathe and is lead outside everyday reality. This experiment also fails. Many of the characters were based more or less on Musil's friends and figures from public life, among them the writer Franz Werfel. Musil's magnum opus was left unfinished. The first volume appeared in 1930 and first part of volume two was published in 1933. The third reached the proof stage in 1938 but Musil withdrew it. Volume 3 was completed and published by Martha in 1943. Much of the book was born in Berlin (1931-33), where Musil wrote his novel Young Törless, met his wife, and gave his famous speech on Rilke's death in 1927.

As an essayist Musil was prolific. He dealt with a wide range of subjects with the same analytical method that was employed in scientific research. Relativity played major role in Musil's thinking: a murderer could be either considered as such and tried by the courts, or seen as a national hero and celebrated. In 'The Obscene and Pathological in Art' (1911) he takes the side of those people, who are persecuted by the authorities. In 'The Religious Spirit, Modernism, and Metaphysics' (1912) he argues that modernity was simply the result of injecting religion with bourgeois reason, of discarding emotions, and of ignoring rationality as the prime goal of the modern world.

For further reading: Value in Modernity: The Philosophy of Existential Modernism in Nietzsche, Scheler, Sartre, Musil by Peter Poellner (2022); Robert Musil and the Question of Science: Ethics, Aesthetics, and the Problem of the Two Cultures by Tim Mehigan (2020); Robert-Musil-Handbuch, herausgegeben von Birgit Nübel und Norbert Christian Wolf (2016); A Companion to the Works of Robert Musil, edited by Philip Payne, Graham Bartram, and Galin Tihanov (2007); Subject Without Nation: Robert Musil and the History of Modern Identity by Stefan Jonsson (2000); Distinguished Outsider by Christian Rogowski (1994); Essayism: Conrad, Musil, and Pirandello by Thomas Harrison (1992); Robert Musil and the Literary Landscape of His Time, ed. by Hannah Hickman (1991); Robert Musil: Leben und Werk in Bildern und Texten by Karl Corino (1988); Robert Musil by Lowell A. Bangerter (1988); Robert Musil and the Culture of Vienna by Hannah Hickman (1984); Robert Musil and the Crisis of European Culture, 1880-1942, by David S. Luft (1980); Robert Musil by F.G. Peters (1978); Über Rober Musils Roman Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften by W. Rasch (1976); Robert Musil: Ethik und Ästhetik by Marie-Louise Roth (1972); Robert Musil by Annie Servranckx-Renier (1972); Robert Musil: An Introduction to His Work by B. Pike (1961) - See also: Henry Roth

Selected bibliography:

  • Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß, 1906
    - Young Törless (translated by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser, 1955) / The Confusion of Young Törless (translated by Shaun Whiteside, 2001) / The Confusions of Young Törless (translated by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaise, 2021)
    - Oppilas Törlessin -harhapolut (suom. Hilkka Suomi-Orava, 1963)
    - film 1966, Der junge Törless, dir. by Volker Schlöndorff, starring Matthieu Carrière, Bernd Tischer, Alfred Dietz, Marian Seidowsky. "Picture presents military academies as breeding grounds for fascists, and draws parallels between what happens in the school and the rise of Nazis in Germany in the early 1930s and victimization of Jews. But, more interestingly, it's about how similar people can, through circumstances, go in opposite directions - one becomes an oppressor and the other an outcast victim." (Danny Peary in Guide for the Film Fanatic, 1986)
  • Beitrag zur Beurteilung der Lehren Machs, 1908
    - On Mach's Theories (introduction by G.H. von Wright, translated by Kevin Mulligan, 1983)
  • Vereinigungen. Zwei Erzählungen, 1911 (contains Die Vollendung der Liebe and Die Versuchung der Stillen Veronika)
    - Unions (The Perfecting of a Love and The Temptation of Quiet Veronica, tr. 1965)
  • Die Schwärmer, 1920 (Kleist Prize in 1923)
    - The Enthusiasts (translated by Andrea Simon, 1983)
  • Drei Frauen, 1923
    - Tonka and Other Stories (translated by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser, 1965) / Three Women (translated by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser, 1986)
    - Kolme naista (suom. Hilkka Suomi, 1961)
  • Vinzenz und die Freundin bedeutender Männer, 1923
  • Grigia, 1923
  • Die Portugiesin, 1923
  • Rede zur Rilke-Feier in Berlin am 16. Januar 1927, 1927
  • Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, 1930-43 (Goethe's Prize in 1933)
    - The Man Without Qualities (translated by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser, 3 vols., 1953-1960; Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike, 2 vols., 1995)
    - Mies vailla ominaisuuksia (suom. Kristiina Kivivuori, 1980-87)
  • Nachlaß zu Lebzeiten, 1936
    - Posthumous Papers of a Living Author (translated by Peter Wortsman, 2006)
  • Über die Dummheit, 1937
  • Gesammelte Werke, 1952-57 (3 vols., ed. by Adolf Frisé, rev. ed. 2 vols., 1978)
  • Tagebücher, Aphorismen, Essays und Reden, 1955
  • Das hilflose Europa, 1961
  • Theater, 1965 (ed. by Marie-Louise Roth)
  • Tonka and Other Stories, 1965 (translated by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser)
  • Der deutsche Mensch als Symptom, 1967 (ed. by Karl Corino and Elisabeth Albertsen)
  • Three Short Stories, 1970 (edited by Hugh Sacker)
  • Briefe nach Prag, 1971 (ed. by Barbara Köpplova and Kurt Krolop)
  • Tagebücher, 1976 (2 vols., ed. by Adolf Frisé)
  • Kleine Prosa, Aphorismen, Autobiographisches, Essays und Reden, Kritik, 1978
  • Briefe 1901-1942, 1980-81 (2 vols, ed. by Adolf Frisé)
  • Pictures, 1983
  • Selected Writings, 1986 (edited by Burton Pike)
  • Precision and Soul, 1990 (translated by Burton Pike, David S. Luft)
  • Der literarische Nachlaß, 1992 (CD-Rom)
  • Thought Flights: Small Prose, 2015
  • Gesamtausgabe, 2016- (herausgegeben von Walter Fanta)
  • Unions: Two Early Novellas, 2019
  • Intimate Ties: Two Novellas, 2019 (translated from the German by Peter Wortsman)
  • Theater Symptoms: Plays and Writings on Drama, 2020 (translated with an introduction by Genese Grill)
  • The Confusions of Young Törless, 2021 (translated from the German by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaise; with a preface by Jeremy Adler
  • Literature & Politics: Selected Writings, 2023 (Translated by Genese Grill, Edited & with an Appendix by Philip Payne)

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