Robert Musil

Last updated

Robert Musil
Robert Musil 1900.jpg
Musil in 1900
Born(1880-11-06)6 November 1880
Klagenfurt, Austria-Hungary
Died15 April 1942(1942-04-15) (aged 61)
Geneva, Switzerland
Alma mater University of Berlin
GenreLiterary fiction
Literary movement Modernism

Signature Robert Musil Signature.jpg

Robert Musil (German: [ˈmuːzɪl] or [ˈmuːsɪl]; 6 November 1880 – 15 April 1942) was an Austrian philosophical writer. His unfinished novel The Man Without Qualities (German: Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften) is generally considered to be one of the most important and influential modernist novels.

<i>The Man Without Qualities</i> novel by Robert Musil

The Man Without Qualities is an unfinished modernist novel in three volumes and various drafts, by the late Austrian writer Robert Musil. It is typically considered to be one of the most significant novels of the twentieth century.



Musil was born in Klagenfurt, Carinthia, the son of engineer Alfred Edler von [1] Musil (1846, Timișoara – 1924) and his wife Hermine Bergauer (1853, Linz – 1924). The orientalist Alois Musil ("The Czech Lawrence") was his second cousin. [2]

Linz Place in Upper Austria, Austria

Linz is the third-largest city of Austria and capital of the state of Upper Austria. It is in the north centre of Austria, approximately 30 kilometres south of the Czech border, on both sides of the River Danube. The population of the city is 204,846, and that of the Greater Linz conurbation is about 789,811.

Alois Musil Czech arabist, traveller, geographer, orientalist, writer and Roman Catholic priest

Alois Musil was a Czech theologian, orientalist, explorer and writer.

Soon after Robert's birth, the family moved to Chomutov in Bohemia, and in 1891 Musil's father was appointed to the chair of Mechanical Engineering at the German Technical University in Brno and, later, raised to hereditary nobility in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was baptized Robert Mathias Musil and his name was officially Robert Mathias Edler von Musil from 22 October 1917, when his father was ennobled (made Edler ), until 3 April 1919, when the use of noble titles was forbidden in Austria.

Chomutov Town in Czech Republic

Chomutov is a town in the Czech Republic, in the Ústí nad Labem Region. Chomutov has been a statutory town since 1 July 2006. It occupies an area of 29,26 km² and has 50 782 inhabitants (2008), thereby making it the 20th largest town in the Czech Republic, the 4th largest in the Ústí nad Labem region and the biggest in the Chomutov district. There are almost 80 000 inhabitants in the town's wider metropolitan area.

Kingdom of Bohemia Monarchy in Central Europe, predecessor of modern Czech Republic

The Kingdom of Bohemia, sometimes in English literature referred to as the Czech Kingdom, was a medieval and early modern monarchy in Central Europe, the predecessor of the modern Czech Republic. It was an Imperial State in the Holy Roman Empire, and the Bohemian king was a prince-elector of the empire. The kings of Bohemia, besides Bohemia, also ruled the Lands of the Bohemian Crown, which at various times included Moravia, Silesia, Lusatia, and parts of Saxony, Brandenburg, and Bavaria.

German Technical University in Brno university

German Technical University in Brno was a technical university in Brno. It existed from 1849 to 1945 and instruction was in German.

Early life

Commemorative plaque in Brno Robert Musil, pametni deska, Brno.JPG
Commemorative plaque in Brno

Musil was short in stature but strong and skilled at wrestling, and by his early teens, he proved to be more than his parents could handle. They sent him to a military boarding school at Eisenstadt (1892–1894) and then Hranice (1894–1897). The school experiences are reflected in his first novel Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless ( The Confusions of Young Törless ).

Eisenstadt Place in Burgenland, Austria

Eisenstadt is a city in Austria, the state capital of Burgenland. It has a population of about 14,241 (2016). In the Habsburg Empire's Kingdom of Hungary, Kismarton (Eisenstadt) was the seat of the Eszterházy Hungarian noble family. The composer Joseph Haydn lived there as Hofkapellmeister under Esterházy patronage.

Hranice (Přerov District) Town in Czech Republic

Hranice is a town in Moravia, the eastern Czech Republic.

<i>The Confusions of Young Törless</i> novel by Robert Musil

The Confusions of Young Törless, or Young Törless, is the literary debut of the Austrian philosophical novelist and essayist Robert Musil, first published in 1906.

Youth and studies

After graduating Musil studied at a military academy in Vienna during the fall of 1897 but then switched to mechanical engineering, joining his father's department at the Technical University in Brno. During his university studies, he studied engineering by day, and at night read literature and philosophy, and went to the theatre and art exhibitions. Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Ernst Mach were particular interests of his university years. Musil finished his studies in three years and, in 1902–1903, served as an unpaid assistant to Professor of Mechanical Engineering Julius Carl von Bach  [ de ], in Stuttgart.

Engineering applied science

Engineering is the application of knowledge in the form of science, mathematics, and empirical evidence, to the innovation, design, construction, operation and maintenance of structures, machines, materials, devices, systems, processes, and organizations. The discipline of engineering encompasses a broad range of more specialized fields of engineering, each with a more specific emphasis on particular areas of applied mathematics, applied science, and types of application. See glossary of engineering.

Literature written work of art

Literature, most generically, is any body of written works. More restrictively, literature refers to writing considered to be an art form or any single writing deemed to have artistic or intellectual value, often due to deploying language in ways that differ from ordinary usage.

Philosophy intellectual and/or logical study of general and fundamental problems

Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Such questions are often posed as problems to be studied or resolved. The term was probably coined by Pythagoras. Philosophical methods include questioning, critical discussion, rational argument, and systematic presentation. Classic philosophical questions include: Is it possible to know anything and to prove it? What is most real? Philosophers also pose more practical and concrete questions such as: Is there a best way to live? Is it better to be just or unjust? Do humans have free will?

During that time, he began work on Young Törless .

He also invented Musilscher Farbkreisel  [ de ], the Musil color top, a motorised device for producing mixed colours by additive colour-mixing with two differently colored, sectored, rotating discs. This was an improvement over earlier models, allowing a user to vary the proportions of the two colors during rotation and to read off those proportions precisely. [3]

Color triangle

A colour triangle is an arrangement of colours within a triangle, based on the additive combination of three primary colors at its corners.

Musil's sexual life around the turn of the century, according to his own records, was mainly with a prostitute, which he treated partly as an experimental self-experience. [4] But he was also infatuated with the pianist and mountaineer Valerie Hilpert, who assumed mystical features. [5] In March 1902, Musil underwent treatment for syphilis with mercurial ointment. During this time, his several years of relationship with Hermine Dietz, the 'Tonka' of his own novel, published in 1923, began. Hermine's syphilitic miscarriage in 1906 and her death in 1907 may be due to infection by Musil. [6]

Musil grew tired of engineering and what he perceived as the limited world-view of the engineer. 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 his future wife, Martha Marcovaldi (née Heimann, 21 January 1874 – 6 November 1949). She had already been widowed and remarried, with two children, and was seven years older than Musil. His first novel, Young Törless, was published in 1906.


In 1909, Musil completed his doctorate and Professor Alexius Meinong offered him a position at the University of Graz, which he turned down to concentrate on writing of novels. Over the next two years, he wrote and published two stories ("The Temptation of Quiet Veronica" and "The Perfecting of a Love") collected in Vereinigungen (Unions) published in 1911. During the same year, Martha's divorce was completed, and Musil married her. As she was Jewish and Musil Roman Catholic, they both converted to Protestantism as a sign of their union. Until then, 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 Die neue Rundschau . He also worked on a play entitled Die Schwärmer (The Enthusiasts), which was published in 1921.

Depiction of Musil at the Musilhaus in Klagenfurt Klagenfurt - Musilhaus - Robert Musil.jpg
Depiction of Musil at the Musilhaus in Klagenfurt

When World War I began, Musil joined the Army and was stationed first in Tirol and then at Austria's Supreme Army Command in Bolzano. In 1916, Musil visited Prague and met Franz Kafka, whose work he held in high esteem. After the war's end, and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Musil returned to his literary career in Vienna. He published a collection of short stories, Drei Frauen (Three Women), in 1924. He also admired the Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, whom Musil called "great and not always understood" at his memorial service in 1927 in Berlin. According to Musil, Rilke "did nothing but perfect the German poem for the first time," but by the time of his death, Rilke had turned into "a delicate, well-matured liqueur suitable for grown-up ladies". [7] However, his work is "too demanding" to be "considered relaxing". [8]

In 1930 and 1933, he published his masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities (Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften), [9] in two volumes consisting of three parts, from Berlin, running into 1,074 pages. [10] Volume 1 (Part I: A Sort of Introduction, and Part II: The Like of It Now Happens) and 605-page unfinished Volume 2 (Part III: Into the Millennium (The Criminals)). [11] Part III did not include 20 chapters withdrawn from Volume 2 of 1933 in printer's galley proofs. The novel deals with the moral and intellectual decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire through the eyes of the book's protagonist, Ulrich, an ex-mathematician who has failed to engage with the world around him in a manner that would allow him to possess qualities. It is set in Vienna on the eve of World War I.

The Man Without Qualities brought Musil only mediocre commercial success. Though he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, he felt that he did not receive the recognition he deserved. He sometimes expressed annoyance at the success of more famous colleagues like Thomas Mann or Hermann Broch, who admired his work deeply and tried to shield him from economic difficulties and encouraged his writing even though Musil was initially critical of Mann.

In the early 1920s, Musil lived mostly in Berlin. In Vienna, Musil was a frequent visitor to Eugenie Schwarzwald's salon (the model for Diotima in The Man Without Qualities). In 1932, the Robert Musil Society was founded in Berlin on the initiative of Mann. In the same year, Mann was asked to name outstanding contemporary novels, and he cited only one, The Man Without Qualities.[ citation needed ] In 1936, Musil suffered his first stroke.


The fundamental problem Musil confronts in his essays and fiction is the crisis of Enlightenment values which engulfed Europe during the early twentieth century. [12] He endorses the Enlightenment project of emancipation while at the same time examining its shortcomings with a questioning irony. [12] Musil believed that the crisis required a renewal in social and individual values which, accepting science and reason, could liberate humanity in beneficent ways. [12] Musil wrote:

After the Enlightenment most of us lost courage. A minor failure was enough to turn us away from reason, and we allowed every barren enthusiast to inveigh against the intentions of a d'Alembert or a Diderot as mere rationalism. We beat the drums for feeling against intellect and forgot that without intellect...feeling is as dense as a blockhead (dick wie ein Mops ist). [13]

He took aim at the ideological chaos and misleading generalizations about culture and society promoted by nationalist reactionaries. Musil wrote a withering critique of Oswald Spengler titled "Mind and Experience: Notes for Readers Who Have Escaped the Decline of the West (Geist und Erfahrung: Anmerkung für Leser, welche dem Untergang des Abendlandes entronnen sind)" in which he dismantles the latter's misunderstanding of science and misuse of axiomatic thinking to try to understand human complexity and promote a deterministic philosophy. [14]

He deplored the social conditions under the Austro-Hungarian Empire and foresaw its disappearance. [15] Surveying the upheavals of the 1910s and 20s, Musil hoped that Europe could find an internationalist solution to the "dead end of imperial nationalism." [16] In 1927, he signed a declaration of support for the Austrian Social Democratic Party. [17]

Musil was a staunch individualist who opposed the authoritarianism of both right and left. A recurring theme in his speeches and essays through the 1930s is the defense of the autonomy of the individual against the authoritarian and collectivist concepts then prevailing in Germany, Italy, Austria, and Russia. [18] He participated in the anti-fascist International Writers' Congress for the Defense of Culture in 1935 in which he spoke in favor of artistic independence against the claims of the state, class, nation, and religion. [19]

Later life

The last years of Musil's life were dominated by Nazism and World War II: the Nazis banned his books. He saw early Nazism first-hand while he was living in Berlin from 1931 to 1933. In 1938, when Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany, Musil and his Jewish wife, Martha, left for exile in Switzerland, where he died at the age of 61. Martha wrote to Franz Theodor Csokor that he had suffered a stroke. [20]

Only eight people attended his cremation. Martha cast his ashes into the woods of Mont Salève. [21] From 1933 to his death, Musil was working on Part III of The Man Without Qualities. In 1943 in Lausanne, Martha published a 462-page collection of material from his literary remains, including the 20 galley chapters withdrawn from Part III before Volume 2 appeared in 1933, [9] as well as drafts of the final incomplete chapters and notes on the development and direction of the novel. [11] She died in Rome in 1949.


After his death Musil's work was almost forgotten. His writings began to reappear during the early 1950s. The first translation of The Man Without Qualities in English was published by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins in 1953, 1954 and 1960. An updated translation by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike, containing extensive selections from unpublished drafts, appeared in 1995. [22] Musil's work has received more attention since that time, [23] including the philosophical aspects of his novels. According to Milan Kundera, "No novelist is dearer to me." [24] One of the most important philosophy journals, The Monist published a special issue on The Philosophy of Robert Musil in 2014, edited by Bence Nanay. [25]



Grigia (1923) Musil, Robert - Grigia, 1923 - BEIC 3279160.jpg
Grigia (1923)

Related Research Articles

Hugo von Hofmannsthal Austrian novelist, librettist, poet, dramatist, narrator, and essayist

Hugo Laurenz August Hofmann von Hofmannsthal was an Austrian prodigy, a novelist, librettist, poet, dramatist, narrator, and essayist.

Erich Fried Austrian writer

Erich Fried was an Austrian-born poet, writer and translator. He initially became known to a broader public in both Germany and Austria for his political poetry, and later for his love poems. As a writer he mostly wrote plays and short novels. He also translated works by different English writers from English into German, most notably works by William Shakespeare.

<i>Young Törless</i> 1966 film by Volker Schlöndorff

Young Törless is a 1966 German film directed by Volker Schlöndorff, adapted from the autobiographical novel The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musil. It deals with the violent, sadistic and homoerotic tendencies of a group of boys at an Austrian military academy at the beginning of the 20th century.

Ödön von Horváth Austro-Hungarian writer

Edmund Josef von Horváth was a German-writing Austro-Hungarian-born playwright and novelist. He preferred the Hungarian version of his first name and published as Ödön von Horváth.

Robert Menasse Austrian writer

Robert Menasse is an Austrian writer.

Vicki Baum Austrian writer

Hedwig "Vicki" Baum was an Austrian writer. She is known for the novel Menschen im Hotel, one of her first international successes. It was made into a 1932 film and a 1989 broadway musical.

Austrian literature is the literature written in Austria, which is mostly, but not exclusively, written in the German language. Some scholars speak about Austrian literature in a strict sense from the year 1806 on when Francis II disbanded the Holy Roman Empire and established the Austrian Empire. A more liberal definition incorporates all the literary works written on the territory of today's and historical Austria, especially when it comes to authors who wrote in German. Thus, the seven volume history of Austrian literature by the editors Herbert Zeman and Fritz Peter Knapp is titled History of the Literature in Austria. The Austrian literature must be considered in close connection with German literature in general, and the borderline between proper German literature and the Austrian one is porous, due to rich and complex cultural exchanges.

Matthias Leupold is a German photographer and professor who lives and works in Berlin. His father Harry Leupold was set designer at the D.E.F.A. studio for feature films in Potsdam-Babelsberg.

Hans Karl Breslauer, born Johann Karl Breslauer, later often known as H. K. Breslauer, was an early Austrian film director, also an actor, screenwriter and author.

Hugo Bettauer controversial Austrian writer; murdered

Hugo Bettauer, born Maximilian Hugo Bettauer, was a prolific Austrian writer and journalist, who was murdered by a Nazi Party follower on account of his opposition to antisemitism. He was well known in his lifetime; many of his books were bestsellers and in the 1920s a number were made into films, most notably Die freudlose Gasse, which dealt with prostitution, and Die Stadt ohne Juden, a satire against antisemitism.

<i>The City Without Jews</i> 1924 film by Hans Karl Breslauer

Die Stadt ohne Juden is a 1924 Austrian Expressionist film by H. K. Breslauer, based on the book of the same title by Hugo Bettauer. The film is one of the few surviving Expressionist films from Austria and has therefore been well researched. The film was first shown on 25 July 1924 in Vienna.

Richard David Precht German philosopher and author

Richard David Precht is a German philosopher and author of successful popular science books about philosophical issues. He hosts the TV-Show "Precht" on German Television (ZDF).

The Best German Novels of the Twentieth Century is a list of books compiled in 1999 by Literaturhaus München and Bertelsmann, in which 99 prominent German authors, literary critics, and scholars of German ranked the most significant German-language novels of the twentieth century.

Der Kanon or more precisely Marcel-Reich-Ranickis Kanon is a large anthology of exemplary works of German literature. Edited by the literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, he called the anthology, announced on 18 June 2001 in the German news magazine Der Spiegel under the title "The Canon of worthwhile German Works", his magnum opus. The five parts appeared from 2002 to 2006 published by Insel Verlag: 1. Novels (2002), 2. Tales/Stories (2003), 3. Dramatic Works (2004), 4. Poetry (2005), and 5. Essays (2006). As expected, the anthology met with opposition and criticism, and even the idea of an anthology was questioned, but Reich-Ranicki called this questioning "incomprehensible, because the lack of a canon would mean relapse into barbarism. Reich-Ranicki sought to differentiate his anthology from previous compilations in his hope to imagine a "reader judge" such as teachers, students, librarians, who would need to draw from this canon because they were in the "first line of those who deal with literature professionally."

Ernst David Kaiser was an Austrian writer and translator.

Adolf Frisé was a German journalist, author and editor. He is best known as the editor of the literary works of the Austrian philosophical writer Robert Musil.

Ignaz Kirchner German stage and film actor, active at major stages including Viennas Burgtheater

Ignaz Kirchner was a German actor who made a career on German-speaking stages, especially at Vienna's Burgtheater where he played for 30 years. A character actor, he worked with leading stage directors. He often played opposite Gert Voss, both in classical drama such as Shakespeare's Antonio, with Voss as Shylock, and as Jago, with Voss as Othello, and especially in black comedies, such as Goldberg in Tabori's Die Goldberg-Variationen, and in Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys, Beckett's Endspiel and Genet's Die Zofen. Kirchner and Voss were named Schauspielerpaar des Jahres twice, in 1992 and 1998.


  1. 1 2 He was baptized Robert Mathias Musil and his name was officially Robert Mathias Edler von Musil from 22 October 1917, when his father received a hereditary title of nobility Edler, until 3 April 1919, when the use of noble titles was forbidden in Austria.
  2. "Virtual Vienna Net – The Great Austrian Writer Robert Musil". 15 April 1942. Archived from the original on 17 June 2013. Retrieved 10 February 2013.
  3. Rupp, H. (1908). Spindler & Hoyer Werkstätte für Wissenschaftliche Präcisionsinstrumente, Göttingen. Apparate für psychologische Untersuchungen. Preisliste XXI [Spindler & Hoyer Workshop for Scientific Precison Instruments, Göttingen. Apparatus for psychological research. Price list 21]. Göttingen: Spindler & Hoyer. Retrieved from Translation available at
  4. Corino S. 2003, 151–154.
  5. Pfohlmann 2012, S. 32–34; Corino 2003, S. 156–167. Pekar comments: "Sigmund Freud's observation of the splitting of the love life in Eros and Sexus, the distant, pure lover and the whore find their clear confirmation here." (Pekar 1997, S. 13)
  6. Pfohlmann 2012, S. 34; Corino 2003, S. 190–194 und S. 1882 f.
  7. Vilain, Robert (16 September 2009). "Rilke the clay pot". The Times Literary Supplement.
  8. Robert Musil, Precision and Soul: Essays and Addresses, trans. Burton Pike and David S. Luft (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995).
  9. 1 2 Peter L. Stern & Company, Inc. "Book Details: MUSIL, ROBERT, Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities)". Peter L. Stern & Company, Inc. Retrieved 26 October 2011.[ permanent dead link ]
  10. Wikipedia. "Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften: Ausgaben". Wikimedia Foundation Inc. Retrieved 26 October 2011.
  11. 1 2 Freed, Mark M. (5 May 2011). Robert Musil and the Nonmodern; A note on Musil's texts (1 ed.). New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. xi. ISBN   1-4411-2251-6.
  12. 1 2 3 Thiher, Allen (2009). Understanding Robert Musil. Univ of South Carolina Press. p. 155.
  13. Thiher, Allen (2009). Understanding Robert Musil. Univ of South Carolina Press. p. 161.
  14. Thiher, Allen (2009). Understanding Robert Musil. Univ of South Carolina Press. pp. 166–169.
  15. Thiher, Allen (2009). Understanding Robert Musil. Univ of South Carolina Press. pp. 171–173.
  16. Thiher, Allen (2009). Understanding Robert Musil. Univ of South Carolina Press. p. 187.
  17. Payne, Philip; Bartram, Graham; Tihanov, Galin (2007). A Companion to the Works of Robert Musil. Camden House. p. 428.
  18. Payne, Philip; Bartram, Graham; Tihanov, Galin (2007). A Companion to the Works of Robert Musil. Camden House. pp. 69–70.
  19. Payne, Philip; Bartram, Graham; Tihanov, Galin (2007). A Companion to the Works of Robert Musil. Camden House. p. 78.
  20. Der Monat 026/1950, pp. 185–189, on
  21. Markus Kreuzwieser [ permanent dead link ]
  22. The Man Without Qualities (2 volume set). "The Man Without Qualities (2 volume set): Robert Musil, Burton Pike, Sophie Wilkins: 9780394510521: Books". Retrieved 10 February 2013.
  23. Smiley, Jane (17 June 2006). "Robert Musil: The Man without Qualities". The Guardian.
  24. Kundera, Milan (1991). Immortality. New York: HarperCollins. p. 50. ISBN   0-06-097448-6.
  25. "The Philosophy of Robert Musil". Retrieved 16 December 2017.

Further reading