Musil, Robert (Short Story Criticism)
Musil, Robert 1880-1942
Austrian novella writer, novelist, essayist, dramatist, and poet.
Musil is regarded by some as among the greatest writers of the twentieth century. His innovative novels and novellas use an expressionistic style to explore the nature of human consciousness and to convey the disparity between rational and nonrational aspects of existence. Rather than offering traditional, realistic narratives, these works often employ subjective points of view to represent the inner thoughts and impressions of characters. In Musil's fiction, as Kathleen O'Connor has pointed out, "thoughts are the events."
Musil was born in Klagenfurt, Austria, and raised in an unorthodox household. For forty years his emotionally unstable mother openly maintained an extramarital liaison with an engineer who eventually moved in with the family. Commentators have observed that as a result of this unusual arrangement many of Musil's writings reflect familial and sexual tensions. Musil's father, also an engineer, enrolled his son at the age of twelve at the military academy at Eisenstadt. Two years later Musil was sent to the senior military academy at Mährisch-Weisskirchen. He made use of his experiences there in his first novel, Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless (1906; The Confusions of Young Törless). Musil went on to earn a degree in engineering and later attended the University of Berlin to study philosophy, mathematics, and psychology. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzche's critiques of traditional conceptions of the self and consciousness had a profound impact on Musil's subsequent writings. His 1911 novella collection Vereinigungen (Unions) shows the influence of Nietzche and other philosophers and represents a radical experiment in the subjective presentation of character and action. Before devoting himself solely to writing, Musil worked as an engineer, a librarian, and an editor; served as an officer in World War I; and held various government positions. From 1922 to 1938 Musil subsisted on what little money he could make as a writer and on financial support from patrons in Vienna and Berlin. He published a second collection of novellas, Drei Frauen (Three Women), in 1924 and was awarded the Literature Prize of the City of Vienna the same year. Beginning in 1923 Musil worked on the massive novel Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man without Qualities), two volumes of which were published in his lifetime but which ultimately remained unfinished. After the Austrian unification with Germany in 1938, Musil and his wife emigrated to Switzerland, where he died four years later.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Between writing Young Törless, the novel that marked the beginning of his career, and The Man without Qualities, the master work that remained unfinished at its end, Musil composed dramas, poems, novellas, and numerous essays. His principal short fiction consists of the five novellas comprising Unions and Three Women. In Die Vollendung der Liebe (The Perfecting of a Love) and Die Versuchung der stillen Veronika (The Temptation of Quiet Veronica) in the first collection, Musil focused on the thoughts and feelings of his female protagonists as they interact with men. Nearly plotless, these works represent the author's experimentation with the depiction of subjective psychological states. Despite the titles of Three Women and of the individual pieces comprising the collection, the main characters of Grigia, Tonka, and Die Portugiesin (The Lady from Portugal) are men who all have careers that define their identities: engineer, scientist, and soldier (jobs Musil himself performed in his own life). All three men become involved with mysterious women in relationships that cause identity crises requiring them to attempt some sort of resolution between the rational aspects of life, to which they themselves are predisposed, and the nonrational aspects represented by their lovers.
Although Musil is often ranked with James Joyce, Thomas Mann, and Marcel Proust as one of the most important writers in modern literature, his work has received much less critical attention than that of his peers. Moreover, many critics have viewed his novellas as important mainly for what they reveal about The Man without Qualities; as Charles N. Genno has argued, "all of his earlier works may be considered as preparation for his last great novel." Other critics, however, have judged Musil's short fiction as valuable in its own right. Frederick G. Peters, for example, has described The Lady from Portugal as "artistically the most perfect of all of Musil's fiction." Whether seen as preliminary experiments leading to his major novels or as independent achievements in the depiction of human psychology, Musil's novellas are commonly heralded for their significant contributions to the development of modernist fiction.
*Vereinigungen [Unions] 1911
†Drei Frauen [Three Women] 1924
Die Amsel [The Blackbird] 1928
Other Major Works
Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless [The Confusions of Young Törless] (novel) 1906
Die Schwärmer [The Enthusiasts] (drama) 1921
"Isis und Osiris" (poetry) 1923
Vinzenz und die Freundin bedeutender Männer [Vinzenz and the Lady Friend of Important Men] (drama) 1923
Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften [The Man without Qualities] 3 vols. (unfinished novel) 1930-43
Nachlass zu Lebzeiten (essays) 1936
*Contains the novellas Die Vollendung der Leibe (The Perfecting of a Love; also translated as The Completion of Love) and Die Versuchung der stillen Veronika (The Temptation of Quiet Veronica).
†Contains the novellas Grigia, Die Portugiesin (The Lady from Portugal), and Tonka.
(The entire section is 113 words.)
SOURCE: "Unions (1911)," in Robert Musil: An Introduction to His Work, Cornell, 1961, pp. 57-70.
[An American critic and educator specializing in German literature, Pike is the editor of Robert Musil: Selected Writings (1986) and Precision and Soul: Essays and Addresses of Robert Musil (1990). In the following excerpt, he discusses Musil's "expressionistic" narrative technique in Unions, finding it more successful in The Completion of Love than in The Temptation of Silent Veronica. Elsewhere in Musil criticism the title The Completion of Love has been translated as The Perfecting of a Love.]
[The two stories in Unions]—called "novellas" (Novellen) on the cover of the first edition and "two tales" (zwei Erzählungen) on the title page—present two attitudes toward love between the sexes, the yea-saying and the nay-saying. These works might best be characterized as attitude studies rather than character studies. The heroine of the first story is a sensualist with nymphomaniac tendencies who glories in her feelings, while the heroine of the second is a psychotic ignorant woman who expresses her strong sensual love in unnatural ways and finds a negative pleasure, as well as frustration, in withholding it from natural completion. Both heroines are examples of that Ausnahmemoral, or morality of exception (fundamentally a...
(The entire section is 3948 words.)
SOURCE: A preface to Five Women by Robert Musil, translated by Eithne Wilkins and Ernest Kaiser, Delacorte Press, 1966, pp. 7-13.
[Kermode is an English critic who combines modern critical methods with traditional scholarship. In his discussions of modern literature Kermode has embraced many of the concepts of structuralism and phenomenology. He characterizes all human knowledge as affected by the perceptual and emotional limitations of human consciousness. Because perceptions of life and the world change, so do human knowledge and the meaning attached to things and events. Thus, Kermode maintains, a work of art has no single fixed meaning, but a multiplicity of possible interpretations. In the following excerpt, he discusses the ambiguities of plot, character, and description in Musil's novellas, claiming that they "reflect the ambiguities of human reality. "]
Three Women (Grigia, The Lady from Portugal, Tonka) was published in the middle of a great literary period and stands comparison with its contemporaries. Unions, thirteen years earlier, has rather more the character of the fin de siècle (as indeed may be said of Death in Venice), but Musil valued it highly, perhaps because it contains, in a different blend and without irony, the same constituents—a nervous obliquity, a mystique of the erotic, a deep interest in the borders of the human mind, those uneasy...
(The entire section is 1840 words.)
SOURCE: "An Inquiry into the Psychological Condition of the Narrator in Musil's Tonka" in Monatshefte, Vol. 64, No. 2, Summer, 1972, pp. 153-61.
[In the following essay, Sjögren contends that the nameless narrator of Musil's Tonka exhibits the symptoms of schizophrenia.]
Strictly speaking, there is no narrator formally interposed between author and reader in Musil's Erzählung Tonka, since the story is told in the third person; however, it must be noted that the point of view given is exclusively that of the protagonist, an unnamed "he." Memories of the protagonist are recalled haphazardly as in life, with little attention to accurate chronology, and are recounted without any correction by the author. Relinquishing his prerogative of "unhampered omniscience," the author almost never intrudes into the report, but pretends to submerge himself into the mind of the protagonist, imposing upon himself the limitations of that consciousness. Werner Hoffmeister, who considers this work "das interessanteste und unkonventionellste Prosastück in Robert Musils Frühwerk," points out that it evidences an "einmalige Verquickung von Erzähler und Hauptperson bei Benutzung der unpersönlichen dritten Person," a technique which offers both "objektive Außensicht und subjektive Innensicht" [Studien zur erlebten Rede bei Thomas Mann und Robert Musil, 1965]. Clearly, the protagonist must...
(The entire section is 3590 words.)
SOURCE: "Three Mysterious Women: Grigia, The Lady from Portugal, Tonka," in Robert Musil, Master of the Hovering Life: A Study of the Major Fiction, Columbia University Press, 1978, pp. 105-87.
[In the following excerpt, Peters interprets The Lady from Portugal from a psychoanalytic perspective.]
The second story [The Lady from Portugal] in the trilogy Three Women is set (as was the first story, Grigia) in a geographical area that is intentionally vague, in a region situated between North and South and in a world at once specifically medieval and yet enveloped in the timelessness of the fairy tale. Generations earlier, the Ketten family had come from the North and stopped, as did Homo, on the threshold of the South near the Brenner pass in Italy. It is in such an ambiguous geographical setting that Musil treats once again the conflict between reason and mysticism. And it is because of the way in which the present Herr von Ketten eventually resolves this duality (which, as in Grigia, Musil treats as an internal psychological conflict between the male and female principles) that he manages to escape the destiny of all the previous heads of his family. Generation after generation, all of them had died before reaching their sixtieth birthday. Each one of them had been cut down by death as soon as he had completed a great task. Ketten also...
(The entire section is 6909 words.)
SOURCE: "Myth and Fairy Tale in Robert Musil's Grigia," in Turn of the Century: German Literature and Art, 1880-1915, edited by Gerald Chappie and Hans H. Schulte, Bouvier Verlag, 1981, pp. 135-48.
[In the following essay, Paulson discusses the mythological elements of Musil's Grigia.]
Robert Musil's Grigia is a story with a very simple plot and very little development of characters, yet it continues to be read and discussed nearly sixty years after its first publication. Two reasons for the continuing interest in Grigia suggest themselves. The first is that Musil uses vivid, though enigmatic, imagery and striking metaphors, both of which engage the attention of the reader. Secondly, throughout the story Musil gives indications of a hidden meaning underlying the story. The story opens with the paragraph: "Es gibt im Leben eine Zeit, wo es sich auffallend verlangsamt, als zögerte es weiterzugehen oder wollte seine Richtung ändern. Es mag sein, daß einem in dieser Zeit leichter ein Unglück zustößt." The subject of the story, it is clear from the first paragraph, is life itself. It is life which slows down; it is the person to whom things happen. Most stories are an attempt to make some statement about human life, but few of them begin with a statement about life in the abstract. The use of allegorical sounding names and emblematic imagery also points to a hidden meaning....
(The entire section is 4428 words.)
SOURCE: "Mystical Selfhood, Self-Delusion, Self-Dissolution: Ethical and Narrative Experimentation in Robert Musil's Grigia," in Modern Austrian Literature, Vol. 17, No. 1, 1984, pp. 59-77.
[In the following excerpt, Jennings argues that Homo's search for a unified identity in Grigia is undermined by his self-delusion.]
Grigia opens with a brief recounting of the geologist Homo's station in life. The sententious introductory paragraph sets up his life as a normal and perhaps even paradigmatic one: "Es gibt im Leben eine Zeit, wo es sich auffallend verlangsamt, als zögerte es weiterzugehen oder wollte seine Richtung ändern." Homo's concerns and problems indeed seem chosen for their typicality: his spouse, child and profession have all presented him with difficulties. The recurrence of and importance attributed to the idea of "Trennbarkeit" signals, however, the emergence of a particular problem which marks Homo as a man apart. The notion of separability first emerges in association with Homo's work. Asked to accompany his wife and child to a spa, he refuses, since "es kam ihm vor, als würde er dadurch zu lange von sich getrennt, von seinen Büchern, Plänen, und seinem Leben" (emphasis added).
Homo's work had not always seemed so important to him; the earliest stage in his life mentioned in the text is one at which he and his wife had been inseparable. This...
(The entire section is 4595 words.)
SOURCE: "Motivating Silence: The Recreation of the 'Eternal Feminine' in Robert Musil's Tonka" in Monatshefte, Vol. 79, No. 2, Summer, 1987, pp. 161-71.
[In the following excerpt, Kontje analyzes the elements of power and domination in the relationship between the unnamed narrator and the eponymous character in Musil's Tonka.]
Robert Musil's Tonka is a blatantly mysterious story. Like Joseph in the Gospel according to Matthew, or like the Marquise von O . . . in Kleist's novella, the unnamed male protagonist of Musil's work is confronted with an enigmatic pregnancy. Midway through the tale we learn that Tonka has become pregnant at a time when her lover was out of town. Tonka nevertheless insists until her death that she has not been unfaithful. In all probability she is lying, either consciously or unconsciously, but it is at least conceivable that a modern miracle has occurred. Whatever the correct explanation of Tonka's pregnancy may be, both she and the baby die before the answer is revealed.
Thus Tonka is structured in such a way as to frustrate the conventional expectations of its readers. In a typical narrative such a problem would be introduced for the purpose of keeping the reader's attention until the solution was revealed towards the end of the work. In Tonka, however, our perspective is limited to that of the unnamed character who retrospectively...
(The entire section is 4352 words.)
SOURCE: "Looking Inside: Unions," in Robert Musil, Continuum, 1989, pp. 43-57.
[An American critic and educator, Bangerter is the author of German Writing since 1945 (1988) as well as studies of Johann Schiller and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. In the following exerpt, he argues that the "unions" referred to in the title of Unions are ones that take place within the protagonists rather than between individuals.]
An important distinguishing feature of Musil's literary art is the deliberate de-emphasis of structured plot and sequential narrative in favor of illustrating and illuminating his ideas about mortal existence. Characters and their relationships become the vehicles that the author uses to explore theme variations and possibilities for response to the phenomena, problems, and questions of human life. In the slender volume Unions, which contains the two novellas The Perfecting of a Love and The Temptation of Quiet Veronica, Musil experimented with a creative technique that pushed to a new extreme the development of this tendency in his writings. Focusing almost completely on the thoughts and feelings of the respective female protagonists, he subordinated any sense of story line and perspective to a precise rendering of their inner worlds in a dense, carefully constructed web of metaphors. The resulting literature is extremely complex and difficult to understand....
(The entire section is 5156 words.)
SOURCE: "Images of Woman in Musil's Tonka: Mystical Encounters and Borderlines between Self and Other," in The Michigan Academician, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, Winter, 1992, pp. 369-81.
[In the following excerpt focusing on Tonka, Mabee discusses the women in Musil's novellas, arguing that their association with nature and imagination makes them "catalysts for illumination" and "mirrors to the male protagonists' fragmented selves in the post-enlightenment world with its emphasis on scientific formulation."]
Recalling to consciousness a rationally inexplicable episode of his youth, the nameless young scientist in Robert Musil's Tonka, the third novella in his trilogy Drei Frauen (Three Women, 1924), encounters woman as the Other. As narrator-protagonist, distancing himself in a third-person narratorial style, he ponders the effects of his friendship with the mysterious, simple servant girl Tonka. The streamof-consciousness narrative unfolds in retrospect as the narrator's confrontation with himself and his memories of events surrounding his affair with her. In fragmented and tension-filled memory processes, the young man attempts to unravel the "tangle of thorns" that overtook his scientific mind upon encountering Tonka's non-rational world, her oneness with nature, and her peculiar "language of the totality of things"—a language of silence, songs, and aphasia....
(The entire section is 3979 words.)
Erickson, Susan J. "Writer's Block: Robert Musil and the Mother." Substance 41 (1983): 79-90.
A "psycho-biographical essay" focusing on the author's relationship with his mother. Erickson also discusses the autobiographical aspects of Musil's fiction.
Silone, Ignazio. "Encounters with Musil," trans. Reinhard Mayer and Raija Koli. Salmagundi, No. 61 (Fall 1983): 90-8.
Silone, who was an acquaintance of Musil while he lived in Switzerland, describes his memories of the writer and disputes some accounts of Musil' s last few years.
Boa, Elizabeth J. "Austrian Ironies in Musil's 'Drei Frauen'." The Modern Language Review 63 (1968): 119-31.
Examines Musil's ironic treatment of the searches for identity in the novellas comprising Three Women.
Erickson, Susan. "The Psychopoetics of Narrative in Robert Musil's 'Die Portugiesin'." Monatshefte 78, No. 2 (Summer 1986): 167-81.
Discusses the depiction of consciousness and selfhood in The Lady from Portugal.
Genno, Charles N. "Observations of Love and Death in Musil." Neophilologus LXVII, No. 1 (January 1983): 118-25.
Examines the interrelated themes of love and death as they appear throughout Musil's major works.
(The entire section is 532 words.)