Robert Musil

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Acknowledged only after his death as the equal of such writers as Thomas Mann and Hermann Broch in twentieth century German literature, Robert Musil (MEW-zihl) was Austro-Hungary’s portrait artist and absurdist conscience during the philosophically chaotic years between the world wars. Born in the principality of Carinthia, Austria, into an Austrian family belonging to the educated service elite of the Habsburg monarchy, he was the son of Alfred Musil, an engineer, and Hermine Bergauer Musil, who was of Bohemian extraction. His early schooling was interrupted by frequent relocations, from upper Austria to Brno to military boarding schools at Eisenstadt and Mährisch-Weisskirchen, which led to his entry into the Military Academy of Technology, Vienna. There Musil almost followed an army career. Eventually, however, his father’s influence and position at the Technological University in Brno brought Musil to complete an engineering degree. Once free of military service, Musil studied philosophy, mathematics, and psychology in Berlin from 1903 to 1908, moving toward literature but always retaining his love of science, a combination of interests that explains his organized, logical approach to the essentially absurd vision of his novels.

The positive critical reception of his first novel, Young Törless, published in 1906, encouraged Musil to pursue his interest in writing, although in that same year he patented a color-testing chromatometer. His marriage to Martha Marcovaldi in 1911, together with his military service for Austria from 1914 to 1918, marked the end of his formative years. Balancing a scientific career with his growing reputation as a man of letters, Musil spent the next ten years in editorial posts, education consultancies, and various positions as critic, essayist, and writer. A play, The Enthusiasts, earned for him the Kleist Prize in 1923; the publication of Tonka, and Other Stories in 1924 coincided with his receiving a literary prize from the city of Vienna.

Meanwhile, work on his novel The Man Without Qualities was progressing, with the first volume, published in 1930, receiving wide critical acclaim. Musil moved to Berlin, but he suffered considerable financial difficulty despite his literary successes. He completed the second volume of The Man Without Qualities in 1933, the same year that the National Socialist Party took over the German government, a political event that drove many artists from Germany. Musil returned to his native Vienna until the invasion of Austria in 1938, when he fled to Switzerland, in poor health. With his books banned in Germany and Austria, Musil endured near-poverty in exile in Geneva. Friends, including Mann, Broch, and Albert Einstein, sought unsuccessfully to bring him to the United States. He died on April 15, 1942, leaving unfinished the third volume of his great work.

Musil’s style in his novels is characterized by an unusual combination of existential meaninglessness and carefully analytical, almost scientific, scrutiny. His protagonists—Törless in Young Törless and Ulrich in The Man Without Qualities—discern the chaos of human activity, with its absurd struggle to make sense of itself by means of arbitrary and contradictory “rules” that vest no authority in the soul itself. Musil’s most mature work, The Man Without Qualities, is not so much biographical as it is a philosophical and moral speculation in novel form. Musil’s musings about the nature of the relationship of the individual to society, the individual aesthetic spirit, and the human soul take form in this massive novel, which, while chronicling the year of Ulrich, also paints a portrait of the decaying Austro-Hungarian empire as a microcosm of the larger, equally hopeless world preparing to engage in its first global war. (Although the novel was written between the world wars, it is set in 1913.)

Critical study of Musil is centered on a comparison of his creative work with his prolific output of essays on a vast range of literary and cultural subjects. His introspective, self-investigating approach, matched with a startling imagination and almost scientific attention to detail, is unparalleled among his contemporaries. Along with Mann’s Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain, 1927), Musil’s epic novel is generally acknowledged as belonging to the most important works of twentieth century German literature.

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Critical Essays