Robert Musil Musil, Robert (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(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."

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short 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.

Burton Pike (essay date 1961)

(Short Story Criticism)

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 behavioristic concept), which so fascinated Musil in his observation of life.

The first story, The Completion of Love, has an atmosphere of warmth and tenderness not found elsewhere in Musil. The atmosphere of the second story, The Temptation of the Silent Veronika, is one of frustration. The two tales thus complement each other, the more so in that they have a common base of erotic, sexual love. But eroticism and sex are not presented for their own sake in Unions—it is hard to imagine these stories hiding behind a suggestive cover on a drugstore bookrack—but for what they represent; Musil's treatment of sex is closer to that of a manual of abnormal psychology than to the school of Henry Miller. The adultery that is the incident of the first story actually bestows a final perfection upon the marriage it "disturbs"; the refusal to love in the second story leads to near suicide and waste of individual potentialities. The basic assumption of both stories is that fulfillment of the potentiality of the individual is desirable, however unconventional such fulfillment might prove to be. The heroines of these stories are for all practical purposes the only characters in them; and one never loses the feeling in reading Unions that in spite of Musil's impressionistic technique these women tend more toward being clinical case studies than individuals with problems. This feeling seems to derive in part from the author's detachment from his heroines; in both stories observation is a much more important element than identification.

This detachment vitiates the two stories in that it makes the characters, for all the psychological subtlety with which they are presented, singularly colorless. To appreciate this one need only compare Musil's Claudine and Veronika with the heroine of a similar and nearly contemporary story by Gertrude Stein, "Melanctha" in Three Lives (1908). Musil's detachment from his heroines also seems to be responsible for the reader's impression that as a whole these works are considerably less impressive than the individual scenes and observations of which they are composed. Still, while Unions might be obscure to the reader from a rational point of view, he finds himself responding emotionally with some degree of empathy. This is especially true of The Temptation of the Silent Veronika. The impressionistic technique which is responsible for this effect deserves closer attention, especially since after pushing it to the breaking point in Veronika Musil abandoned it almost entirely in his later writing.

Musil's impressionistic technique becomes somewhat clearer if we think of impressionistic technique in painting and of what "impressionism" in general is. In this connection some of the observations made by Richard Hamann in his book Der Impressionismus in Leben und Kunst (Impressionism in Life and Art) are illuminating. Speaking of impressionist painting Hamann notes that it is concerned with individual figures rather than groups (one notes the extreme concentration in Musil's stories on the heroines). He further observes that impressionist painting avoids large connecting color surfaces, concentrating rather on building up each surface from innumerable little spots and points of different tones. This latter process is also the one that Musil has used in Unions, and when thought of in these terms the stories become more comprehensible. In a philosophical discussion of impressionism which draws heavily, significantly enough, on Mach and the philosopher Heinrich Rickert, Hamann says that in impressionism psychological states (Seelenzustände) have become the real object of fiction (Dichtung.) And when Hamann summarizes the basic characteristics of impressionism he almost seems to be talking about Unions. These major characteristics are: thinking and speaking in images, exaggeration, the animation of thought, and, instead of a systematic unity, a "monism of gradual transitions" which recalls Musil's theory of literature as "the path of the smallest steps." A critical examination of these two stories will help to give a clearer idea of an important phase of Musil's art.

The Completion of Love

According to Musil's stepdaughter this was Musil's favorite work, and the only one of his works which he reread. The action of the story can be quickly sketched. The heroine, Claudine, leaves her husband to visit a small town where her daughter by one of a number of earlier illicit love affairs is at school. On the train she meets a bearded stranger; several days later she allows him to seduce her. But if ever in literature action was incidental, or rather accidental, it is in The Completion of Love.

The story opens in the middle of a dialogue between husband and wife. The first sentence, a question, sets up the story: "You really can't come along?" Claudine asks her husband. The husband's replies show a certain irritation. A note of intimacy and looming separation, as in the later story Grigia, is immediately struck in this conversation. For some time the speakers are referred to only as "the man" and "the woman." The first few pages establish their complete mental union; they follow each other's unspoken thoughts and feelings perfectly. But the husband's irritation and their agreement that "every brain is something lonely" indicate a subterranean tension.

The man remains undeveloped in the story; from the second page Musil's images focus exclusively on the woman. As the story proceeds, one feels that Claudine's latent hostility toward her husband is a defensive means of preserving her own identity—an element we shall see later in Maria in The Visionaries and in Agathe in The Man without Qualities.

In a Rilkean passage the couple thinks of a "third," of many thirds who form a counter to their Adam-and-Eve relationship. Their conversation is highly stylized and borders on the metaphysical; the images are almost exclusively of erotic sensuality, for instance: "Then one of them said, and it was as if one lightly stroked a violin. . . . "

Musil uses imagery involving ordinary objects in Claudine's environment, such as a clock, or snow, to communicate to the reader not her feelings and thoughts themselves but her impressions of them. The reader is thus presented with a nebulous impressionism that is apparently meant to correspond to the half-conscious halfunconscious continuum which occupies the mind during its waking hours; or, to put it more precisely, Musil here seems to be operating on a level between the conscious and the unconscious. Rather than using free association, or showing the content of thought in the mind of his protagonist, Musil is here presenting instead the subjective impressions which they create in that mind as they well up into the area of semiconsciousness.

Musil's thought-impressionism—I do not think that "stream of consciousness" is the right term for this process—is much less direct than similar techniques used by Joyce and Woolf, and considerably less directed; Claudine is not going to any lighthouse, much less returning to the earth-mother after an Odyssean quest. Where Joyce and Woolf use the stream-of-consciousness technique as a means to an end, Musil's technique is both means and end. This would explain the importance of the story line in Joyce and Woolf and its unimportance in The Completion of Love. In this respect Musil is somewhat closer to his compatriot Schnitzler, except that the latter uses the technique in a much more formal and straightforward manner, usually presenting as taking place in the minds of his characters a relatively logical association of conscious ideas. But Musil is here closest of all to Gertrude Stein and to her idea of presenting essence rather than substance. One might say that Musil encounters the same basic difficulty as Joyce, Woolf, and Stein in that he is trying to verbalize what are essentially nonverbal processes—which may be regarded as an attempt to overcome one of the basic limitations of literature as an art. The interesting term...

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Frank Kermode (essay date 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Christine Oertel Sjögren (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Frederick G. Peters (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

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Ronald M. Paulson (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Michael W. Jennings (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Todd Kontje (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Lowell A. Bangerter (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Barbara Mabee (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 532 words.)