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.