Robert Musil Musil, Robert (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Robert Musil 1880-1942

Full name Robert Edler von Musil; Austrian novelist,novella writer, dramatist, essayist, and poet

Although Musil is little known outside of literary and academic circles, he is considered by many critics to be among the greatest novelists in modern literature, primary because of his voluminous novel Der Mann ohne Eigenscaften (The Man without Qualities). This work occupied him for twenty years but was never completed. The novel's protagonist, Ulrich, has been interpreted as a paradigm of the modern individual and the novel's setting—decadent pre-World War I Austria, with the Austro-Hungarian empire on the brink of collapse—has been seen as symbolic of the whole of twentieth-century existence.

Biographical Information

Musil was born in Klagenfurt, Austria, to an aloof, intellectual father and an emotionally unstable mother. While his father devoted himself to a successful career as a professor of engineering, Musil's mother maintained a forty-year liaison with a teacher who lived with the family. Critic Frederick G. Peters wrote that this strange domestic triangle "had a profoundly adverse effect upon [Musil's] psychological development." Musil was a troubled and withdrawn child who had to be taken out of the third grade for half a year to recover from a nervous breakdown. His father enrolled him in a military academy when he was twelve, and two years later sent him to the senior military academy at Mährisch-Weisskirchen, which Rainer Maria Rilke had attended a few years earlier. Both writers later recounted that they suffered greatly from the rigorous regime of the school and from embarrassment by older students. Rilke claimed that he always meant to write about his ordeal at the school, but was never able to carry out his intention. Musil, however, used his experiences there as the basis for his first novel, Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless (Young Törless) At seventeen, he decided to forgo the military career mapped out for him by his father and began to study engineering, in which he took his degree. Musil later entered the University of Berlin to study philosophy, psychology, and mathematics, and in 1908 submitted his dissertation on the epistemology of the physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach. In 1911 Musil married, and in the same year published his second book, Vereinigungen (Unions), containing the novellas Die Vollengung der Leibe (The Perfecting of a Love) and Die Versuchung der stillen Veronika (The Temptation of Quiet Veronica). His father obtained for him a post as librarian at the Technical University of Vienna, which he occupied for two years before moving back to Berlin to become an editor of the periodical Die neue Rundschau. During World War I Musil served as an officer, and after the war held various semimilitary positions with the Austrian Foreign Ministry and the War Office. In 1922 he lost his job due to government cutbacks, and afterward lived as a freelance writer, often in extremely impoverished circumstances. Financial pressure, coupled with the tremendous intellectual and emotional stress of composing the massive novel The Man without Qualities, led to another nervous breakdown in 1929. Patrons in Berlin and Vienna provided some financial support, and Musil tried repeatedly, but without success, to find a sponsor to aid in his emigration to the United States. In 1938, just before the Nazi invasion of Vienna, Musil and his Jewish wife fled to Switzerland. He died there four years later, embittered by continued poverty and lack of public recognition, his vast final work unfinished.

Major Works

Musil's first novel, Young Törless, examines the crises in the life of a schoolboy. Musil critic and biographer Burton Pike has summarized the novel as "an examination of the psychology of an adolescent and, perhaps even more, an examination of the psychology of an adolescent representing a general type of human psychology at a particular stage of development." In Young Töxless Musil defines an adolescent as someone who has not yet constructed the fiction of character, and Torless has been seen as a precursor of Ulrich in The Man without Qualities. Törless is described early in the novel as having no character (or personality or ego, depending upon the translator) of any kind. His part in the sadistic treatment of the hapless, "soft" Basini is often viewed a preparatory stage to Törless's development and to his achievement greater self-knowledge. Because Musil appears to sanction his protagonist's cruelty toward a weaker classmate, the novel has been interpreted in terms of Nietzsche's philosophy of a superior individual who is above conventional morality. Critics also find Freudian themes in Young Törless; in fact, Harry Goldgar has said that it may be "the earliest novel of any sort in any language to show specific Freudian influence." However, other critics, notably Frederick G. Peters and Yvonne Isitt, dispute this claim. Peters cites evidence from Musil's diaries and journals that Musil possessed only a minimal grasp of Freudian thought, and that he rejected much of what he did understand. Isitt sates that pertinent Freudian works were not even published at the time of the novel's composition.

Musil produced two volumes of novellas, Unions and Drei Frauen (Three Women). In the two novellas that appear In Unions, The Perfecting of a Love and The Temptation of Quiet Veronica, Musil presented his central characters by describing their successive mental impressions of various situations. Musil's style in writing these two novella's has been likened to impressionism in painting. The closest stylistic comparison in literature is to the stream of consciousness technique as employed by James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. In an attempt to render the feelings of his female characters to his readers, Musil used what has been described as a "stream of emotions" and intended the reader of these novellas to respond to them emotionally, rather than intellectually. Musil told his stories through images and metaphors, omitting the usual fictional elements of plot, physical description, and conventional narrative. Both novellas focus upon the attempts of a central female character to reconcile the varying demands of physical and spiritual love. Claudine, in The Perfecting of a Love, reaffirms the bonds of her marriage through a meaningless sexual encounter with an animal-like stranger. Veronica, in the second novella, denies her own sexuality and seeks a purely spiritual union. At one point she believes she has attained this; upon discovering she was mistaken, some critics believe she becomes insane, though Musil's surrealistic narration makes any definitive statement regarding The Temptation of Quiet Veronica difficult.

The novellas in Musil's second collection—Grigia, Tonka, and Die Portugiesin (The Lady from Portugal)p=m- have male protagonists, with the eponymous characters, all women, serving as antagonists. The respective protagonists—an engineer, a scientist, and a soldier—each become involved with an enigmatic woman in a relationship which ultimately demands that the man seek a reconciliation between the rational and the nonrational aspects of life. Only the soldier, through his marriage to the Portuguese lady, achieves a synthesis between the two. The protagonist of Grigia cannot strike a balance between the empiricism of his profession and the "andere Zustand"p=m-the mystical state of "other reality"p=m-of the valley where he has gone to work, which is embodied in his peasant mistress. Grigia concludes with his death. The protagonist of Tonka is a scientist who does not attempt a reconciliation between the rational and nonrational, but chooses scientific reason over mystical faith in his lover, which results in her death. The three male-female relationships explored in the novellas in Three Women are often critically interpreted as the antecedents to the union between Ulrich and his sister Agathe in The Man without Qualities, a relationship whose success or failure cannot be conclusively judged because of the work's unfinished state.

The Man without Qualities appeared in three volumes over a thirteen-year period, and as it is thought that Musil began the novel in 1922, he devoted about two decades to this unfinished work. As early as 1931 the initial volume of The Man without Qualities was described in The Times Literary Supplement as the "first part… of a monumental work." At the novel's center is the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire and its significance as the end of an epoch. However, other elements have been pointed out which are equally important to the structure of the novel. The first of these is the central character, Ulrich, the man without Eigenschaftenp=m-a difficult term for translators, who have settled upon "qualities"; however, in the same context the word has been alternately translated as "characteristics," "attributes," "properties," and "capacities." Ulrich's age, his background in philosophy, the sciences, and his military experiences are all Musil's own, making the novel autobiographical to some extent. Ulrich, the man of multiple possibilities, has decided to spend a year keeping himself apart while speculating upon which possibility to pursue. His dilemma is seen as representative of the existing social conditions in pre-World War I Europe. Musil depicts a panorama of Austrian, and by extension, European, society in decline. At the same time he shows his quintessential modern European struggling to reconcile the rational with the nonrational aspects of life through his relationship with his sister Agathe. Another important feature of the novel is the presence of the psychotic murderer Moosbrugger, whose upcoming trial is a common topic of conversation. Wilhelm Braun wrote that Moosbrugger is "representative of the mood and the scope of the work" and that he is symbolic of the disintegration of the European people prior to World War I. There is no way of knowing what form the novel would ultimately have taken if Musil could have brought The Man without Qualities to a conclusion. In the third volume of the novel, Musil has Ulrich approach a union between "Moglichkeitssinn" and Wirklichkeitssinn" ("possibility" and "reality") in his physical and spiritual union with his sister Agathe.

Critical Reception

As Musil's works become better known through increased critical attention, they are met with an enthusiastic response from critics and readers who find in Musil an author with an idiosyncratic approach to fiction, yet one who addressed his works to basic human problems: whether the morality of a past epoch can be applied to a new age; how the individual is to find an ideal balance between the many alternatives present by life; and how the modern individual is to deal with the potentially limitless possibilities now available. Denis de Rougemont summarized current opinion when he wrote that Musil's work "will continue to rise on the horizon of European literature." Support for this claim is provided by the publication in 1995 of a new English-language translation of The Man without Qualities as well as the first translation of Nachlass zu Lebzeiten (Posthumous Papers of a Living Author), a collection of essays and short stories.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Die Vereinigungen des Zöglings Torless [Young Törless (novel) 1906

Vereinigungen [Unions] (novellas) 1911

Die Schwärmer [first publication] (drama) 1921

Vinzenz und die Freundin bedeutender Männer [first publication] (drama) 1923

Drei Frauen [Three Women] (novellas) 1924

Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften. 3 vols. [The Man without Qualities] (novel) 1930-43

Nachlass zu Lebzeiten [Posthumous Papers of a Living Author] (essays) 1936

Tonka, and Other Stories (novellas) 1966

Gesammelte Werke in neun Bänden. 9...

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D.J.Enright (essay date 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Stupendous Cannot Be Easy: On Robert Musil," in A Mania for Sentences, Chatto & Windus, 1983, pp. 23-33.

[In the following essay, Enright considers Musil's achievement as both a thinker and a fiction writer.]

If you were to read The Man Without Qualities for the story, your patience would be much fretted: you would probably not hang yourself, you would merely want to hang Robert Musil. The 'story' of the novel ostensibly concerns the preparations being made in 1913 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the Emperor's accession in December 1918. The preparations are known as the Collateral Campaign...

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Anthony Heilbut (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Man with Extraordinary Qualities," in The New York Times Book Review, April 10, 1988, pp. 28-9.

[In the following review, Heilbut outlines Musil's main characteristics as a writer and thinker as evidenced in the essays and fiction collected in Posthumous Papers of a Living Author.]

Since so little of Robert Musil's work is available in English, this collection's appearance is a major literary event. A congeries of light sketches, composed for Austrian and German newspapers between 1913 and 1929, it was compiled in 1935 when Musil was still living in Austria. But it was first published a year later in Switzerland, the country he fled to in 1938 following...

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John Bayley (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Death and the Dichter," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXV, No. 14, September 27, 1988, pp. 34-6.

[In the following review, Bayley discusses two later translations of works by Musil.]

The German term Dichter is not at all readily translatable. It has a wider sense than "poet," and a more transcendental one than "writer." Goethe, the archetypal Dichter, created masterpieces in every genre, but was also the model of thinking and being, in the science and ethic of a civilized state. Never much like its English, French, or Russian counterpart, the German novel, coming from the pen of a Dichter, has always more resembled an enterprise...

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Lowell A. Bangerter (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Experimental Utopias: The Man without Qualities," in Robert Musil, The Continuum Publishing Company, 1988, pp. 111-30.

[In the following excerpt, Bangerter outlines the principal themes of The Man without Qualities.]

All of Musil's other works, including Young Törless, the novellas, the plays, and the essays, can be interpreted as preliminary studies to his monumental unfinished novel The Man without Qualities. In each creation, the author tested variations of ideas about man's relationship to the world, his self-concept, and the possibilities for realizing greater fulfillment and more perfect humanity within the context of life's...

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Christian Rogowski (essay date 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften," in Distinguished Outsider: Robert Musil and His Critics, Camden House, 1994, pp. 146-75.

[In the following excerpt, Rogowski surveys the body of critical writings on The Man without Qualities.]

Scholars of Germanistik seem to like books reputed to be difficult. Musil's Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften surely must rank among the books most written about in the field of literature in the German language. Ever since its republication under the editorship of Adolf Frisé in 1952, there has been a steady and incessant stream of articles, essays, and monographs on Musil's unfinished magnum opus from all sorts of different...

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George Steiner (essay date 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Unfinished," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXXI, No. 8, April 17, 1995, pp. 101-06.

[In the following essay, Steiner discusses The Man without Qualities in the context of modern world literature and provides a close examination of the new Wilkins-Pike translation of this work.]

The Anglo-Saxon temperament has a weakness for innocence, even a touch of grossness, in its novelists. It bridles at intellectuality, at the application to fiction of systematic philosophy. The teller of tales—of sophisticated, psychologically refined tales—is one thing. The logician, the metaphysician, the mind trained in philosophy or science, quite another. The term...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Bernstein, Michael André. "Precision and Soul." In The New Republic 212, No. 22 (29 May 1995): 27-36.

Provides an overview of Musil's life and career, analysis of The Man without Qualities, and an evaluation of the strengths and shortcomings of the new Sophie Wilkins-Burton Pike translation of Musil's unfinished novel.

Drabble, Dennis. "In the Twilight of the Empire." In the Washington Post Book World (16 April 1995): 1, 10.

Reviews the Wilkins-Pike translation of The Man without Qualities and examines the biographical and historical background to Musil's masterwork.


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