Robert Musil Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In addition to the short novel with which he began his literary career and the massive unfinished work that occupied the later years of his life, Robert Musil (MEW-zihl) wrote a dissertation on the Austrian philosopher Ernst Mach, Beitrag zur Beurteilung der Lehren Machs (1908; On Mach’s Theories, 1982); a number of short stories and novellas, including those published in Vereinigungen (1911; partial translation Unions, 1965) and Drei Frauen (1924; Tonka, and Other Stories, 1965) and later published in English under the title Five Women (1966); two plays, Die Schwärmer (pb. 1921; The Enthusiasts, 1983) and a farce titled Vinzenz und die Freundin bedeutender Männer (1923; Vinzenz and the girlfriend of important men); and many essays, reviews, and newspaper pieces, some of which were revised and published in Nachlass zu Lebzeiten (1936; Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, 1987). Two multivolume collections of Musil’s diaries and letters have also been edited and published in German, and a selection of his writings was collected and published in English in 1986.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Neither in his life nor in his work was Robert Musil ever willing to accept the necessity of choosing between the “two worlds” of science and culture. He was trained as a scientist, but he abandoned a promising scientific career in favor of literature, which he regarded as a serious instrument for exploring the social and philosophical problems of his time. Although his work was praised by such prominent writers as Thomas Mann, Hermann Broch, and Alfred Döblin, the extreme precision of Musil’s style and the “essayistic” density of his method made for difficult reading. As a result, he was never a popular success, and he was even forced in his later years to live on charitable contributions provided by small groups of friends and supporters. Plagued by financial worries during his last years, spent in exile in Switzerland, Musil would often wonder—with characteristic irony—how it had happened that he had become the object of such universal esteem and such utter neglect.

In a sense, this awkward situation has continued to the present day: Because The Man Without Qualities remained unfinished at the time of Musil’s death, scholars and critics have been largely preoccupied with editorial problems connected with the question of how the novel was supposed to end. In any event, Musil’s work has yet to receive the international recognition it deserves, and much of it remains unavailable except in German. More than ten thousand pages of Musil’s manuscripts are housed in the Austrian National Library in Vienna, and three research centers devoted to Musil studies have been established, at the University of Klagenfurt (Austria), Reading University (England), and the University of the Saarland (Saarbrücken, Germany).

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

What are the modernist elements of Robert Musil’s novels?

How do the rational and irrational, the material and the spiritual, relate to each other in Musil’s novels?

What is the role of sexuality in Musil’s work? Is it gratuitous, motivated, meaningful, and/or appropriate?

What types of irony are there? Which ones does Musil use in The Man Without Qualities?

What is a “man without qualities”? Is it something one can choose to be?

What is more important—the sense of reality or the sense of possibility?


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Bernstein, Michael André. Five Portraits: Modernity and the Imagination in Twentieth-Century German Writing. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2000. A study of five modernist poets, including Musil, whose narrative abilities Bernstein greatly admires.

Hickman, Hannah. Robert Musil and the Culture of Vienna. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1991. Seeks to “trace the development of Musil’s mind” in his literary work, notebooks, essays, and personal biography.

Jonsson, Stefan. Subject Without Nation: Robert Musil and the History of Modern Identity. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000. An in-depth study of Musil’s concepts, with plenty of background.

Luft, David S. Robert Musil and the Crisis of European Culture, 1880-1942. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. Places Musil’s work in the larger cultural context from which it emerged, paralleling Musil’s biography with Europe’s transformation.

Payne, Philip. Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities”: A Critical Study. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. A thorough, theme-by-theme analysis of the novel.

Peters, Frederick G. Robert Musil, Master of the Hovering Life: A Study of the Major Fiction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978. Examines the major fiction from a psychoanalytic approach, concentrating on the “esoteric” short stories.

Rogowski, Christian. Distinguished Outsider: Robert Musil and His Critics. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1994. An enlightening study of Musil’s works. Includes index and bibliography.

Spencer, Malcolm. In the Shadow of Empire: Austrian Experiences of Modernity in the Writings of Musil, Roth, and Bachmann. Elizabethtown, N.Y.: Camden House, 2008. Discussions of each author’s body of work, including material from interviews with them and correspondence that they wrote. Also includes helpful notes after each chapter.