Robert Musil  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Robert Musil (November 6, 1880, Klagenfurt, AustriaApril 15, 1942, Geneva, Switzerland) was an Austrian writer. His unfinished long novel The Man Without Qualities (in German, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften) is generally considered to be one of the most important modernist novels.


Musil was the son of Alfred Musil (1846-1924) and his wife Hermine (1853-1924), who lived together with an unrelated "uncle" Heinrich Reiter (b. 1856). The elder Musil was an engineer, appointed in 1891 to the chair of Mechanical Engineering at the German Technical University in Brno, and awarded a hereditary peerage in the Austro-Hungarian empire shortly before it collapsed. The younger Musil was a bit short, but strong and skilled at wrestling, and by his early teens already more than his parents could handle. Accordingly they sent him to military boarding school at Eisenstadt (1892-1894) and then Mährisch-Weisskirchen (1894-1897). These school experiences are reflected in his first novel, Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless (The Confusions of Young Törless).

After graduating as a cadet, Musil briefly studied at a military college in Vienna during the fall of 1897, but then switched to engineering, joining his father's department at Brno. During his college career he studied engineering by day, but at night read literature and philosophy, and went to the theater and art exhibits. Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Ernst Mach were particular interests of his college years. Musil finished his studies in three years, then in 1902-1903 served as an unpaid assistant to Professor Julius Carl von Bach, in Stuttgart. During this time he began work on Young Törless.

Even then, however, Musil was growing tired with engineering and the limited worldview of engineers, and rather than settle into an engineering career, he launched a new round of doctoral studies (1903-1908) in psychology and philosophy at the University of Berlin under the renowned Professor Carl Stumpf. In the midst of these studies, Young Törless, his first novel was published in 1906. Even before this, in 1905, Musil had met Martha Marcovaldi (January 21, 1874 - November 6, 1949) who was in subsequent years to become his wife. She had already been widowed and remarried, with two children, and was seven years older than Musil.

In 1909, Musil completed his doctorate and was offered a position by Professor Alexius Meinong, at the University of Graz, which he turned down to concentrate on literature. Over the next two years, he wrote and published two stories ("The Temptation of Quiet Veronica" and "The Perfecting of a Love") in a book entitled Vereinigungen (Unions) in 1911. During this same year, Martha's divorce was complete, and she and Musil married. Until this time, Musil had been supported by his family, but he now found employment first as a librarian in the Technical University of Vienna, and then in an editorial role with the Berlin Literary Journal, during which time he worked on a play entitled Die Schwärmer (The Enthusiasts), eventually published in 1921.

When World War I began, Musil joined the Army, first stationed in South Tyrol, and then away from danger at Austria's Supreme Army Command in Bolzano. In 1916 Musil came to Prague and met Franz Kafka whose work he highly esteemed, as he did the work of Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke. After the war's end, and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Musil returned to a fulltime literary life in Vienna. He published a collection of short stories, Drei Frauen (Three Women), in 1924, and then in 1930 and 1932 the first two volumes of his masterpiece, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities).

In the early 20s Musil lived mostly in Berlin. In Vienna Musil was a frequent visitor of Eugenie Schwarzwald's salon (the model of Diotima in The Man Without Qualities). In 1932 The Robert Musil Society was founded in Berlin on the initiative of Thomas Mann. The same year Thomas Mann was asked to name an eminent contemporary novel and he cited exclusively The Man Without Qualities. In 1936 Musil had his first stroke.

The last years of Musil's life were dominated by Nazism and World War II. He saw early Nazism first-hand during 1931-1933 in a stay in Berlin, and later, when Austria became a part of the Third Reich in 1938, Musil left for exile in Switzerland, where he died of a stroke on April 15, 1942. Musil collapsed in the middle of his gymnastic exercises and is rumoured to have died with an expression of ironic amusement on his face. He was 61.

There were only eight people present at his funeral. His widow cast his ashes into the Rhône. Martha Musil died in 1949 in Rome.

After his death Musil's work was almost forgotten in German speaking countries. His writings started to reappear at the beginning of the 1950s. The first translation of The Man Without Qualities in English was also published around then. An improved translation, containing extensive selections from unpublished drafts, appeared in 1995.


Template:Trivia Thomas Mann (1875), Hermann Hesse (1877), Robert Walser (1878), Robert Musil (1880), Franz Kafka (1883), Hermann Broch (1886) were of the same literary generation. James Joyce was born in the same period, in 1882, and died a year before Musil, both in Switzerland.

The Man Without Qualities only brought Musil mediocre commercial success. Though he was nominated for the Nobel Prize, he felt he did not receive the recognition he deserved. He sometimes expressed annoyance at the success of more famous colleagues like Thomas Mann, or Hermann Broch, who admired his work deeply and, moved by his material poverty, tried to shield him against quotidian worries and encouraged him to further his literary work, even though Musil was initially critical of Mann.

In Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, Bootie, perhaps the book's most important character, carries Musil's The Man Without Qualities with him at all times.


  • Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß (The Confusions of Young Torless, 1906), later made into a movie Der junge Törless
  • Vereinigungen (1911)
  • Die Schwärmer (1921)
  • Vinzenz und die Freundin bedeutender Männer (1924)
  • Drei Frauen (1924) (Three Women - a collection of five short stories)
  • Nachlaß zu Lebzeiten (1936) (Posthumous Papers of a Living Author - a collection of short prose pieces)
  • Über die Dummheit (1937)
  • Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities, 1930, 1933, 1943, published in two volumes)

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Robert Musil" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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