The Austrian novelist, dramatist, and essayist Robert Edler von Musil (1880-1942) gained a largely posthumous fame for his monumental and unfinished novel "The Man without Qualities."
Robert Musil was born on Nov. 6, 1880, in Klagenfurt, Carinthia, Austria. The son of a professor of engineering, Musil received his elementary education at military schools from 1892 to 1897. After serving for a period as an officer in the Austrian army, he began engineering studies, later changing to philosophy, logic, and experimental psychology. In 1908 he obtained a doctorate for his work on Ernst Mach from the University of Berlin. Between 1911 and 1914 Musil served as librarian at the Technische Hochschule in Vienna. During this time he also was briefly an editor of Die neue Rundschau, a review. During World War I Musil was an officer in the Austrian army, and in the postwar period he was employed in the War Office and in various other government ministries.
Between 1922 and 1938 Musil lived in Berlin and Vienna, supporting himself as a writer and through systematic contributions from interested friends. After the Anschluss, Musil went voluntarily into exile, living in Switzerland until his death. He died in Geneva on April 15, 1942, in poverty and almost completely unknown.
Stories and Dramas
Musil published his first novel, Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless (Young Törless), in 1906. It is a story of troubled adolescence set in a military school modeled upon the one attended by both Musil and Rainer Maria Rilke. Musil's chief problem in the book was achieving an emotional equilibrium both within his characters and in their relationships to their fellow human beings. The book was immediately successful, and Musil next published Vereinigungen, two short stories, in 1911. In both of them— Die Vollendung der Liebe and Die Versuchung der stillen Veronika—unbearable reality is transformed by excessive imagination. The resulting heightening of the emotions brings about a spiritual, nonphysical union with the loved one.
Both of Musil's dramas, Die Schwärmer (1921) and Vinzenz und die Freundin bedeutender Männer (1924), represent stepping-stones toward achievement of a more tangible equilibrium. In times of great emotional intensity, says Musil, limits vanish, and man can achieve identification and union with one's fellowman. The three short stories of Drei Frauen (1921-1924) posit and resolve the problems caused by logical, rational, and emotionally limited men in relationship to emotionally more complicated women.
In a sense all of Musil's early work was a preparation for his great novel and masterpiece, Der Mann ohne Eigenochaften (The Man without Qualities), which he began in the early 1920s. The first volume was issued in German in 1930, the second in 1933, and the third in 1942. He was working on the fourth at the time of his death. About 365 pages of this novel were published in English translation in 1953. They represent about one half of volume 1. Volumes 2 and 3 were also published in English translation.
Musil's magnum opus is a novel of the life and history of pre-World War I Austria. Ulrich, the hero of the novel, is the man without qualities, that is to say, a man with unimpaired potential. Like his creator, he has been an officer, engineer, and mathematician. He is the secretary of a celebration, whose planning begins in 1913, for the 1918 anniversary of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The ironical implication is that the empire will have collapsed before the celebration is held.
Ulrich takes a year's leave from his duties to attempt to discover the meaning of life. His scientific training enables him to look at life as a laboratory, and he regards emotional intensity as the only meaningful morality. He achieves balance and equilibrium after he meets his sister Agathe. As they analyze their emotional lives, they experience a state of mystical intensity based upon a rational interpretation, the highest degree of feeling.
Further Reading on Robert Edler Von Musil
The most valuable study of Musil in English is Burton Pike, Robert Musil: An Introduction to His Work (1961), the preface of which includes biographical information. A discussion of Young Törless appears in Frank Kermode, Puzzles and Epiphanies: Essays and Reviews, 1958-1961 (1962). Musil figures in general surveys of modern German literature, such as Harry T. Moore, Twentieth-century German Literature (1967); August Closs, 20th Century German Literature (1969); and Henry Hatfield, Crisis and Continuity in Modern German Fiction (1969).
Additional Biography Sources
Hickman, Hannah, Robert Musil & the culture of Vienna. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court Pub. Co., 1984.