[This page by Malcolm Spencer]

Robert Musil (1880-1942)

Robert Musil is a writer and thinker of great importance in both German-speaking and European culture.  In the former context, he may be placed alongside Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka as one of the three greatest masters of German prose in the first half of the 20th century. In the latter context, Musil’s fictional exploration of modernity, his vast unfinished novel Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften; The Man without Qualities (1930-42), is usually considered, along with James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu; In Search of Lost Time (1913-27), as one of the three most  significant achievements of European literary modernism. However, these general comparisons do not tell us much about the ways in which Musil’s work differs from that of the writers so far mentioned. 

Like Mann in Der Zauberberg; The Magic Mountain (1924), Musil diagnoses and explores a growing crisis in European culture that led up to the outbreak of war in 1914 and then intensified after 1918. Unlike Mann, Musil makes no concessions at all to realism or to the expectations that most readers bring to works of fiction – indeed, his novel challenges the reader at every stage, and not just in its length, complexity and avoidance of linear narrative. (Musil wrote in his diaries (a rich quarry of materials for his fiction) that ‘Th[omas] M[ann] u[nd] ähnliche schreiben für Menschen, die da sind; ich schreibe für Menschen, die nicht da sind!’ (Tagebücher, 880) (Thomas Mann and similar authors write for the people who are there; I write for people who aren’t there.) In his radical undermining of narrative and realism, Musil has more in common with Kafka, a writer he admired. Just as the opening sentences of some of Kafka’s texts – Die Verwandlung; Metamorphosis and Ein Bericht für eine Akademie; Report for an Academy, for instance – challenge the reader with an ‘impossible’ perspective, so the opening chapter of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, with its scientific weather report, random traffic accident and figures without fixed identity and location, seems to say to the reader: ‘If you are one of millions of people living in a modern city with millions of randomly repeatable experiences which cannot be understood as a whole any more, then neither a naïve opening ‘It was a beautiful day in August 1913’, nor an omniscient narrator, nor a novel with narrative closure can do justice to the multiplicity and complexity of modern existence.’ 

A final comparison with Marcel Proust is fruitful. Like Proust in his 3,300 page novel-cycle, Musil seeks in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften to explore in great depth myriad facets of modern life through the minds, motivations and actions of an exceptionally wide range of characters who represent a cross-section of bourgeois society. Again, as was the case for Proust, the composition of this ‘all about everything’ novel was so protracted and all-consuming that the writing of it occupied the rest of Musil’s life – he was still working on a final draft of the chapter Atemzüge eines Sommertages (Breaths of a Summer’s Day) on the day he suddenly died of a stroke in April 1942. From our perspective, all of Musil’s other writing – considerable as it is – seems like a preparation for this one unique book to which he would bring (even if he did not know this when he began it in his youth) a lifetime’s emotional and intellectual experience. Whereas Proust’s education and earlier life predisposed him towards interest in literature, art, aesthetics, music and philosophy, Musil came to his vocation as a writer from a background in the sciences, particularly mathematics and experimental psychology; his formal education up until the age of twenty was exclusively technical and scientific.

He was the only son of Alfred von Musil, a distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering who spent most of his career at the Technical University in Brünn (now Brno in the Czech Republic), at that time a bilingual German and Czech city. When only 11 years old, he was sent to a military boarding school which trained boys to become officers in the Austrian army, but such a conventional, old-fashioned career could never have suited an introverted young man of high intellectual gifts. At 17, Musil abandoned the army and enrolled at his father’s university to train as an engineer. There was no doubting Musil’s potential in this field, as he passed his examinations with the mark ‘very competent’ and went on in 1903, after his year of military service, to a post as an assistant in the Materials Testing Institute of the Technical University in Stuttgart. This was his father’s second attempt to fit his son into a conventional career, this time one that was technical and modern. The problem for the young Musil was that he already sensed the emptiness of the self-satisfied society around him, which was oriented towards appearances and material progress but neglected the spiritual life. The scientists and engineers whom he met were at the forefront of their fields, but inwardly, they resembled 19th-century gentlemen. Musil’s private reading – the novels of Dostoevsky, the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson and above all, the deeply questioning philosophy of Nietzsche, a dominant influence on his writing for the rest of his life – was by now very different from his technical work during the day. He started to learn Latin and Greek so as to take the Abitur (school leaving examination) and thus qualify for university study. Musil’s first relationships also did not fit into the conventional pattern. A brief but intense love affair with a beautiful pianist, Valerie Hilpert (Musil’s first mystical experience; the power of the coup-de-foudre is described in chapter 32 of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, ‘Die vergessene, überaus wichtige Geschichte der Gattin eines Majors’) (The forgotten but extremely important story of the major’s wife) was followed by a six-year relationship with Herma Dietz, a working-class woman from Brünn, who followed him to Berlin. Her death there in 1907 from the consequences of a miscarriage traumatized Musil and is described in his 1924 novella Tonka. (Nearly all of Musil’s writing is in one way or another autobiographical.)

Musil escaped from his second ‘career’ by moving to Berlin in 1903, where he studied philosophy and psychology and published his first novel in 1906, Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß; The Confusions of Young Törleß. The book, about the intense emotions and thoughts of a cadet in a military boarding school (similar to the one he had attended in Mährisch-Weißkirchen in Moravia from 1894-97) exposes the double standards of Austrian society: the school, designed to educate the imperial elite, is in fact rife with homoerotic desire, prostitution and sadistic cruelty. We learn little about the daily routine of the school except that the curriculum is arid and tedious. Instead, the narrator explores Törleß’s inner world, particularly his inability to find any language for his confused perceptions and desires. This demanding work, written almost entirely from Törleß’s perspective, explores in an original way the mechanisms of domination, gender identity and the limits of rationality. 

Musil’s third ‘career’, begun in Berlin but again not continued, was academic: he took a PhD on the physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach, supervised by the leading experimental psychologist of the day, Professor Carl Stumpf. He was in fact offered an academic post at the University of Graz, but turned it down: he must have already felt that imaginative literature offered more possibilities for his broad interests than academic specialization. But in 1911 Musil had married Martha Marcovaldi, for the rest of his life his inseparable companion, and with his parents now insisting that he become financially independent, he needed paid work: with his father’s help, he found a post as an archivist at the Technische Hochschule in Vienna; he left this post in 1913 to move back to Berlin and become editor of the literary journal Die Neue Rundschau, which gave Musil vital experience in writing essays.

His only other major literary publication before the outbreak of war were the two novellas which appeared in 1911 as Vereinigungen; Unions, dense, intricate explorations of the inner worlds of their female protagonists. Until the outbreak of war, Musil’s writing had thus been largely introspective: it did not explore wider social and political issues. His war service as an officer on the Italian front – where he served with bravery and was almost killed by a shell – and subsequently in the Press Office, editing a newspaper for soldiers – may have cost him years of work as a writer. (He wrote in  his diaries: ‘Die fünfjährige Sklaverei des Krieges hat inzwischen aus meinem Leben das beste Stück herausgerissen.’ (Tagebücher, 527: The five years of slavery of the war have ripped out in the meantime the best part from my life.) Yet the war was also the making of Musil as a great writer: none of the other four great modernist writers mentioned at the start of this entry experienced it as he – and millions of other Europeans – did. It allowed him to see at first hand not only the corruption and incompetence of the elite, but also the lives of the common people who had been affected by it. Above all, it enabled him to write, during the 1920s, the monumental satire of Book I of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften.

The widening of Musil’s horizons was apparent in the longer essays that he wrote after the collapse of the Empire in 1918, when Austria had been reduced to a small, impoverished Republic. Musil did not think of himself as an Austrian writer, but as a one addressing the whole German Kulturnation (indeed, he did not think a separate Austrian culture existed). Essays such as the unfinished Das Ende des Krieges; The End of the War (1918), with its profound analysis of the causes of the war, Die Nation als Ideal und als Wirklichkeit; The Nation as Ideal and as Reality (1921), Das Hilflose Europa; Helpless Europe (1922), and the fragment Der deutsche Mensch als Symptom; The German as a Symptom (1923), are some of the deepest and most incisive essays ever written in German. They also possess the rapier wit and sophisticated humour to be found in the mature Musil: for example, the title he gave his demolition of Oswald Spengler’s fashionable book Der Untergang des Abendlandes; The Decline of the West was: Anmerkungen für Leser, die dem Untergang des Abendlandes entronnen sind (Notes for readers who have escaped the decline of the West). 

The 1920s were Musil’s most successful decade; his work as a theatre critic and as a contributor to papers such as the Prager Presse assured him and his wife Martha a modest but productive existence in their spartan apartment in the 3rd Bezirk of Vienna. He belonged to small, but select circle of friends, some of whom were writers like Franz Blei and Oskar Maurus Fontana, but which also included a mathematician, a civil servant and an academic. During this time, Musil published two plays, which had little success, and three short stories Grigia, Die Portugiesin and Tonka, in a collection entitled Drei Frauen; Three Women, which the Musil scholar Philip Payne calls ‘perhaps his most engaging, if least typical work’ (Payne, 2007: 31). From about 1919, Musil had been working on a novel which went through innumerable drafts – some of which went back to before 1914 – and which only acquired the title Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften in early 1927. The work is ostensibly set in Vienna in 1913, but it was to be a contemporary novel that addressed the problems of modern Western civilization as a whole and used Austria only as ‘ein besonders deutlicher Fall der modernen Welt’ (Tagebücher, 354, ‘an especially clear case of the modern world’).  Musil wrote slowly and self-critically – it is said that the first chapter went through 20 drafts – and he was only able to surmount a serious writer’s block in 1927-28 after therapy with a leading psychiatrist. When the first book of the novel was published by Rowohlt in November 1930, it met with acclaim from writers and critics, but did not enjoy commercial success, which was hardly surprising given its length, complexity and the demands it makes on the reader.

The 1930s were much more problematic for Musil, as a result of the growing political crisis, the increasing difficulty of financing a literary project of this size, his own declining health and perhaps most of all, the inherent philosophical challenge of completing the second half of the novel. Musil had moved to Berlin in 1932 to be closer to his publisher and also to the currents of his age (he felt that Vienna had become a backwater) and a continuation of the novel was published in December 1932. This volume of 38 chapters did not however by any means complete the second book, and Musil was forced to return to Vienna in May 1933 after the Nazi seizure of power. His final publication in his lifetime was a collection of his short prose pieces to which he gave the untranslatable title Nachlaß zu Lebzeiten; Posthumous Papers of a Living Author (1935). One of them – entitled Eine Kulturfrage; A Cultural Question – asks what a writer in the modern age is and includes a sentence that perhaps only Musil could have written: ‘[Es] wird kommen, daß der Mensch mit Bestimmtheit zu sagen vermag, was Kaffee Hag, was ein Rolls-Royce, was ein Segelflugzeug ist, aber in Verlegenheit geraten wird, wenn seine Kindeskinder voll Spannung ihn fragen: Urgroßvater, zu deiner Zeit soll es ja noch Dichter gegeben haben, Was ist das?’ (Musil, Gesammelte Werke, 7:512), ‘A time will come, when people can say with certainty what decaffeinated coffee, a Rolls-Royce and a glider are, but they will be embarrassed when their children’s children ask, full of excitement: Great-grandfather, didn’t poets still exist in your day? What is that?’

The proofs of twenty further chapters of the novel were being corrected in March 1938, when the Anschluss (Austria’s occupation and annexation by Nazi Germany) intervened, and Musil withdrew them for further revision.  By now, the composition of the novel had slowed to a snail’s pace, to an estimated four chapters a year, and Musil’s depression was intense. In September 1938, taking most of his manuscripts with him, Musil decided to move provisionally to Switzerland (his wife Martha was Jewish). Living first in Zürich and then from July 1939 in Geneva, in conditions of great isolation and poverty, Musil was however able to surmount this crisis and to rewrite six or more of these chapters in a new and simpler way, so that they do form, if not a conclusion, then a beautiful and meditative new path in the book. These are the passages in which Ulrich and his sister Agathe feel a transcendent love for each other that dissolves their own separate identities and leads to a moment of  mystical union with nature. Musil’s language in his last writing before his death has extraordinary power: it combines clarity and precision with lyrical and sensuous intensity, often using astonishing metaphors. Too much is made of the formally unfinished state of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften. As the critic William Gass has wisely written: ‘This book was created to be incomplete, and if it had an end to it, it would not be finished.’ (NYRB, 1996, vol. 43, no. 1, ‘The Hovering Life’, p. 58) 

In conclusion, how should someone who does not yet know Musil’s work begin their reading? The novella Tonka, contained in the collection Drei Frauen; Three Women, would be a good introduction. Some of the short pieces in Nachlaß zu Lebzeiten; Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, such as ‘Türen und Tore’; ‘Doors and Gateways’ and ‘Denkmale’; ‘Memorials’ are fine examples of Musil’s thought-provoking and witty style. Lastly, one of the early chapters of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften which is a free-standing text, ‘Kakanien’ (Musil, Gesammelte Werke, 1: 31-35) introduces readers to Musil’s name for Austria-Hungary (derived from the initial letters of the adjectives kaiserlich and königlich) and examines the Empire not as it was, but as it might have been. The combination of critical analysis, refined humour and poetic insight in this chapter is characteristic of Musil’s later work.

Robert Musil’s works are:

Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß (The Confusions of Young Törleß) (novel, 1906)

Vereinigungen (Unions) (two novellas, 1911)

Die Schwärmer (The Enthusiasts) (play, 1921)

Vinzenz oder die Freundin bedeutender Männer (Vinzenz or the Girlfriend of Important Men) (play, 1922)

Drei Frauen (Three Women) (three novellas, 1924)

Nachlaß zu Lebzeiten (Posthumous Papers of a Living Author) (short prose, 1935)

Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man without Qualities) (novel, Book I, 1930, 38 chapters of Book II, 1932, the remaining chapter drafts were published posthumously)

English Translation


Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities, ed. by Burton Pike, trans. by Sophie Wilkins & Burton Pike (New York: Knopf, 1995)


German Edition


Robert Musil, Gesammelte Werke in neun Bänden (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1978)


Further Reading in English

Emer Herity, ‘Robert Musil and Nietzsche’, Modern Language Review 86 (1991), 911-23

William H. Gass, ‘The Hovering Life’, in New York Review of Books, 1996, vol. 43, no. 1, 58-63

Hannah Hickman, Robert Musil and the Culture of Vienna (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1984)

Hannah Hickman (ed.), Robert Musil and the Literary Landscape of his Time (Salford: University of Salford, 1991)

Andreas Huyssen, Miniature Metropolis: Literature in an Age of Photography and Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), Chapter 8 on Musil

Stefan Jonsson, Subject without Nation: Robert Musil and the History of Modern Identity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000) 

Alexander Lambrow, ‘14 December 1930: Robert Musil Meets Carl Schmitt’, The German Quarterly 90:3 (2017), 332-48

David S. Luft, Robert Musil and the Crisis of European Culture, 1880-1942 (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1980)

Philip Payne, Graham Bartram & Galin Tihanov (eds.), A Companion to the Works of Robert Musil (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2007)

Philip Payne, Robert Musil’s Works, 1906-1924: A Critical Introduction (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1987)

Burton Pike, ‘Translator’s Afterword’, in The Man without Qualities, ed. by Burton Pike, trans. by Sophie Wilkins & Burton Pike (New York: Knopf, 1995), pp. 1771-74  

Christian Rogowski, Distinguished Outsider: Robert Musil and His Critics (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1994)

Martin Swales, ‘Between Satire and Utopia: Robert Musil’, in Martin Swales, Studies of German Prose Fiction in the Age of European Realism (Lewiston and Lampeter: Mellen, 1995), pp. 163-78

Andrew Webber, Sexuality and the Sense of Self in the Works of Georg Trakl and Robert Musil (London: MHRA / IGS, 1990)

Further Reading in German

Klaus Amann, Robert Musil, Literatur und Politik (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 2007)

Karl Corino, Robert Musil, Leben und Werk in Bildern und Texten (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1988)

Karl Corino, Robert Musil, Eine Biographie (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 2003)

Matthias Luserke, Robert Musil (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1995)

Hans-Georg Pott (ed.) Robert Musil, Dichter, Essayist, Wissenschaftler (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1993)

Web Links in German

Digital edition of Musil’s works in German

Robert Musil Society