The great Austrian writer Robert Musil
It was in 1949, four years after the end of the Second World War and seven years after the Austrian writer’s death that an English-language publication, the prestigious Times Literary Supplement announced the rediscovery of a forgotten writer. His name: Robert Musil.
Musil portrait by Martha Musil An essay on the front page of the TLS described Musil as “the most important novelist writing in German in this half-century, but one of the least known writers of the age”. A verdict which applied even more so to his native Austria. April 15 marks the 60th anniversary of his death.
Robert Musil was born in Klagenfurt, capital of the southern Austrian province of Carinthia, on November 6, 1880. He was the only son of the knighted engineer Alfred Edler von Musil, a native of Graz, who was, for many years, a professor at the Technical University in Brno. Among Musil’s ancestors were civil servants, scholars, doctors and military officers. A grandfather (on his mother’s side of the family) was one of the four builders of the first continental railway (Linz-Budweis) and a cousin, Alois Musil, was a famous orientalist.
book cover of Young Toerless
His parents had decided that young Robert was to one day become an officer in the “k.k. Armee”. He was thus sent at a young age to an elite military school, first at Eisenstadt and then at Mährisch-Weißkirchen (the present-day Hranice in the Czech Republic). Musil’s experiences at the latter institution provided the inspiration for and content of his first novel: “Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß” (The Confusions of Young Törless), published in 1906. The book was almost an instant success and parents among his readers, considering him to be an expert in child-rearing, sought his advice.
In 1897, the year in which he began writing in earnest, Musil went to study civil engineering. He took a diploma from the Technical University in Brno in 1901, and, after completing his military service, spent a year working in the engineering laboratories in Stuttgart. As it turns out, the young Musil was actually even something of an inventor. Early on, he invented a chromatometer, the “Musil’scher Farbkreisel”. This device, an earlier version of which was invented by Newton, resolves all the colours of the spectrum into whiteness. After turning his back on a military career and completing his technical studies, the next stop was Berlin. It was there he studied psychology, logic, and philosophy and wrote his doctoral thesis on the epistemology of the Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach (1838-1916). Shortly afterwards, Musil declined an offer to teach philosophy at the University of Graz.
His next literary work, a collection of two novellas titled “Vereinigungen” (Unions) appearing in 1911, baffled critics and turned out to be a major literary disappointment for both Musil and his readers. It was in the same year that he married the academic painter Martha Marcovaldi.
Musil in the 1920s
At his father’s insistence – and Musil was hanging on to his father’s purse-strings until he was into his 40s – he became a librarian at the Technical University in Vienna, only to decide that wasn’t the life-long job for him, prompting him to seek refuge in illness. Following a short stint as editor of the prestigious literary journal “Neue Rundschau” in Berlin, he spent World War One as an officer on the Italian front. After the war (1918-1920), Musil held down a desk job in the foreign office in Vienna before being made redundant. In order to support himself and his wife Martha, Musil took to writing theatre reviews for a number of Prague newspapers. In the first half of the 1920s, Musil published two plays, both of which enjoyed little success on the stage: “Die Schwärmer” (The Enthusiasts) in 1921 and “Vinzenz oder die Freundin bedeutender Männer” in 1923. For more than a decade, Musil virtually disappeared from the book market. The publication in 1924 of a suite of novellas called “Drei Frauen” (Three Women) focusing on three very different, but at the same time very similar male-female relationships marked the return to a more conventional narrative style.
But like many of his contemporaries he was soon to tire of “dull” post-World War One Vienna and be drawn to Berlin and its lively intellectual community. He remained there until Hitler’s rise to power in the spring of 1933 and returned to Vienna, where he was forced to live on a reduced income, constantly leaning on his publisher for advances and private individuals for donations to complete his “life work”.
The main focus of Musil’s life from the mid-1920s to his untimely death in 1942 was the novel “Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften” (The Man Without Qualities). The first volume appeared in late 1930, the second volume in late 1932. He withdrew the galley proof of the third, but by no means final volume in the fall of 1937. He never completed the novel and, given its in part Utopian character, it is unlikely he ever would have, even if had not been for the annexation of Austria in March, 1938 and the fact he lost his Vienna publisher (Gottfried Bermann Fischer). Musil was in many ways not only a writer, but a literary perfectionist and “rewriter” of his own work. His literary papers, kept at the Austrian National Library since the early 1970s, consist of dozens of draft chapters as well as voluminous notes, character sketches and alternative chapters.
Irony was one of Musil’s fortés and one of the most entertaining chapters in the seminary novel is Chapter 8 in the First Book, titled “Kakania” – the name Musil gave to the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire on the eve of World War One. Of course, the not too backward, but not too modern realm went on living, so Musil suggests, far beyond the collapse of the Habsburg Empire.
Of course cars rolled on these roads too, but not too many! The conquest of the air was being prepared here too, but not too intensively. A ship would now and then be sent off to South America or East Asia, but not too often. There was no ambition for world markets or world power. Here at the very center of Europe &ldots; words such as “colony” and “overseas” sounded like something quite untried and remote. There was some show of luxury, but by no means as in such overrefined ways as the French. People went in for sports, but not as fanatically as the English. Ruinous sums of money were spent on the army, but only just enough to secure its position as the second-weakest among the great powers.
Musil’s friends and acquaintances noted that he was not very pleasant company. They knew him as a man of polished wit, but also as a person who could, among other things, be cool, proud, uncommunicative, inaccessible, cold, harsh in his judgement and vain. But he was also elegant, polite and well dressed. Above all he felt unrecognized, in a country which celebrated writers who he felt were far inferior – and usually they were. What bothered him the most was the discrepancy between his immense efforts and the public attention and recognition.
In 1936, the year he suffered a stroke, he published a collection of thoughts, observations and stories, entitled – symptomatic of his state of mind – “Nachlaß zu Lebzeiten” (i.e. Posthumous Papers of a Living Author). After the annexation in March 1938, Musil and his wife, whose parents were assimilated Jews, left Austria and went to live in Switzerland. They first went to Zurich and moved to Geneva the following year. Musil had retrieved the galleys of his novel “Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften” from the printer and was in the process of extensively reworking them when, on April 15, 1942 at the age of sixty-two, he suddenly collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage and died. Apparently, he succumbed while performing his morning gymnastics (an activity to which he was fanatically devoted). According to his widow, who found him a short while later, the look on his face was one of “mockery and mild astonishment”.
The rediscovery of Robert Musil in the German-speaking countries and on the German book market began in 1952, when Adolf Frisé began publishing the collected works in three volumes (1952-1957), including “The Man Without Qualities”, some correspondence and excerpts from Musil’s extensive diaries. Almost all of Robert Musil’s literary works as well as his diaries are available in English translation.
Article Author: Ao. Univ.-Prof. Dr. Murray G. Hall Homepage: www.murrayhall.com
Gesellschaft für Buchforschung in Österreich www.buchforschung.at