Robert Musil

Robert MusilRobert Musil (1880-1942) is one of my favorite German writers; he has a very subtle irony and thinks like a philosopher. He is not very well known in the English-speaking world,  so here is a short description of his life and a few quotes.

The Person Robert Musil

Robert Musil’s character is very well described in the excellent web resource about his life and work, at Here is a short quote from it:

“Robert Musil was not very pleasant company. Adolf Frisé indexed, in his “Plädoyer für Robert Musil” (1982) the qualities that were associated with Robert Musil by those who knew him.

Cool, proud, uncommunicative, cold, harsh in his judgement, sharp, a military tone of speaking, vain, elegant, polite, well dressed, distant, official, impeccable, an impressive personality though not a sympathetic or congenial one, proud of his time as officer during the First World War, inaccessible, felt unrecognised, kept people far from him and hence fell into isolation, made slighting rather than positive remarks.

These qualities are usually, in his biographies, associated with two other aspects. The poverty he had to deal with for the bigger part of his life, and his attitude towards other authors of his time. Both come, biographers often state, from his earnestly felt lack of recognition as an important figure in German Literature.

Robert Musil was always in dire need of money: always wondering how he and his wife Martha could live through the next day. In his diary there are regularly complaints that they only have little money left to live on. In a diary-fragment he notes: I am (spiritually and moral) exhausted.

This poverty was not new to Musil and his wife. Ever since he decided to dedicate his life to writing, instead of a promising career at the University, he spent his days in poverty. In Berlin and Vienna admirers founded Musil Societies in order to make his work publicly known and thus enabling him to work on, and perhaps even complete, his one great masterpiece The Man Without Qualities. In his later years in Geneva father Robert Lejeune was the one who, through what Musil described as ‘begging’, found him the financial means to continue writing. The people who donated money were invariably admiring authors, or philanthropists.

In 1930 Robert Musil is desperate: he is going to be 50 years old, and the first parts of The Man Without Qualities are being published. What is bothering him the most is the discrepancy between his immense efforts and the public attention and recognition. He has been working on The Man without Qualities for ten years now; other author publish four or five books in this time, and do not mind writing for the public. In an interview with Oskar Maurus Fontana he states he wishes to give a “Beitrage zur geistigen Bewältigung der Welt“.

The most important reproach to other authors concerns their shallowness. They are not capable, or prepared to be reflexive, that intellectually the time in which they live and about which they should write is far beyond their grasp. Hence their success. This success, in turn, is responsible for the lack of profundity that he reproaches them.

A particularly fine head on a man usually means that he is stupid; particularly deep philosophers are usually shallow thinkers; in literature, talents not much above the average are usually regarded by their contemporaries as geniuses. [Man Without Qualities III, Chapter 14, p. 851]

Thomas Mann is one of those authors. As far as Musil is concerned Mann owes his success to the fact that he is the spokesman of the biased liberal intelligentsia, be it a bit more refined. The person of an intellectual average can relate to the thoughts and words of Mann. When Musil is told that Thomas Mann is, along with others, one of the founders of the Musil Societies, and what these societies do for him he admits he is moved by the gesture of the man whom he has been so unjust to. But the distrust towards successful authors remains.

This distrust could be dealt with as envy, were it not that it reflects Musil’s poetics. To Musil the writer/poet is a representative for his country. In works of literature, and art in general, what is thought and lived in a country is reflected. German language literature in his time is not equipped for this task. She remains shallow, deals too often with political, aesthetical or ethical fashions, writes only about itself, and thus caters to an irrelevant need.

The disappointment with the lack of recognition and his poverty make Musil a bitter and lonely person. He dies in obscurity in Switzerland, where only a name-stone on the cemetery remains of him.”

Timeline of his life.

(Quoted from Wikipedia.)

  • 1880 November 6, Robert Musil born in Klagenfurt. Father Engineer Alfred Musil, mother Hermine.
  • 1881–1882 The Musils move to Chomutov in Bohemia.
  • 1882–1891 The Musils move to Steyr (Austria). Robert attends the Elementary School and the first grade of the gymnasium.
  • 1891–1892 Moves to Brno. Attends the Realschule.
  • 1892–1894 Attends the military boarding school in Eisenstadt.
  • 1894–1897 Attends the military Militär-Oberrealschule in Hranice (present-day in the Czech Republic) During his working with artillery Musil discovers his interest in technique.
  • 1897 Attends the Technische Militärakademie in Vienna.
  • 1898–1901 Quits officer training and starts studies at the Technical University in Brno. His father was a professor there since 1890. First literary attempt, and first diary notations.
  • 1901 doctorate exams.
  • 1901–1902 Musil enlists in the infantry regiment of Freiherr von Hess Nr. 49 in Brno
  • 1902–1903 Moves to Stuttgart to work at the University. Works on his first novel Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless
  • 1903–1908 Takes up a philosophy study; his majors are “logic and experimental psychology”.
  • 1905 In his diaries he makes the first notes that will eventually lead to Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften.
  • 1906 Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Torless is published. Developed an apparatus to research colour experience in people.
  • 1908 Beiträge zur Beurteilung der Lehren Machs is the title of his doctoral thesis with which he promotes in philosophy, natural science and mathematics. Declines an offer to upgrade his last military rank to an equal civilian rank in favour of writing.
  • 1908–1910 Works in Berlin as an editor for the magazine Pan and on his Vereinigungen and Die Schwärmer.
  • 1911–1914 Librarian at the Technical University of Vienna.
  • 1911 On 15 April Musil marries Martha Marcovaldi. Vereinigungen is published.
  • 1912–1914 Editor for several literary magazines, including Neue Rundschau.
  • 1914–1918 During World War I, Musil is officer at the Italian front. Decorated several times.
  • 1916–1917 July–April: publishes the “Soldaten-Zeitung”.
  • 1917 On 22 October , Alfred Musil was hereditary ennobled as Alfred Edler von Musil, so Robert Musil also belonged to the nobility until it was abolished less than two years later.[1]
  • 1918 Takes up writing again.
  • 1919–1920 Works for the Information Service of the Austrian foreign department in Vienna.
  • 1920 April–June: lives in Berlin. Meets Ernest Rowohlt who will become, in 1923, his publisher and will remain so.
  • 1920–1922 Adviser for army matters in Vienna.
  • 1921–1931 Works as theatre critic, essayist and writer in Vienna. Works on Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften.
  • 1921 The play Die Schwärmer is published.
  • 1923–1929 Is vice-president of Schutzverbandes deutscher Schriftsteller in Östereich. Meets Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who is president of the foundation.
  • 1923 Awarded the Kleist Prize for Die Schwärmer. On December 4 Vinzenz und die Freundin bedeutender Männer is premièred in Berlin.
  • 1924 On 24 January his mother and on 1 October his father die. Awarded the art prize of the city of Vienna. Drei Frauen is published.
  • 1927 Holds a speech on the occasion on the death of Rainer Maria Rilke in Berlin.
  • 1929 4 April première of Die Schwärmer. In spite of protests by Musil, the play is shortened and therefore incomprehensible, according to Musil. In the autumn awarded the Gerhart Hauptmann award.
  • 1930 The first two parts of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften are published. In spite of critical support, the financial situation is precarious.
  • 1931–1933 Lives and works in Berlin.
  • 1932 Foundation of a Musil-Gesellschaft by Kurt Glaser in Berlin. The foundation aims to provide Musil with the means necessary to continue working on his novel. At the end of the year the third part of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften is published.
  • 1933 In May Musil leaves Berlin, with his wife Martha. Via Karlovy Vary and Potstejn in Czechoslovakia they eventually reach Vienna.
  • 1934–1938 After the dismantling of the Berlin Musil-Gesellschaft, a new one is founded in Vienna.
  • 1935 Lecture for the Internationalen Schriftstellerkongress für die Verteidigung der Kultur” in Paris.
  • 1936 Publishes his collection of thoughts, observations and stories Nachlass zu Lebzeiten. Suffers a stroke.
  • 1938 Via northern Italy Musil and his wife flee to Zürich. Two days after their arrival, on September 4, they are having tea at Thomas Mann’s home in Küsnacht.
  • 1939 In July moves to Geneva. Musil continues to work on his novel under the worst financial circumstances, and grows lonelier with exile. Thanks to the Zürich vicar Robert Lejeune, Musil receives some financial support, including from the American couple Henry Hall and Barbara Church. In Germany and Austria Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften and Nachlaß zu Lebzeiten are banned and this ban is extended to all of his works in 1941.
  • 1942 April 15, Musil dies in Geneva.
  • 1943 Martha Musil publishes the unfinished remains of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften on her own account.
  • 1952–1957 Adolf Frisé publishes the complete works of Robert Musil at Rowohlt.


Miscellaneous Quotes

Musil on the War experience

  • Diary entry (Berlin, August, 1914): In the very first days of the war, when at evening everyone rushes through the streets in search of newspapers, the crowd grows madly fond of reading, forms a solid mass through which a tram attempts to move very slowly. Simultaneous with all the ecstasy, the ugly singing in the cafes. The nervous excitement that wants to fight its own little war for every copy of a newspaper. Most of the last-minute weddings are taking place in the maternity hospitals.
  • Diary entry (22nd September, 1914) You hear it a long time before it lands. A wind-like whistling or rushing sound. Growing louder and louder. Suddenly it (a piece of shrapnel) landed right beside me in the earth. Not a trace of fear, not even the simply nervous kind like palpitation, which also usually ensues without fear in cases of sudden shock. Afterwards a pleasant feeling. Satisfaction at having survived. Pride, almost. Being accepted into a community, baptism.
  • Diary entry (23rd October, 1914)  The dead man’s few possessions lie wrapped in a shred of newspaper on our dining-table. A purse, the rose from his cap, a short, small pipe, two oval tin boxes containing ready-cut Toscani – cigar-like cigarettes – a small, round pocket mirror. From these objects streams a heavy sadness.

Quotes from “The Man Without Qualities.”

  • Musil on the experience of life: “…. by the time they have reached the middle of their life’s journey, few people remember how they have managed to arrive at themselves, at their amusements, their point of view, their wife, character, occupation and successes, but they cannot help feeling that not much is likely to change anymore. It might even be asserted that they have been cheated, for one can nowhere discover any sufficient reason for everything’s coming about as it has. It might just have well as turned out differently. The events of people’s lives have, after all, only to the last degree originated in them, having generally depended on all sorts of circumstances such as the moods, the life or death of quite different people, and have, as it were, only at the given point of time come hurrying towards them”
  • We leave things out: “What is it you do, then? I’ll tell you: You leave out whatever doesn’t suit you. As the author himself has done before you. Just as you leave things out of your dreams and fantasies. By leaving things out, we bring beauty and excitement into the world. We evidently handle our reality by effecting some sort of compromise with it, an in-between state where the emotions prevent each other from reaching their fullest intensity, graying the colors somewhat. Children who haven’t yet reached that point of control are both happier and unhappier than adults who have. And yes, stupid people also leave things out, which is why ignorance is bliss. So I propose, to begin with, that we try to love each other as if we were characters in a novel who have met in the pages of a book. Let’s in any case leave off all the fatty tissue that plumps up reality.”
  • “The thought is not something that observes an inner event, but, rather it is this inner event itself. We do not reflect on something, but, rather, something thinks itself in us. ”
  • “and while faith based on theological reasoning is today universally engaged in a bitter struggle with doubt and resistance from the prevailing brand of rationalism, it does seem that the naked fundamental experience itself, that primal seizure of mystic insight, stripped of religious concepts, perhaps no longer to be regarded as a religious experience at all, has undergone an immense expansion and now forms the soul of that complex irrationalism that haunts our era like a night bird lost in the dawn.”
  • “His answers were quite often like that. When she spoke of beauty, he spoke of the fatty tissue supporting the epidermis. When she mentioned love, he responded with the statistical curve that indicates the automatic rise and fall in the annual birthrate. When she spoke of the great figures in art, he traced the chain of borrowings that links these figures to one another.”
  • “Every day there comes a moment when a person lays his hands in his lap and all his busyness collapses like ashes. The work accomplished is, from the soul’s point of view, entirely imaginary.”
  • Reading: “Hardly anyone still reads nowadays. People make use of the writer only in order to work off their own excess energy on him in a perverse manner, in the form of agreement or disagreement.”
  • Disdain without object: “For a long time now a hint of aversion had lain on everything he did and experienced, a shadow of impotence and loneliness, an all-encompassing distaste for which he could not find the complementary inclination. He felt at times as though he had been born with a talent for which there was at present no objective.”

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