Robert Musil
Born(1880-11-06)6 November 1880
Klagenfurt, Austria-Hungary
Died15 April 1942(1942-04-15) (aged 61)
Geneva, Switzerland
OccupationNovelist, short story writer, playwright
Alma materUniversity of Berlin
Literary movementModernism
Notable worksThe Confusions of Young Törless
The Man Without Qualities

Robert Musil (German: [ˈʁoːbɛʁt ˈmuːzɪl]; 6 November 1880 – 15 April 1942) was an Austrian philosophical writer. His unfinished novel, The Man Without Qualities (German: Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften), is generally considered to be one of the most important and influential modernist novels.


Musil was born in Klagenfurt, Carinthia, the son of engineer Alfred Edler Musil (1846, Timișoara – 1924) and his wife Hermine Bergauer (1853, Linz – 1924). The orientalist Alois Musil ("The Czech Lawrence") was his second cousin.[1]

Soon after his birth, the family moved to Chomutov in Bohemia, and in 1891 Musil's father was appointed to the chair of Mechanical Engineering at the German Technical University in Brno and, later, he was raised to hereditary nobility in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was baptized Robert Mathias Musil and his name was officially Robert Mathias Edler von Musil from 22 October 1917, when his father was ennobled (made Edler), until 3 April 1919, when the use of noble titles was forbidden in Austria.

Early life

Commemorative plaque in Brno

Musil was short in stature, but strong and skilled at wrestling, and by his early teens, he proved to be more than his parents could handle. They sent him to a military boarding school at Eisenstadt (1892–1894) and then Hranice (1894–1897). The school experiences are reflected in his first novel Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless (The Confusions of Young Törless).

Youth and studies

After graduation Musil studied at a military academy in Vienna during the fall of 1897, but then switched to mechanical engineering, joining his father's department at the Technical University in Brno. During his university studies, he studied engineering by day, and at night, read literature and philosophy and went to the theatre and art exhibitions. Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Ernst Mach were particular interests of his university years.[2] Musil finished his studies in three years and, in 1902–1903, served as an unpaid assistant to Professor of Mechanical Engineering Carl von Bach [de], in Stuttgart. During that time, he began work on Young Törless.

He also invented Musilscher Farbkreisel [de], the Musil color top, a motorised device for producing mixed colours by additive colour-mixing with two differently colored, sectored, rotating discs. This was an improvement over earlier models, allowing a user to vary the proportions of the two colors during rotation and to read off those proportions precisely.[3]

Musil's sexual life around the turn of the century, according to his own records, was mainly with a prostitute, which he treated partly as an experimental self-experience.[4] But he also was infatuated with the pianist and mountaineer Valerie Hilpert, who assumed mystical features.[5] In March 1902, Musil underwent treatment for syphilis with mercury ointment. During this time, his several years of relationship began with Hermine Dietz, the 'Tonka' of his own novel, published in 1923. Hermine's syphilitic miscarriage in 1906 and her death in 1907 may have been due to infection from Musil.[6]

Musil grew tired of engineering and what he perceived as the limited world-view of the engineer. He launched himself into a new round of doctoral studies (1903–1908) in psychology and philosophy at the University of Berlin under Professor Carl Stumpf. In 1905, Musil met his future wife, Martha Marcovaldi (née Heimann, 21 January 1874 – 6 November 1949). She had been widowed and remarried, with two children, and was seven years older than Musil. His first novel, Young Törless, was published in 1906.


In 1909, Musil completed his doctorate, with a thesis on the philosopher Ernst Mach, and Professor Alexius Meinong offered him a position at the University of Graz, which he turned down to concentrate on writing. Over the next two years, he wrote and published two stories, ("The Temptation of Quiet Veronica" and "The Perfecting of a Love") collected in Vereinigungen (Unions) published in 1911. During the same year, Martha's divorce was completed, and Musil married her. As she was Jewish and Musil Roman Catholic, they both converted to Protestantism as a sign of their union.[1] [2] [3] Until then, 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 Die neue Rundschau. He also worked on a play entitled Die Schwärmer (The Enthusiasts), which was published in 1921.

Depiction of Musil at the Musilhaus in Klagenfurt

When World War I began, Musil joined the army and was stationed first in Tirol and then at Austria's Supreme Army Command in Bozen (ital. Bolzano). In 1916, Musil visited Prague and met Franz Kafka, whose work he held in high esteem. After the end of the war and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Musil returned to his literary career in Vienna. He published a collection of short stories, Drei Frauen (Three Women), in 1924. He also admired the Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, whom Musil called "great and not always understood" at his memorial service in 1927 in Berlin. According to Musil, Rilke "did nothing but perfect the German poem for the first time", but by the time of his death, Rilke had turned into "a delicate, well-matured liqueur suitable for grown-up ladies".[7] However, his work is "too demanding" to be "considered relaxing".[8]

In 1930 and 1933, his masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities (Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften) was published[9] in two volumes consisting of three parts, from Berlin, running into 1,074 pages.[citation needed] Volume 1 (Part I: A Sort of Introduction, and Part II: The Like of It Now Happens) and 605-page unfinished Volume 2 (Part III: Into the Millennium (The Criminals)).[10] Part III did not include 20 chapters withdrawn from Volume 2 of 1933 in printer's galley proofs. The novel deals with the moral and intellectual decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire through the eyes of the book's protagonist, Ulrich, an ex-mathematician who has failed to engage with the world around him in a manner that would allow him to possess qualities. It is set in Vienna on the eve of World War I.

The Man Without Qualities brought Musil only mediocre commercial success. Although he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, he felt that he did not receive the recognition he deserved. He sometimes expressed annoyance at the success of better known colleagues such as Thomas Mann or Hermann Broch, who admired his work deeply and tried to shield him from economic difficulties and encouraged his writing even though Musil initially was critical of Mann.[11]

In the early 1920s, Musil lived mostly in Berlin. In Vienna, Musil was a frequent visitor to Eugenie Schwarzwald's salon (the model for Diotima in The Man Without Qualities). In 1932, the Robert Musil Society was founded in Berlin on the initiative of Mann. In the same year, Mann was asked to name outstanding contemporary novels, and he cited only one, The Man Without Qualities.[citation needed] In 1936, Musil suffered his first stroke, while swimming.[12]


The fundamental problem Musil confronts in his essays and fiction is the crisis of Enlightenment values that engulfed Europe during the early twentieth century.[13] He endorses the Enlightenment project of emancipation, while at the same time examining its shortcomings with a questioning irony.[13] Musil believed that the crisis required a renewal in social and individual values that, accepting science and reason, could liberate humanity in beneficent ways.[13] Musil wrote:

After the Enlightenment most of us lost courage. A minor failure was enough to turn us away from reason, and we allowed every barren enthusiast to inveigh against the intentions of a d'Alembert or a Diderot as mere rationalism. We beat the drums for feeling against intellect and forgot that without intellect ... feeling is as dense as a blockhead (dick wie ein Mops ist).[14]

He took aim at the ideological chaos and misleading generalizations about culture and society promoted by nationalist reactionaries. Musil wrote a withering critique of Oswald Spengler entitled "Mind and Experience: a Note for Readers Who Have Escaped the Decline of the West (Geist und Erfahrung: Anmerkung für Leser, welche dem Untergang des Abendlandes entronnen sind)", in which he dismantles the latter's misunderstanding of science and misuse of axiomatic thinking, to try to understand human complexity and promote a deterministic philosophy.[15]

He deplored the social conditions under the Austro-Hungarian Empire and foresaw its disappearance.[16] Surveying the upheavals of the 1910s and 1920s, Musil hoped that Europe could find an internationalist solution to the "dead end of imperial nationalism".[17] In 1927, he signed a declaration of support for the Austrian Social Democratic Party.[18]

Musil was a staunch individualist who opposed the authoritarianism of both right and left. A recurring theme in his speeches and essays through the 1930s is the defense of the autonomy of the individual against the authoritarian and collectivist ideas then prevailing in Germany, Italy, Austria, and Russia.[19] He participated in the anti-fascist International Writers' Congress for the Defense of Culture in 1935 in which he spoke in favor of artistic independence against the claims of the state, class, nation, and religion.[20]

Later life

The last years of Musil's life were dominated by Nazism and World War II: the Nazis banned his books. He saw early Nazism first-hand while he was living in Berlin from 1931 to 1933. In 1938, when Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany, Musil and his Jewish wife, Martha, left for exile in Switzerland, where he died at the age of 61. Martha wrote to Franz Theodor Csokor that he had suffered a stroke.[21]

Only eight people attended his cremation. Martha cast his ashes into the woods of Mont Salève.[22] From 1933 to his death, Musil was working on Part III of The Man Without Qualities. In 1943 in Lausanne, Martha published a 462-page collection of material from his literary remains, including the 20 galley chapters withdrawn from Part III before Volume 2 appeared in 1933,[9] as well as drafts of the final incomplete chapters and notes on the development and direction of the novel.[10] She died in Rome in 1949.


After his death, Musil's work was almost forgotten. His writings began to reappear during the early 1950s. The first translation of The Man Without Qualities in English was published by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins in 1953, 1954, and 1960. An updated translation by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike, containing extensive selections from unpublished drafts, appeared in 1995.[23] Musil's work has received more attention since that time,[24] including the philosophical aspects of his novels. According to Milan Kundera, "No novelist is dearer to me."[25] One of the most important philosophy journals, The Monist, published a special issue on The Philosophy of Robert Musil in 2014, edited by Bence Nanay.[26] While author Thomas Bernhard states he was 'addicted' to Musil.[citation needed]



Grigia (1923)

Compilations in English

In popular culture

Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß was later made into the movie Der junge Törless (1966).


  1. ^ "Virtual Vienna Net – The Great Austrian Writer Robert Musil". 15 April 1942. Archived from the original on 17 June 2013. Retrieved 10 February 2013.
  2. ^ Thiher, Allen (2009). Understanding Robert Musil. Univ of South Carolina Press. pp. 2–3.
  3. ^ Rupp, H. (1908). Spindler & Hoyer Werkstätte für Wissenschaftliche Präcisionsinstrumente, Göttingen. Apparate für psychologische Untersuchungen. Preisliste XXI [Spindler & Hoyer Workshop for Scientific Precision Instruments, Göttingen. Apparatus for psychological research. Price list 21]. Göttingen: Spindler & Hoyer. Retrieved from Translation available at Archived 1 April 2019 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ Corino S. 2003, 151–154.
  5. ^ Pfohlmann 2012, S. 32–34; Corino 2003, S. 156–167. Pekar comments: "Sigmund Freud's observation of the splitting of the love life in Eros and Sexus, the distant, pure lover and the whore find their clear confirmation here." (Pekar 1997, S. 13)
  6. ^ Pfohlmann 2012, S. 34; Corino 2003, S. 190–194 und S. 1882 f.
  7. ^ Vilain, Robert (16 September 2009). "Rilke the clay pot". The Times Literary Supplement.
  8. ^ Robert Musil, Precision and Soul: Essays and Addresses, trans. Burton Pike and David S. Luft (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995).
  9. ^ a b Peter L. Stern & Company, Inc. "Book Details: MUSIL, ROBERT, Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities)". Peter L. Stern & Company, Inc. Retrieved 26 October 2011.[permanent dead link]
  10. ^ a b Freed, Mark M. (5 May 2011). Robert Musil and the Nonmodern; A note on Musil's texts (1 ed.). New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. xi. ISBN 978-1-4411-2251-3.
  11. ^ Kimball, Roger. "The Qualities of Robert Musil". Retrieved 15 August 2022.
  12. ^ A companion to the works of Robert Musil. Philip Payne, Graham Bartram, Galin Tihanov. Rochester, New York. 2007. p. 22. ISBN 978-1-57113-687-9. OCLC 910326455.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link) CS1 maint: others (link)
  13. ^ a b c Thiher, Allen (2009). Understanding Robert Musil. Univ of South Carolina Press. p. 155.
  14. ^ Thiher, Allen (2009). Understanding Robert Musil. Univ of South Carolina Press. p. 161.
  15. ^ Thiher, Allen (2009). Understanding Robert Musil. Univ of South Carolina Press. pp. 166–169.
  16. ^ Thiher, Allen (2009). Understanding Robert Musil. Univ of South Carolina Press. pp. 171–173.
  17. ^ Thiher, Allen (2009). Understanding Robert Musil. Univ of South Carolina Press. p. 187.
  18. ^ Payne, Philip; Bartram, Graham; Tihanov, Galin (2007). A Companion to the Works of Robert Musil. Camden House. p. 428.
  19. ^ Payne, Philip; Bartram, Graham; Tihanov, Galin (2007). A Companion to the Works of Robert Musil. Camden House. pp. 69–70.
  20. ^ Payne, Philip; Bartram, Graham; Tihanov, Galin (2007). A Companion to the Works of Robert Musil. Camden House. p. 78.
  21. ^ Der Monat 026/1950, pp. 185–189, on
  22. ^ Markus Kreuzwieser[permanent dead link]
  23. ^ The Man Without Qualities (2 volume set) (9 December 1996). The Man Without Qualities (2 volume set): Robert Musil, Burton Pike, Sophie Wilkins: 9780394510521: Books. Knopf Doubleday Publishing. ISBN 0394510526.((cite book)): CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  24. ^ Smiley, Jane (17 June 2006). "Robert Musil: The Man without Qualities". The Guardian.
  25. ^ Kundera, Milan (1991). Immortality. New York: HarperCollins. pp. 50. ISBN 0-06-097448-6.
  26. ^ "The Philosophy of Robert Musil". Archived from the original on 26 March 2015. Retrieved 16 December 2017.
  27. ^ He was baptized Robert Mathias Musil and his name was officially Robert Mathias Edler von Musil from 22 October 1917, when his father received a hereditary title of nobility Edler, until 3 April 1919, when the use of noble titles was forbidden in Austria.
  28. ^ Musil, Robert (1986). Five Women. Internet Archive. Boston : D.R. Godine. ISBN 978-0-87923-603-8.

Further reading