Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Author's Portrait: Robert Musil
Robert Musil in 1900
Among Austrian writers of the early twentieth century there is one who is now often mentioned in one breath with the great modernists James Joyce and Marcel Proust although his fame never reached the same heights, least of all during his lifetime. Like them he is chiefly remembered today for the monumental novel which represents his life’s work and which only few have read in its entirety. The author, of course, is Robert Musil and the opus magnum in question is The Man Without Qualities which actually happens to be jus a fragment because the author died during work on the third volume. Here’s my portrait of this exceptional Austrian writer who was always grieved by not getting the attention that he deserved.

When Robert Mathias Alfred Musil, usually only referred to as Robert Musil, was born in Sankt Ruprecht near the Carinthian capital Klagenfurt (now part of the town), Austria-Hungary (today: Austria), on 6 November 1880, his parents Alfred and Hermine Musil had already lost their first-born child, Elsa, who had not lived to celebrate her first birthday. Although Robert Musil came into the world only three years after his sister’s death, the author later declared that he had always been interested in her almost as if she had been alive and that her short existence had certainly influenced him in a way. Maybe this was also because as a child he was a loner and self-absorbed. Moreover the family changed towns several times and so the boy didn’t get much of a chance to take deep root in a place.

Robert Musil was less than a year old, when the family left Klagenfurt where his father quit his job as an engineer after eight years to become director of the Mechanical Training Workshop in Chomutov, Bohemia, Austria-Hungary (today: Czech Republic). The following year he was called to Steyr, Oberösterreich, Austria-Hungary, as director of the Technical School and Research Institute for Iron and Steel Industry. Robert Musil attended primary school and the first year of the Realgymnasium (similar to high school) in the small town, before the family moved on to Brno, Moravia, Austria-Hungary (today: Czech Republic), where the father was appointed a post at the Technical University in 1889 and became a professor in 1890. Robert Musil went to the Realschule in Brno only for two years, though.

At the age of 12 Robert Musil was sent to the military boarding school in Eisenstadt, Hungary, Austria-Hungary (today: Burgenland, Austria), because his parents could no longer handle the difficult child and felt that he needed more discipline to get his innate wilfulness and fierceness under control. As from 1894 he attended the military Oberrealschule (kind of a senior high school) in Mährisch-Weisskirchen (today: Hranice), Bohemia, Austria-Hungary (today: Czech Republic) where he first became aware of his interest in technical matters. After graduation in 1897 he therefore continued his studies first at the Military Technical Academy in Vienna, Austria, and after one year at the Technical University of Brno where his father taught. He finished his studies within three years earning his Ph.D. in 1891.

After the obligatory military service in the Austro-Hungarian army, Robert Musil moved to Stuttgart, Germany, to work as an unpaid assistant at the Technical University there. At the same time his literary vein made him turn to writing and he began work on his first novel The Confusions of Young Törless (Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß) which was published in 1906 and a big success. While writing his novel a strong inclination to philosophy made him plunge into studies of philosophy and psychology in Berlin. Early in 1908 he earned his Ph.D. with such great bravura that he was offered a post which would have allowed him to qualify as a university professor, but he refused because he had already set his mind to becoming a full-time writer.

In 1910 Robert Musil went to Vienna, Austria, and earned his living as a librarian at the Technical University there and writing for different periodicals. In spring 1911 he finally married seven years older Martha Marcovaldi (née Heinemann) whom he had got to know half a decade earlier in Berlin, when she had still been married. He also published two stories which he had been writing after finishing his studies, namely Die Versuchung der stillen Veronika (The Temptation of Quiet Veronica) and Die Vollendung der Liebe (The Perfecting of a Love), in a volume titled Vereinigungen (1911; Unions). At the same time he began work on his play Die Schwärmer (The Enthusiasts) which would be finished only after the war.

The Great War of 1914-18 violently interrupted Robert Musil’s literary career. Believing in the just cause of the war, he joined the army enthusiastically and served as an officer at the Italian front. He was decorated several times and almost killed in 1915, an experience which he used in his story Die Amsel (The Blackbird) published twenty years later, in 1936, in Posthumous Papers of a Living Author (Nachlaß zu Lebzeiten). In 1916 Robert Musil became editor of the Tiroler Soldaten-Zeitung (Tyrolean Soldiers’ Paper) in Bolzano, Tyrol, Austria-Hungary (today: Alto Adige, Italy) and in October 1917 his father was conferred the hereditary title Edler for his achievements as a professor which also made Robert Musil a member of nobility.

After the end of World War I Robert Musil became a civil servant in the Information Service of the Austrian foreign department in Vienna for a while, but soon he resumed writing and fully turned to it as from 1920 when he began to earn a decent living as a theatre critic and essayist. In 1921 his play Die Schwärmer (The Enthusiasts) was published and awarded the renowned Kleist Prize although it was much too long and complex for the stage, thus better suited for reading. His second play Vinzenz und die Freundin bedeutender Männer (1924; Vincent and the Girl Friend of Important Men) was a lot more successful. Also in 1924 appeared a volume titled Three Women (Drei Frauen) which combined his short stories Grigia, Tonka and The Portugese Lady (Die Portugiesin).

In the 1920s Robert Musil started serious work on his magnum opus published under the title The Man Without Qualities (Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften; Part I: 1930, Part II: 1933, Part III: 1943) which he had had in mind ever since the end of the war. The year after its first part was published, in 1931, Robert Musil moved to Berlin with his wife, but the rise of Adolf Hitler and National Socialism in Germany forced the couple to return to Vienna already two years later, the year when part II of The Man Without Qualities was released. Robert Musil’s work was considered as undesired, even harmful by the Nazi-regime and blacklisted. Moreover his wife was originally Jewish. Back in Vienna he continued to write and brought out his Posthumous Papers of a Living Author (1936; Nachlaß zu Lebzeiten) in which he collected contemplations, short stories and drafts written in the 1920s and the first half of the 1930s. Shortly afterwards he suffered his first stroke.

A year before Austria was annexed by Germany without resistance, in March 1937, Robert Musil held a lecture in Vienna which he titled Über die Dummheit (On Stupidity) and which was first published as a book more than six decades later in 1999. In March 1938 the Musils had to flee from Austria, too. With the help of Thomas Mann and some others who much admired his work he immigrated - officially for health reasons - to Switzerland. He and his wife first lived in Zurich, later in a small apartment in Geneva. Much to the dislike of Robert Musil they largely depended on their friends and charity, often suffering penury despite all. The author continued work on the third part of The Man Without Qualities which was banned in Germany in 1941 along with Posthumous Papers of a Living Author.

Robert Musil wasn’t given to finish his life’s work, though. On 15 April 1942 he suffered a fatal stroke in his bathroom and his ashes were scattered in a wood near Geneva. His wife took care of the publication of the fragmental third part of The Man Without Qualities in 1943, but couldn’t prevent his name from falling into almost complete oblivion. Only after her death, in the 1950s, his writings were rediscovered and the author received at last the universal recognition that he had yearned for and considered his due all his life.

In countries like Austria where copyright expires automatically seventy years after the author’s death, the original German versions of Robert Musil’s work have entered into the public domain in 2013. Most of the author's work is available on German Projekt Gutenberg - DE (meant for online reading), some of it also on ngiyaw eBooks (downloadable and made with great care) and on the international site of Project

This portrait is based on information on Robert Musil retrieved from the following websites:

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