Robert Musil is NOT a Difficult Writer

“The Enthusiasts” a play by Robert Musil (1921) – 101 pages     Translated by Martin Esslin


Unlike other readers, I do not consider Robert Musil a difficult writer. True, he can address complex issues between individuals and in society, but he expresses himself with direct precision and irony. What difficulties readers have with his work stem from the fact that Musil was both humorous and brilliantly perceptive at the same time, and it is sometimes tough to tell which lines are amusing and which are penetrating insights.  Sometimes they are both.

Rather than plaguing you with a lot of quotes from him, I am providing a link to the quotes of Robert Musil.  Read them for yourselves and see if you agree with me that these Musil quotes are at least as intelligent and meaningful as a comparable list of quotes from any other writer. 

imageIf you are fascinated by the Robert Musil quotes like I was, I would like to suggest a chronological order for reading his work.  I have read all of his fiction available in English.  I would recommend starting with either ‘The Confusions of Young Torless’, his first short novel, or ‘Three Women’ his book of stories.  ‘Young Torless’ is about a farm boy who leaves home to go to a military academy where there is vicious bullying and violence among the young cadets.  Many readers saw this book as prophetic in prefiguring the rise of fascism.  ‘Three Women’ was actually translated into English as ‘Five Women’ with the addition of two more of his stories, and that is the edition I read. These stories illustrate the sensual side of Musil, and they may have more appeal to women than Torless.  When I read these stories, I had already read ‘The Man Without Qualities’, and I was amazed that there was no drop off in quality with these stories.  Some reviewers call ‘Five Women’ Musil’s Dubliners, it is that good.   

If you have completed the above two books, you are ready for the masterpiece, “The Man Without Qualities’.  This is a major endeavor, not because Musil is difficult, but because it is 1000+ pages filled with insights similar to the quotes.  Indeed many of the quotes are from “The Man Without Qualities”.  In 2006, the Wall Street Journal called “The Man Without Qualities” one of the three greatest novels of the twentieth century along with “Ulysses” and “Remembrance of Things Past”. From my own reading of the novel, I am inclined to agree with the Wall Street Journal in this case. In a list prepared by LiteraturHaus Munchen in 1999, “The Man Without Qualities” was ranked number one in the Best German Novels of the Twentieth Century.

51Hf+hirReL._SY300_Finally you are ready for Musil’s play, “The Enthusiasts”.  The problem with reading plays is that you are set down among these people in the play with little explanation or elaboration.  You immediately have to figure out what these people are talking about.  In this case you are in a home in Vienna at about 1900.  “The Enthusiasts” is a bedroom farce with many of the scenes actually taking place in the bedroom.  The two sisters Regine and Maria are both married but are attracted to this guy Anseln who is on a mission to be loved by every woman.  The women’s husbands resort to hiring a private detective to spy on their wives, and from there complications arise.  As well as some of the scenes being quite funny, the play is a good evocation of fin de siècle Vienna life.  It would have been helpful for me to see the play performed.    There are some wonderful insights and lines in the play.

“Because you are a woman.  Because it is unspeakably confusing that, on top of everything else, you are also a woman.  That your skirts make a bell of invisibility wander over the floor.”   

Since I’ve read all of the fiction of Robert Musil that is available in English, next for me will necessarily be his non-fiction.  Musil had a Jewish wife and he left Berlin for Austria in 1933 with the Nazi takeover.  He left Austria in 1938 when the Nazis moved in there.  He died in 1942.  Perhaps I will next read Musil’s essay ‘On Stupidity’ that he wrote in Vienna in 1937.

17 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by lizzysiddal on November 10, 2013 at 10:13 AM

    There’s also a small anthology of Musil’s entitled “Flypaper”. An anthology of short stories and essays, it may contain stories other than those you have read.

    i’m looking forward to read Young Torless. Oxford UniversitymPress are reissuing it early next year.


    • Hi Lizzy,
      I had forgotten about ‘FlyPaper’. I actually own that book in a tiny Penguin 60 edition. I always intended to read that book when I get behind in my reading for my blog posts.


  2. This is a great introduction. Thanks a lot for this. I think it’s importnat to get rid of the idea that some authors are too difficult. Sure, he’s not easy but reading him is so rewarding. I’ve oly read the shorter works but I will read Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften some day. Thanks for the link to the quotes.


    • Hi Caroline,
      Marcel Proust is one difficult writer I’ve kind of avoided. I did read the opening book of Remembrance of Things Past, but it didn’t hold my interest. Maybe I will try again. Another writer I’ve avoided is Herman Broch, and I’m not sure what my reluctance is there.
      I’ve never had any difficulty with Robert Musil, even with ‘The Man Without Qualities’, and that is why I wrote this article.


  3. Tony, Musil isn’t someone I’ve really thought about, but I’ll take you recommendation to heart. If you ever read Broch, let me know. I started The Death of Virgil, and it wasn’t really difficult, but somehow I never finished it. I probably should read that before I turn to Musil.

    And I didn’t know there was a German reading month. How nice!


  4. I must try Musil at some point. I think I’ve got Torless on my Kindle somewhere, and I’ll probably try the big one once I’ve knocked off the other 19 on Reich-Ranicki’s Kanon list 😉


    • Hi Tony of Tony’s Reading list,
      This is the first I heard of the Reich-Ranicki Kanon list. After allowing for a couple of title changes, ( Kafka’s ‘The Process’ = ‘The Trial’, Bernhard’s ‘Wooden Cases’ = ‘The Woodcutters’, Heinrich Mann’s ‘Professor Debris = ‘Professor Unrat’), I’ve determined that I’ve read 11 of them so far. There are a couple of surprises on the list. I would have expected Steppenwolf’, or ‘Siddartha’ or ‘Narcissus and Goldmund’ for Herman Hesse instead of ‘Beneath the Wheel’ which I never heard of. That and the omission of ‘The Man Without Qualities’.
      Thanks for the list. It will provide me with some good leads.


  5. Oooh, I tried Young Torless and had a really hard time with it. It was one of those short books that took me longer to read than it should have. I couldn’t figure out if it was content or style that hung me up.


    • Hi Thomas at My Porch,
      I read “Young Torless” after I read ”The Man Without Qualities” (which I loved), so ‘Young Torless’ was a walk in the park for me. There is something about Musil’s style that I find very appealing, and I’ve found it in all of his fiction so far. It is probably the mixture of humor, irony, and insight.


  6. This is an incredibly helpful post, and one I’ll be saving a copy of. Thanks for it.

    It’s often the case I find that readers try to start with a writer’s most daunting work – with Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow or whatever – when there are vastly more accessible entry points (Dubliners or the Crying of Lot 49 say).

    Anyway, I’ll follow your advice and look out for Torless.

    I have in fact read one Musil, which is that Flypaper collection mentioned above. There’s a review of it at my blog if you’re interested. Absolutely marvellous prose, precise and clear-sighted.


    • Hi Max,
      Thank You. For some reason I have not had much luck with Thomas Pynchon so far. I did read ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ a long time ago, and I just couldn’t appreciate it, and actually I’ve never attempted his work since then. I’ve considered reading ‘Bleeding Edge’, which has gotten good reviews and might soon. I’ve read and really liked most of James Joyce including both Dubliners and Ulysees, so maybe I’m ready for Finnegans Wake. Maybe not.


  7. […] (1) Müller: The Passport ( 1 2) Musil: Flypaper (1), The Enthusiasts (1),  Young Torless (1) Neuhaus: Snow White Must Die (1 2) Poznanski: Erebos […]


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