“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.
If 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.
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.