Born into the autumn of the Habsburg Empire, Robert Musil served His Imperial and Royal Majesty in one bloody continental convulsion and died halfway through the even worse convulsion that followed. Looking back, he would call the times in which he lived an “accursed era”; his best energies were spent on trying to understand what Europe was doing to itself. His report is contained in a huge unfinished novel, The Man Without Qualities; in a series of incisive essays collected in English under the title Precision and Soul; and in a set of notebooks newly translated as Diaries 1899-1941 (1899- 1942 on the jacket, however).
Musil’s path to authorship was an unusual one. A scion of the Austrian upper bourgeoisie, he was educated not at a classical Gymnasium but at military boarding schools where he learned, if little else, to dress dapperly and take care of his body. At university he studied first engineering (he designed and patented an optical instrument that was still being manufactured commercially in the 1920s), then psychology and philosophy, taking his doctorate in 1908.
By this time he was already the author of a precocious first novel, The Confusions of Young Törless (1906), set in a cadet school. Abandoning the academic career for which he had prepared himself, he devoted himself to writing. Unions, a pair of cerebrally erotic novellas, appeared in 1911.
When war came, Musil served on the Italian front with distinction. After the war, troubled by a sense that the best years of his creative life were being stolen from him, he sketched out no fewer than twenty new works, including a series of satirical novels. A play, The Enthusiasts (1921), and a set of stories, Three Women (1924), won awards. He was elected vice president of the Austrian branch of the Organization of German Writers. Though not widely read, he was on the literary map.
Before long the satirical novels had been abandoned or absorbed into a master project: a novel in which the upper crust of Viennese society debate endlessly what form their latest public festival of self-congratulation is to take, oblivious of the dark clouds gathering on the horizon—a vision of a “grotesque Austria” on the eve of the First World War which is intended to be “nothing but a particularly clearcut case of the modern world.” Supported financially by his publisher and by a society of admirers, he devoted himself entirely to The Man Without Qualities.
The first volume came out in 1930, to so enthusiastic a reception in both Austria and Germany that Musil—a modest man in other respects—thought he might win the Nobel Prize. The continuation proved more intractable. Cajoled by his publisher, but full of misgiving, he allowed an extended fragment to appear as the second volume in 1933. “Volume One closes approximately at the high point of an arch,” he wrote. “On the other side it has no support.” He began to fear he would never finish the work.