Nine Lives of Robert Musil (on Leben-Werk-Wirkung, edited by Karl Dinklage; Karl Corino’s Musil: Leben und Werk in Bildern und Texten; Karl Corino’s Robert Musil: Eine Biographie; Marie Louise von Roth’s Un destin de femme: Martha Musil: l’amante, l’espouse, la soeur; Klaus Amann’s Robert Musil: Literatur und Politik; Erinnerung an Robert Musil: Texte von Augenzeugen, edited by Karl Corino; Oliver Pfohlmann’s Robert Musil; Nanao Hayasaka’s Robert Musil und der Genius Loci: Die Lebensumstände des “Mannes ohne Eigenschaften”; and Karl Corino’s “Von der Seele Träumen Dürfen”: Nachträge zur Biographie und zum Werk Robert Musils)

“I’m not famous now. But just wait until I’m dead!”
                                                             —Robert Musil in the early 1930s



A man who died at the early age of sixty-two and nevertheless wrote so many pages must have been gifted at falling into states that expand time. If Robert Musil had lived nine lives, he would likely have used them to insert increasingly small words between other words, to scribble alternate phrases on the margins of war-rationed paper, turning it upside down and writing between the lines in different colored inks, creating even more complex palimpsests for us to decipher. And it is likely that, even then, he would not have finished his novel The Man without Qualities (published in four volumes between 1930 and 1943). He only had one life, but there have been at least nine lives—biographies, that is—written (mostly in German) about Robert Musil. Since his life was disrupted by the horror of two world wars, the insecurity of many moves, an almost constant scrambling to survive, the work of biographical research often consists in picking out fragments from the rubble or imagining what one or another lost manuscript might have said—biography as a sort of counterspell against barbarism.

Musil, a writer not only of novels, but of short stories, essays, plays, aphorisms, and criticism, lived from 1880 to 1942, mostly within the time and space of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. He served as a soldier in World War I, then studied engineering, philosophy, physics, and the science of perception. He lived, variously, in Steyr, in Brno (now the Czech Republic), Stuttgart, Berlin, and Vienna, before dying in exile in Geneva. Inspired by his training in science, he maintained a literary practice of experimental variations, exponentially expanding iteration, and Arabian Nights–style discursiveness. Over decades he returned to themes and stories, via allegorical testing in his laboratory of combinatory drafts: what would this character do in this situation? What would happen if we substituted a different character or altered this or that element? He even suggested that the narrative about his twentieth-century sibling lovers, Ulrich and Agathe, “would have been more impressive told as a story” about Abdul Hasan Summun, a Sufi mystic. Any one passage might then be conceived as a holographic slice of the whole seemingly infinite cosmos. This may serve as a sort of justification for those who do not or cannot read all of the pages (some of them are still available only in German). One does have to do other things in life, presumably, besides read Robert Musil ceaselessly. Alternatively: life is too short not to read Robert Musil all day long.

Musil himself might seem to have been arguing in support of the former assertion when he noted that he was not interested in the real particulars of events, but rather in the “ghostly sense of what happens”—a sense that can, presumably, be grasped in ten variations just as well as in a thousand and one. And yet, if one is a true Musil devotee, one may find oneself merrily lost in an obsessive lifelong labyrinth, trying to follow all of the strands of meaning, their cross-references, their correspondences, and their multiple iterations. Musil’s work is, after all, largely about the way that things are like and unlike—and how else may we grasp this paradox if not through numberless comparisons of similarities and differences? Agathe, for example, is described in The Man without Qualities as a pastel version of her brother; Musil’s play The Utopians (Die Schwärmer, 1921) is a concise dramatic version of the existential themes explored at much greater length in the novel; his “On Stupidity” (1937) is, in part, an essayistic exploration of the holy foolishness represented by some of his fictional anti-heroes. 

Holy or otherwise, unsuspecting readers might imagine—as Musil himself believed he would one day finish his great novel and move on to other projects—that they have exhausted the riches of this writer at a number of different stages. The first one is if they come to the last page, in English translation, of what they mistakenly think is the whole of The Man without Qualities, only to discover that there is much more: a collection of twenty chapters prepared for publication by Musil in 1938 and then withdrawn, and also a great deal of what is called the “Nachlass” (to be found in part in English in the last six hundred pages or so of the two-volume Knopf edition). This material—unpublished remains and alternate drafts—constitutes some of Musil’s finest writing and, holographic correspondences aside, is considerably different in both style and content from the more ironic and socio-critical material that comes before. 

Aficionados of Musil in English translation move beyond the great unfinished masterpiece, reading his coming-of-age military school novel, The Confusions of Young Törless (1906), his stories in Three Women (1924) and Unions (1911, sometimes combined into a volume called Five Women); and his short prose in Posthumous Papers of a Living Author (1936) and Thought Flights (posthumous collection, 2015). Then, if they have graduated to Precision and Soul (posthumous collection, 1990)—his essays—and then his plays, his theater writing, and perhaps his literary criticism, they might feel they are ready to swerve their focus toward someone else well worthy of their limited, mortal time and attention—Proust perhaps. But there is still more Musilian ore to mine: a fascinating selection of his Diaries (edited by Mark Mirsky and translated by Philip Payne) is available in English, filled with more literary drafts, reflections on his writing process, on harrowing and thrilling current events, his philosophical and poetic attempts, and autobiographical sketches. In German the complete version, like his complete letters, is replete with a staggering scholarly apparatus of annotations, providing contextual and biographical particulars to send one on multiple delightful digressions. Aside from the fact that all of these primary sources repay rereading, if we are truly Musil-mad—and if we can read German—we may venture into the forest of biographical works.

The many lives—or biographies—of Robert Musil began modestly enough in 1960, with a 440-page volume edited by Karl Dinklage: Leben-Werk-Wirkung (Life-Work-Reception). This collection, published by the City of Klagenfurt to honor what would have been Musil’s eightieth birthday, includes, along with scholarly essays on various literary and reception-related themes, reminiscences by people who knew Musil, mostly in his trying years of exile and dejection. These latter paint a picture of a quiet, determined, but world-weary man, inordinately protective of the concentration required to do his work, who, nevertheless, sometimes reveals his sparkling wit, brilliance, and devilish curiosity. Most importantly for our purposes, the volume includes a seventy-eight-page contribution by Dinklage himself: the first detailed biography of the family background and life story of Robert Musil. 

Within these latter pages we find that the scrupulously well-researched particulars begin to round out the hints found in Musil’s autobiographical notes. Dinklage thereby provides the source material for what would continue to be a particular preoccupation of Musil scholars: finding the models or real-life inspiration for characters, events, and themes in the literary work. Many of these details are the stuff of future legend for those who care: how Musil’s farmer ancestors came mostly from Czech and Moravian backgrounds, how his one grandfather built the largest railroad in Austria and the other retired from a successful career as a medical surgeon to run a thriving farm; how, along with very diligent engineers and military men, there were many eccentrics in the lineage, like the former chemist who had read Schopenhauer and subsequently became a hypochondriacal gravestone carver, or the epileptic uncle with the extraordinary head for numbers who died at age fifteen. We learn about Musil’s industrious, mild, and unoriginal father, the engineer and pedagogue, Alfred, and his wilder, highly strung mother, Hermine, who played the piano and loved literature—and about their “house friend,” Heinrich Reiter, who was presumably Hermine’s lover and who, as she told her son later in life, eventually became “the sole content of her life.” 

Then the biographical material starts to be more explicitly relevant to the major literary works, as we learn about Musil’s experiences at two military schools in Eisenstadt and Mährisch-Weißkirchen, which inspired the brutal homoerotic coming-of-age novel The Confusions of Young Törless. Dinklage alludes to Musil’s ill-fated romance with Herma Dietz, the model for the narrator’s working-class mistress in the story “Tonka.” In real life, Herma died of complications surrounding a syphilitic birth—the child and the infection most likely from Musil. We learn some basic details of Musil’s meeting with his future wife, Martha Marcovaldi—model for not only Agathe in The Man without Qualities, but also for Claudine and Veronica in Unions, and for Regina in The Utopians—whose life experiences and feelings would inspire so much of the author’s future work that some scholars, such as the eminent Walter Fanta, have been tempted to call her his co-author. Dinklage covers all the major life events, from ancestors to childhood and youth, from Musil’s career shifts out of the military to engineering to philosophy and science—to his ultimate role as writer. We read of his experiences as a soldier in World War I, as a critic for papers in Vienna, Berlin, and Prague, of his moves from Klagenfurt to Steyr to Brno to Stuttgart to the Italian front, to Berlin to Vienna and back, and about his life in Swiss exile during the Second World War with Martha, who was Jewish and thus particularly threatened by the Nazi regime. It is a thorough, thoughtful, and serviceable biographical account; nevertheless, there is barely time or space in these densely packed pages for Dinklage to do more than state the facts that could at that time be established and to draw some preliminary connections and conclusions. This was the state of Musil biography until another scholarly Karl entered the fray. What began in 1960 as an orderly field of basic family trees and narrative chronologies would, in the ensuing decades, grow into a tangled forest of references, correspondences, and rich overlays of well-considered speculations—a fitting mirror to reflect the endless complexity and prolixity of Musil’s work.

The German scholar Karl Corino began working on Musil in the 1960s, when he catalogued Musil’s literary remains with his future wife, the scholar Elisabeth Albertsen. In 1988, he produced Musil. Leben und Werk in Bildern und Texten (Musil: Life and Work in Pictures and Texts)—a sumptuous five-hundred-page folio edition of photographs and biographical documents accompanied by texts from Musil’s works, diaries, and letters. Although a few of the images, like the by-now-famous snapshot of the family Musil with the “house friend” on vacation at Achensee, had been included in Dinklage’s volume, that handful grew to 750 in Corino’s collection—most unknown before the publication—and was supplemented by other documentary discoveries. The photographs are not only of Musil and his relatives, lovers, and friends, but of contemporary artists and writers, actors, politicians, boxers, criminals, and other curiosities—all related in some way to Musil’s life or work. The documents include relevant ephemera, i.e., circus posters, political propaganda, publishing advertisements, facsimiles of newspaper articles, playbills, et cetera. This impressive feat of research was, as it turned out, merely Corino’s first planting: a mere outline of themes, events, characters, and chronology that he would fill in, over the next decades, with denser, interrelated brambles of information.

In 2003, Corino’s magnum opus, the 2,026-page Robert Musil: Eine Biographie (Robert Musil: A Biography) burst onto the scene. Despite Dinklage’s worthy foundation, Corino was faced with myriad difficulties in fleshing out the life story of a man who resisted categorization and traditional definitions of selfhood, someone, moreover, whose actual day-to-day activity was mostly consumed with the habit of thinking and writing—something that Musil himself admitted is very difficult to describe. These challenges, noted by Klaus Amann (in a speech given upon bestowal to Corino of an honorary doctorate by the University of Klagenfurt), were compounded by a problem faced by other biographers of figures who lived and died in war-torn times. Amann writes: “Like so many authors of his generation, large portions of Musil’s personal and literary remains were destroyed.” Amann reminds us that when Musil and Martha fled Vienna in 1938, they left, aside from the papers he needed to continue work on The Man without Qualities, “almost everything . . . that he had written, collected, saved up to his fifty-eighth year: manuscripts, correspondence, photos, documents, his library. In short: the most important sources for a biography. By the end of the war, everything was lost to bombing and plunder.” Corino had thus to proceed like a detective, digging up clues, contextualizing seemingly unimportant fragments from the rubble, piecing together shards, comparing bits of other people’s lives and experiences to provisionally fill in the gaps in the narrative. 

Corino has painstakingly and passionately endeavored to recover all that seemed to have been irretrievably lost. Amann writes: “Hundreds of life stories had to be constructed, thousands of facts researched, documents and letters studied—in archives, universities, law courts, hospitals, publishers, editorial offices, associations, cemetery records, parish and municipal organizations.” 

If one reads Corino’s tome, which seems almost to record or speculate on not only where Musil was and what he was doing at almost every moment of his life but also to describe the cultural milieux, the personalities, the relationship between the biographical facts and the work, one might, once again, make the mistake of thinking one has done one’s due diligence on Musil’s life and put an end to it. Unless of course, one felt, as I did, that the women in Musil’s life had been given short shrift and that, particularly, Martha, his “twin,” best friend, muse, and literary executor, had not been sufficiently honored. Three years later a book appeared (in French) to address this neglect.

In 2006, Marie Louise von Roth published her biography of Martha Musil, Un destin de femme: Martha Musil: l’amante, l’éspouse, la soeur (A Woman’s Destiny: Martha Musil: the Lover, the Spouse, the Sister), which begins to give Martha her due respect. Roth, relying heavily on letters Martha wrote after Robert’s death to Arnim Kesser and Philippe Jaccottet (Roth also published a volume of these in German and French), retells the remarkable story of Martha’s life with constant reference to Robert’s uses of its motifs and details in his work. She argues convincingly that Robert’s love for Martha was the enlivening spark of his existence and his writing; she details how Martha sheltered her husband from distractions and concerns so that he could work and narrates the story of her unparalleled devotion in trying to get his unpublished work into the world after his death. Martha, by then in her seventies, traveled all over Europe and alone to America in pursuit of publishers, translators, and supporters, and contacted hundreds of people to raise a subscription for a publication of The Man without Qualities inclusive of the new and unfinished pages her husband had been toiling over for decades. In her youth, Martha was a precocious reader, hungry for erotic and cultural experiences. She was widowed when her young painter husband, Fritz Alexander—a cousin—died in her arms of typhus in Italy; she proceeded to cast about in a sort of post-traumatic state, studying painting, having affairs (almost running away to America with Paul Cassirer), trying to get out from under the protection of her extended family—some of whom were courting her aggressively—until she, by her own account, chose to marry Enrico Marcovaldi, a Roman rake by whom she was mildly repulsed—to punish herself. She had two children while married to Marcovaldi, one whose father was allegedly an American dentist whom she met when she sought treatment for a toothache while on holiday. The marriage was, unsurprisingly, a failure, and Marcovaldi was on the way to squandering Martha’s modest inheritance on gambling and other women when Martha met Robert. The disentanglement was quite difficult, requiring Musil and Martha to travel back and forth between Berlin and Rome, to engage a detective to spy on Marcovaldi, and to get Martha adopted by a Hungarian man so that she could legally attain a divorce in Catholic Italy. Martha kept her daughter, Annina—though her sister eventually took some part in raising her; her son, Gaetano, stayed with his father. She mostly gave up painting—despite Musil’s encouragement to continue—but did sell charming sketches of authors and actors to magazines to make money. She also worked as a translator from the French, specializing in Stendhal.

Martha and Robert had a passionate, intense, and happy marriage—they consistently used the language of twinning, of double selves, to describe their union—a union that, if one accepts the proposition in Musil’s fictions “The Completion of Love” and “Grigia,” might even have been perfected by adultery. Indeed, Martha might be said to have set the unconventional tone for the marriage by sleeping with a former fiancé when she went to tell him that she would be marrying Robert. Nevertheless, she made a terrible scene and threatened suicide years later when Robert had an affair with the actress Ida Roland—a response that Musil deemed bourgeois and beneath her. Happily, she did not kill herself or leave him, and the pair continued to hold together against the world—like the siblings Agathe and Ulrich behind their garden fence. 

The great love and mutual intellectual respect notwithstanding, their existence was never easy. Even if Martha had not been Jewish, Musil—whose books were banned by the Nazis—would have struggled to survive in Austria and Germany in the years leading up to World War II. His battle for both basic survival and to find a way to bear witness to the rise of totalitarianism is the subject of another biographical account—the almost 200-page introduction of Klaus Amann’s 2007 edition, Robert Musil: Literatur und Politik (recently published in my translation as Literature and Politics). The second half of the book is a collection of Musil’s writings on the relationship between art and engagement and his reflections on the double threat of collectivism and totalitarianism, tendencies he regarded as inimical to the individual ethical agency of the artist. Amann’s introduction is an invaluable contribution to the biographical material, a historical contextualization of the political and cultural challenges of the era and of Musil’s own particular stance as non-conscripted, but passionately concerned, writer and thinker. Amann digs deeply into Musil’s political development—from disinterested aesthete to supporter of liberal causes and post–World War I reforms, to fierce critic of collectivism and defender of the humanistic tradition against demands of party or ideology. One of the most striking aspects of Amann’s account is the description of Musil’s involvement in the 1935 Paris Conference in Defense of Culture. Organized by French Communists under the aegis of the Soviet Union, the conference aimed to gather international writers together to make a bold statement against National Socialism while simultaneously championing the alleged utopia of Soviet Communism. Musil—whether naively or intentionally—dared to speak at the conference against both Nazi and Soviet encroachments on the individual ethical and aesthetic agency of the “culture producer,” anticipating, along with only a few others, like André Gide and Simone Weil, the treacherous show trials and violent purges of the new Communist regime. Scribbled among his notes for the speech we find the private sentiment, “Down with cultural optimism!” While Amann’s biographical account leaves us in an understandably dark mood, especially in light of its socio-political echoes for today’s political and cultural soundscape, the next significant biographical offering is a refreshment.

Erinnerung an Robert Musil: Texte von Augenzeugen (Memories of Robert Musil: Texts by Eye Witnesses; 2010) is a collection edited by Corino of some of the more accessible primary sources used for his biographical research—none more than ten pages and many only one or two pages long. The collection includes a piece regrettably pulled from Dinklage’s 1960 collection before publication, written by Musil’s childhood friend Gustav (Gustl) Donath, the model for Walter in The Man without Qualities. Now we can read about how the young boys played with tin soldiers and shot peas out of their toy cannons, that the pre-adolescent Musil carried a torch for a childhood love, Karla R., whose memory he preserved like a sacred relic; how Musil was not interested as a young boy in art or music, or even literature, but how later, in his early twenties, Musil would read his first literary attempts to Donath in “afternoon siesta hours” in Brno: works, Donath remembers, of “lyrical subtle moods, already infused with psychological side glances.” There are many new evocative photographs in this book, and the texts are themselves precious snapshots of moments and impressions that would have been lost forever had they not been noted down and preserved. Soma Morgenstern tells of the time Musil telephoned her to urgently ask her to meet in a café so she might explain to him her love of Kafka; Gina Kaus describes the circle at the Café Herrenhof toward the end of World War I; Walther Perry describes Musil’s body language and attitude, in a dark blue suit against a golden backdrop, while delivering his eulogy for Rilke in 1927. But perhaps the most precious to me is the description by Marianne Adamik, who worked as a maid for the Musils in their miserable railroad apartment on Rasumofskygasse in Vienna for six years. In the mornings she made the fire, dusted (needing to be particularly careful in Herr Musil’s study), cooked, and shopped. Martha did not cook at all, but Adamik remarks that this was the only bad thing she could say about her. When Adamik went to the “colonial goods” shop and said, “I’m going to the Jewess,” Robert would bluster: “The woman has a name!” The great man, often by necessity observed by his maid in less-than-noble everyday activities, worked, she tells us, every day from nine until half twelve, and then he and Martha would go for a walk, bringing back a cake from the neighborhood bakery.

In 2012, Oliver Pfohlmann’s slim 189-page biography, Robert Musil, elegantly summarized (in German) the essential research work of Corino and others without seeming to strain or rush. Pfohlmann’s book would seem to have brought us full circle, to a reasonable, manageable Musil, more or less dealt with. But that same year, a Japanese Musil scholar, Nanao Hayasaka, published his in-depth research on the question of place in Musil’s life and work: Robert Musil und der Genius Loci: Die Lebensumstände des ‘Mannes ohne Eigenschaften’ (Robert Musil and the Genius Loci: The Living Conditions of the “Man without Qualities”). Hayasaka spent years traveling everywhere that Musil once was, rifled through archives, interviewed city officials and former neighbors, gained entrée into buildings, apartment houses, schools, gardens, and barracks, bringing the physical experience of our author into much clearer focus than ever before. For any Musil tourist the book is a wonderful guide to the varied sites and their significance, and Hayasaka’s finds also often bring certain peculiarities to light, such as the fact that the Musils moved house an extraordinary number of times while living in Brno, almost always accompanied by their friends, the Donaths, who would establish themselves next door or in nearby apartment buildings. (Heinrich Reiter, presumed to be Musil’s mother’s lover, also moved to a nearby apartment every time the Musil family changed residences.) Hayasaka’s book is illustrated by many new photographs, taken by the author.

And now—have we plumbed the depths yet?—we arrive at the most recent work of Karl Corino, “Von der Seele Träumen Dürfen”: Nachträge zur Biographie und zum Werk Robert Musils (“To Be Allowed to Dream of the Soul”: Addenda to Robert Musil’s Biography and Work). This 793-page book is a selection of essays, some formerly published, either exploring aspects of Musil’s life and work that require a new look in light of facts and documents uncovered since the 2003 biography, or reflecting in a more meditative mood than the dense biography allowed on unanswered questions, possibilities, and intriguing correspondences. A few of the new discoveries are significant; for example, a letter to Musil’s father from Musil’s boss during his engineering internship in Stuttgart, complaining bitterly about young Robert’s lack of interest in the work. We know that at this time, after Robert had already switched from a military career to engineering and had finished his studies and passed his examinations, he had again experienced a change of heart and was already dreaming of studying philosophy. He had also begun to write his first novel in the empty hours before Herma, his mistress, would come see him after her work at one of the city’s textile factories. But this letter—and Alfred’s response—gives us a vivid picture of the catastrophe (from Alfred’s point of view) in the making. Another find, hotel records proving that Musil’s mother, Hermine Musil, and Heinrich Reiter repeatedly stayed together in a spa while her husband, Alfred, (and sometimes Robert) went on hiking holiday, provides the most objective evidence thus far of the flagrance of their unusual marital arrangement. Along with these and other documentary addenda, there is a wonderful essay on the constellation of Alfred, Robert, and their relative Alois Musil—the illustrious orientalist, ethnographer, and explorer. This excursus illustrates the extent to which Alfred went to try to wrangle a minimal livelihood as a librarian for his son, with the help of Alois’s connections, and also reveals the surprising tidbits that Alfred’s more stodgy work did not keep him from fantasizing about looking for beetles and rare plants with Alois in Arabia Deserta and that Robert himself once actually applied for a special visa in hopes that he might accompany his famous cousin to Turkey. There are essays on whether Musil had a photographic memory; on physiognomy and character; essays on Musil’s relationship to music (he was generally considered unmusical, but had an ecstatic experience listening to Paderewski play Chopin, and seemed to have a thing for women who played piano); on his experiences in Italy, and many more themes. There is something truly marvelous about these reflections—their pace and ambling tone—written as they are by a man who has spent over sixty years studying and writing about Robert Musil and who, possessing like Musil himself an extraordinary memory and grasp of the interrelated details and cross-references, now seems to have the space and calm presence of mind to muse on our Musil with the wisdom and insight that comes only after such an incomparable investment. He is like a master musician who, after decades of playing scales, can now gloriously improvise.

Despite all the work done by Corino and others, there are still some things we don’t and probably will never know about Musil. We do not know whether Robert and his first adult love, Valerie—the inspiration for one of his early mystical experiences of longing—ever consummated their passion. While there is a fictional retelling in draft form wherein Musil’s alter ego Anders is said to have made love to her, Corino has argued that a letter presumably written by Musil to Valerie using the formal “Sie” form of address suggests otherwise. We do not know, in my opinion, enough about Musil’s mother, Hermine, and her character. She is often maligned as “hysterical” and difficult. Musil’s perspective, colored by his intense jealousy of Heinrich Reiter (a sort of Hamlet complex), is not quite impartial. We don’t know if she looked for love elsewhere because Alfred was not interested in sex, or if he himself had some other romantic interests hidden from his son and future biographical detectives. We also do not really know very much about the other Hermine, Herma Dietz, and cannot say definitively whether Musil infected her with syphilis or, as the narrative in “Tonka” suggests, she had been unfaithful to him. We know she worked in the textile factories in Brno when Musil met her, and may assume (as is narrated in “Tonka”) that she went with her grandmother back and forth from the prison in Brno to chaperone the prostitutes and other petty criminals who were let out by day to do scullery work—but this could be an invention, as other aspects of the story are. Who were her parents (she might, it seems, have been Jewish), where was she born, what did she dream of? 

The chances that we will still find a secret stash of documents—perhaps that briefcase left by Musil in a taxi cab—answering these and other questions are slim. But one can always dream. Indeed, the history of Musil biography features a number of particularly lucky finds, either confirming or correcting former speculations. One of the most salient is the clearing-up of the mystery about who “Valerie” was. While it had formerly been suggested that this mythical woman was the Brno actress Paula Ulmann, who had played a Valerie on the stage, the discovery of an autograph book with Musil’s signature donated to the Munich City Museum provided counter-evidence. Valerie Hilpert, the real Valerie, turned out to have been an alpinist and professional pianist, whom Musil had met and fallen in love with at an inn in the mountains of Schladming in September 1900. The collection of autographs from swarms of admirers reveals not only her identity and twenty-year-old Musil’s self-presentation as a “writer” from Brno (even though he had hardly written anything at that point), but also suggests that Valerie may have been one of the models for the femme fatale Alpha in Musil’s farce “Vinzenz and the Mistress of Important Men.” Another dramatic moment in the annals of biographical research is the episode of the pages from Musil’s diaries discovered in 1980, sewn into Martha’s coat lining and now available to read in the Diaries. One fragment is a 1913 description of that eruption of Martha’s jealousy discussed above, and the other a late-life resumé in 1941 of the pair’s sexual life: “Few details remain in memory. Those that do have become lyrical: the golden ‘fruit of the fig’ on the white sheet in Martin Luther Street. The greenish-blue blanket beneath it. The gaslight. The scarlet chalice of blossoms . . . The black hair on the white pillow in Weißgerberstraße. The head with black plaits one morning at the window in the next room in Lofer.” While a skeptic may wonder if all of the obsessive research on Musil is just a bit too much, this nearly lost passage is a reminder of how, for some of us at least, every little detail is precious.


*An essay-review of

Leben-Werk-Wirkung. Edited by Karl Dinklage. Zurich, Switzerland: Almathea, 1960. 4,440 pp. 

Musil: Leben und Werk in Bildern und Texten. By Karl Corino. Reinbeck bei Hamburg, Germany: Rowohlt, 1988. 500 pp. 

Robert Musil: Eine Biographie. By Karl Corino. Reinbeck bei Hamburg, Germany: Rowohlt, 2003. 2,028 pp. 

Un destin de femme: Martha Musil: l’amante, l’espouse, la soeur. By Marie Louise von Roth. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang Verlag, 2006. 186 pp. 

Robert Musil: Literatur und Politik. By Klaus Amann. Reinbeck bei Hamburg, Germany: Rowohlt, 2007. 320 pp. (In English as Literature and Politics, translated by Genese Grill. New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2023. 562 pp. $32.00).

Erinnerung an Robert Musil: Texte von Augenzeugen. Edited by Karl Corino. Wädenswill, Switzerland, 2010. 280 pp.

Robert Musil. By Oliver Pfohlmann. Reinbeck bei Hamburg, Germany: Rowohlt, 2012. 160 pp. 

Robert Musil und der Genius Loci: Die Lebensumstände des “Mannes ohne Eigenschaften.” By Nanao Hayasaka. Netherlands: Brill/Fink, 2012. 415 pp. 

“Von der Seele Träumen Dürfen”: Nachträge zur Biographie und zum Werk Robert Musils. By Karl Corino. Königshausen & Neumann: Würzburg, Germany, 2022. 794 pp. €74.72.


Genese Grill is currently working on the first English-language biography of Robert Musil for Yale University Press. Her exploration of spirit and matter, Portals, appeared with Splice in 2023 (three essays of which first appeared in The Georgia Review). She has published four translations of Robert Musil with Contra Mundum Press and a scholarly study, The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities (Camden House, 2012).