To read Robert Musil is to sense an approaching catastrophe. His narratives spiral downward from the daylight world of bourgeois conventions into the night of madness, the negativity of disorder, criminality and war. Such is the case with Musil’s literary debut, The Confusions of Young Törless (1906), in which the innocuous rivalry among a group of boarding-school boys builds up to homosexual abuse and sadistic humiliation. In Musil’s second book, Unions (1911), a woman’s promise of matrimonial fidelity activates subconscious processes that drive her to sleep with another man. What matters in these stories is less the manifest content than the finely tuned narrative language, which records how a certain state of affairs is turned into its opposite: the faithful wife becoming an adulteress, the dutiful schoolboy turning into a fascist torturer—but without their noticing when they pass the point of no return.

Crimes without identifiable perpetrators, events without visible cause, historical shifts without agency—Musil’s works are inquiries into the multiple determination of human action and social change. In his major work, The Man Without Qualities (originally published as Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften with a first volume in 1930, a second in 1932, and the rest left unfinished), the transformation from order to chaos is of world-historical proportions. The novel begins with the launch of the so-called Parallel Campaign by Vienna’s political and cultural establishment in 1913. The Campaign is to culminate in 1918, the sixtieth anniversary of Emperor Franz Joseph’s coronation, with a celebration of peace and a demonstration of unity among all the peoples of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A thousand or so pages later, the idealistic efforts of the Parallel Campaign lead to the outbreak of World War One. As Ulrich, the novel’s central protagonist and chief secretary of the Campaign, predicts: ‘it’s the Millennial War of Religion . . . the War Ministry can sit back and serenely await the next mass catastrophe.’

The first two volumes of The Man Without Qualities were met with great acclaim in the early 1930s. The Times Literary Supplement noted, with British sobriety: ‘When completed, this should be the prose-epic of the Habsburg Monarchy hastening to its decay.’ German critics felt that this was not just the book of the year but one of the novels of the century. Karl Corino, in his long-awaited 2,000-page biography of Musil, quotes Bernard Guillemin’s review as a typical example of the enthusiasm elicited by Musil’s work:

As a critique of culture and contemporary life, [The Man Without Qualities] is without example. As a social satire: superior to every model. As a novel of irony: surpassing Anatole France at his best. As an impressionistic novel: one would like to call it the first really successful one. As a psychological novel: equalling throughout the works of Meredith, Henry James and Marcel Proust. As a political novel: the most significant of all. As a study of character: comparable only to Meredith’s The Egotist. As an ideological novel: the richest and most subtle one we have. As a novel of intelligence: overshadowing Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point. As a study of apathy and the pathological (Moosbrugger!): outdoing Alfred Döblin’s Alexanderplatz. As an essay on the philosophy of history: the first one in epic form since Voltaire’s Candide and even surpassing Candide. I could go on like this. But perhaps it suffices to say that if Ulrich, the hero of the novel, is what we could call a man without qualities, then the novel itself is a novel with every quality. It presents us with a great epic-critical summa, which, if we seek a comparison of its totality, can be compared to nothing else than the theological summas of the Mediaeval Era.

The Man Without Qualities is a planet unto itself, beside which all but a handful of novels dwindle. The work provides a comprehensive diagnosis of European culture between 1910 and 1930, whose ideological delusions are revealed, and sanctified ideas and personages mocked, with a ruthlessly satirical spirit. It also relates the prototypical love story of the modern era, as Ulrich and his sister Agathe, in their attempt to flee a social world gone mad, establish an incestuous utopia of intellectual and aesthetic jouissance. Following these parallel lines of action, Musil develops highly original reflections—on psychology, philosophy, politics, ideology, history, sexuality, and culture—that can be read as theories in their own right. German and Austrian culture of the late 1920s and the early 1930s produced a series of such encyclopaedic novels: Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924), Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), Broch’s The Sleepwalkers (1932) and Canetti’s Auto-da-fé (1935). Next to The Man Without Qualities, they seem limited in scope. What Musil sought to achieve was no less than ‘the intellectual mastery of the world’, as he said in a 1926 interview.

The next mass catastrophe: Musil’s hero voices his misgivings in the last chapter of volume two—its title: ‘A great event is in the making. But no one has noticed’. The book came out in December 1932. If Musil’s irony laid bare the history that had led to World War One, history now had a monstrous irony in store for him. A month after the publication of the second volume—subtitled ‘Into the Millennium (The Criminals)’—Hitler came to power, inaugurating the Third, or Thousand-Year, Reich. Musil was living in Berlin at the time. He remained there long enough to witness the Reichstag in flames, to see books of his Jewish and Communist friends being burnt in the street and many of his colleagues harassed and detained. The Nazi state’s repression of intellectual life shut down the reception of Musil’s novel before it really started, and deprived him of his publisher and sources of income. Musil relocated to Vienna, where he had lived for most of the 1920s. He managed to find himself a new publisher and new patrons willing to support his work. In the spring of 1938, he was correcting the galleys of what he planned as the third volume of The Man Without Qualities. Again, he was interrupted by Hitler, who on March 15 made his entry into Vienna and incorporated Austria into the German Reich. Musil and his wife moved to Switzerland. They spent their years there in pensions and rented apartments, first in Zurich and then in Geneva, where Musil died from a heart attack in April 1942.

Corino mentions that the streets next door to the Musils’ last home were called Bout du monde and Le grand Fin. In literary terms, Musil had by this point been reduced to virtual anonymity. This was in stark contrast to the intellectual fame enjoyed by his main rival in German letters, Thomas Mann, who spent the larger part of his exile in Pacific Palisades, giving popular radio broadcasts to millions of Germans around the world.