On 6 november 1880 Robert Mathias Musil is born in Klagenfurt at the Bahnhofstraße 50 as the child of Alfred and Hermine. Four years prior to that his mother had given life to a girl, Elsa. She died when she was not eleven months old. Later in life, in 1940, Musil wondered what this sister has meant to his life:
[…] meine vor meiner Geburt gestorbene Schwester, mit der ich einen gewissen Kultus trieb…(Ich trieb in Wahrheit keinen Kultus; aber diese Schwester interessierte mich. Dachte ich manchmal: wie, wenn sie noch am Leben wäre; [RM: Tagebücher I, S. 952/953].
His father descends from an old noble Austrian family, the ancestors of his mothers are from Bohemia. His father will eventually reach a high office at the Technical University of Brunn. He receives the title of ‘Hofrat’ and is ennobled just before the end of the the Habsburg monarchy. Robert, is his fathers wish, shall also make for a good position in society. He must become an officer in the imperial army.
Musil’s memories of his early childhood are many nor warm. As a child he was a loner, turned very much into himself, and found it difficult to be a conventional child. His favourite pass time was just to sit outside in the garden gazing at whatever happened to be in his view. Or, so his diaries tell, he stood inside the house staring out the window, at something that happened to have drawn his attention. This image, standing in a house, gazing outside, is on of the few that will reappear in his literary works: the reader meets Ulrich when he has returned to Vienna and stands pondering on his life, his achievements, qualities and lack of qualities.
One of the incidents Musil remembers in his diaries is that once he watched a snail move on a tree leave. His father watched him closely. On the questions of his father about what he thought seeing the snail Robert could not answer; he did not know himself. The father thought that his son had an interest in observation and slowly it occurred to him that his son had to be trained to be a ‘naturforscher’, a biologist.
The images of his childhood are never sharp. More often they concern a description of a mood, a gesture, still-lives that later will be described in a way that is characteristic for Musil the author:
Ein Kindheitszug war das Brüten in der Melancholie des Zimmers, und vielleicht sollte man sagen, über einem geliebten Spielzeug.
In his diaries he notes that often he has been compared with his father’s father.
Man hat mir in meiner Kindheit und Jugend oft gesagt: du bist wie dein Großvater (vaterseits)! Das hieß: eigensinnig, energisch, auch erfolgreich, schwer umgänglich… [RM: Tagebücher I, S. 936].
This because of his wilfulness. His grandfather, Mathias Musil, had worked himself up from a modest family to be a doctor in the Imperial Army. One fine day he decided to become a farmer, to raise a cattle, and study the live on the land. He withdrew from the army, and hence a good career and pension. This is not only to say that Musil was energetic and successful, but mostly that through his wilfulness, he was difficult to get along with, at least someone not to be taken lightly.
Robert Musil will eventually fulfil both his parents wishes, the army and a scientific career. In 1892 he starts attending the Militär-Unterrealschule in Eisenstadt. This is not a serious career move, a well thought over step, nor does he have an affinity with the military regime, but, as he later confesses, the military academy means that at last he can wear long trousers.. That is, he wants to be regarded as a grown up, taken seriously. For his father there is a more practical reason to enlist him in the military academy. When his son reaches his nineteenth birthday he will have become an officer, and hence have his own salary, and thus have safeguarded his future. His mother wishes her son a more strict upbringing, which she hopes he will receive at the academy.
After the first two years in Eisenstadt, which remain without noticeable memories, Robert changes to the Militär-Erziehungs- und Bildungsanstalt in Mährisch-Weißkirchen. The regime here is authoritarian, a penitentiary where the pupils are treated as were they convicts. Forty years after his time here the memories of the washrooms, the toilets, the indescribable uniforms they have to wear still frighten Musil. His description of the place is very extreme: “das Arschloch des Teufels” (The Devil’s Asshole). He wonders whether his cleanliness that he upholds nowadays is not an over-compensation of his days at Weißkirchen.
When in 1897 Musil leaves the military academy he, in contrast to his fellow students, is still not sure what he wants from life, although for his parents things are clear: ahead of him lies a brilliant career in the Imperial Army. Later, in his diaries he says:
I was uncertain at that time, I did not now what I wanted, I only knew what I did not want, and that was about all, at that time, what as an author one should know.
Musil is seventeen years old when he leaves Weißkirchen to attend the Technical Military Academy in Vienna. Even thought this is a direction which he feels is more of a good choice than the previous ones, it is still not entirely his own. It was a choice to accommodate his father’s wishes to see both traditions of the family, i.e. the military and technique, combined in his son.
After a few months Musil succeeded in convincing his father that this combination is not ideal for him: he starts attending the Technical Academy of Brünn. At first he thinks that this education is what he has always desired; for the first time he feels he is doing something which seems useful. In 1899 he has his first exams, and in 1901 his second. He passes both with the annotation ‘very capable’. In spite of the irony with which he later looks back on this period, it has been a very important one to him. The aura of exactness he finds among technicians, the distrust of the illusory in matters that can also be calculated makes a profound expression on him:
If one possesses a slide-rule, and someone comes with assumptions or emotions, one says: a moment please, first we want to compute probability and the boundaries of errors.
However, in the years 1902 – 1903 Musil gets disillusioned. He notices that engineers do not uphold in their lives the standards of their profession. At that time he works as an assistant in the laboratory of his school. What disappoints him mostly is that after one routine-day after another, nothing remains of which he can say that it has been of use, something that is lasting. The initial fascination with the sacred exactness and sobriety of technique has disappeared. Literature will be his way out of his deadlock.