Robert Musil was not very pleasant company. Adolf Frisé indexed, in his Plädoyer für Robert Musil” (1982) the qualities that were associated with Robert Musil by those who knew him.
Cool, proud, uncommunicative, cold, harsh in his judgement, sharp, a military tone of speaking, vain, elegant, polite, well dressed, distant, official, impeccable, an impressive personality though not a sympathetic or congenial one, proud of his time as officer during the First World War, inaccessible, felt unrecognised, kept people far from him and hence fell into isolation, made slighting rather than positive remarks.
These qualities are usually, in his biographies, associated with two other aspects. The poverty he had to deal with for the bigger part of his life, and his attitude towards other authors of his time. Both come, biographers often state, from his earnestly felt lack of recognition as an important figure in German Literature.
Robert Musil was always in dire need of money: always wondering how he and his wife Martha could live through the next day. In his diary there are regularly complaints that they only have little money left to live on. In a diary-fragment he notes: I am (spiritually and moral) exhausted.
This poverty was not new to Musil and his wife. Ever since he decided to dedicate his life to writing, instead of a promising career at the University, he spent his days in poverty. In Berlin and Vienna admirers founded Musil Societies in order to make his work publicly known and thus enabling him to work on, and perhaps even complete, his one great masterpiece The Man Without Qualities. In his later years in Geneva father Robert Lejeune was the one who, through what Musil described as ‘begging’, found him the financial means to continue writing. The people who donated money were invariably admiring authors, or philanthropists.
In 1930 Robert Musil is desperate: he is going to be 50 years old, and the first parts of The Man Without Qualities are being published. What is bothering him the most is the discrepancy between his immense efforts and the public attention and recognition. He has been working on The Man without Qualities for ten years now; other author publish four or five books in this time, and do not mind writing for the public. In an interview with Oskar Maurus Fontana he states he wishes to give a “Beitrage zur geistigen Bewältigung der Welt“.
The most important reproach to other authors concerns their shallowness. They are not capable, or prepared to be reflexive, that intellectually the time in which they live and about which they should write is far beyond their grasp. Hence their success. This success, in turn, is responsible for the lack of profundity that he reproaches them.
A particularly fine head on a man usually means that he is stupid; particularly deep philosophers are usually shallow thinkers; in literature, talents not much above the average are usually regarded by their contemporaries as geniuses. [Man Without Qualities III, Chapter 14, p. 851]
Thomas Mann is one of those authors. As far as Musil is concerned Mann owes his success to the fact that he is the spokesman of the biased liberal intelligentsia, be it a bit more refined. The person of an intellectual average can relate to the thoughts and words of Mann. When Musil is told that Thomas Mann is, along with others, one of the founders of the Musil Societies, and what these societies do for him he admits he is moved by the gesture of the man whom he has been so unjust to. But the distrust towards successful authors remains.
This distrust could be dealt with as envy, were it not that it reflects Musil’s poetics. To Musil the writer/poet is a representative for his country. In works of literature, and art in general, what is thought and lived in a country is reflected. German language literature in his time is not equipped for this task. She remains shallow, deals too often with political, aesthetical or ethical fashions, writes only about itself, and thus caters to an irrelevant need.
The disappointment with the lack of recognition and his poverty make Musil a bitter and lonely person. He dies in obscurity in Switzerland, where only a name-stone on the cemetery remains of him.
Daß du nicht berühmt bist, ist natürlich; daß du aber nicht genug Leser zum Leben hast, ist schändlich. That one is not famous is only natural: that one has not enough readers to live is a shame!