Austrian writer, born in Klagenfurt, Carinthia on Novermber 6th, 1880 of a noble Bohemian family.
His father wanted him to be a scientist: he studied at two military academies, and graduated as an engineer. He had a passion for mathematics, and he studied with the great philosopher/scientis Ernst Mach (he of the Mach number).
He lived in Berlin, served in World War I on the Italian front (on the losing side, obviously) and eventually moved to Vienna. The last years of his life were spent in Switzerland where he died in 1942.
Probably the most readable (and read) novel by Musil is the first one: published in 1906, Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless (literally, "The Perturbations of Young Törless", but the English title is simply Young Törless) is a bildungsroman, partly autobiographical and set in an Austrian military academy. Törless discovers adulthood, sex and the fascination of mathematics.
Drei Frauen (Three Woman) was published in 1924. It is a set of three short stories, with autobiographical elements from the recent war.
The most daunting work by Musil is doubtlessly Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities).
Musil started writing this in 1930, and he never completed the work. We are left with a finished first volume, and with masses of notes and drafts that would probably have constitute a second volume.
The action is set in Vienna on the eve of WWI. The protagonist is Ulrich, soldier, scientist, and a man actually replete with qualities but plagued by a difficulty to act.
In the background the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire falls to pieces (finis Austriae). Ulrich lets himself become involved with the Parallel Action, a somewhat silly but very impressive project to organize celebrations for the Emperor's thirtieth birthday. Not much happens: the book is made mostly of searching, acute analysis of life, science and events.
The insane sex criminal Moosbrugger provides a counterpoint to Ulrich's exquisite rationality, and the triad is completed by Diotima, a woman fascinated by love and sex.
I include here the opening paragraph of The Man Without Qualities:
"A barometric low hung over the Atlantic. It moved eastward towards a high-pressure area over Russia without as yet showing any inclination to bypass
this high in a northerly direction. The isotherms and isotheres were functioning as they should. The air temperature was appropriate relative to the annual
mean temperature and to the aperiodic monthly fluctuations of the temperature. The rising and setting of the Sun, the Moon, the phases of the Moon, of Venus, of the rings of Saturn, and many other significant phenomena were all in accordance with the forecasts in the astronomical yearbooks. The water vapor in the air was at its maximal state of tension, while the humidity was minimal. In a word that characterizes the facts fairly accurately, even if it is
a bit old-fashioned: it was a fine day in August 1913."
(my bold) - this, at least to me, is a fine mockery of the inadequacy of a science
that, in many cases, will tell you in great detail what you don't want to know.
The Man Without Qualities is a mature book, made for slow reading. It should be read in its Viennese context, making the necessary connections with Sigmund Freud, Karl Kraus and Joseph Roth.