Monday, January 10, 2011


The Confusions of Young Törless - Robert Musil - Translated from the German by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser - Pantheon Books

Adolescence sucks, whenever and wherever it is endured. For most of us, we'll never experience such high drama at such a constant pitch ever again. And it's so easy, while going through it, to feel like one's suffering is unique, that no one will ever understand. But people do. There are volumes and volumes of stories and novels to prove it.

Of them all, I find Musil's little triumph to be the very best, and find it all but criminal that this book is never assigned reading for its hero's eternal contemporaries: high school kids. Of course, a certain shrill and puritanical element in our society would never allow this, for the story does contain more than a whiff of *gasp* homosexuality. But really, there's only a whiff, and Törless's sexuality is really not the foremost problem in this short, troubling, stunningly good novel.

So what is he confused about?

Power. Power illegitimately gained and exercised. Power ultimately abused. Power given to those who are ill-prepared to wield it and who do so without restraint.

In a German-speaking country.

It's impossible to read Young Törless now without thinking of Nazi Germany, though the book, originally penned in 1906, long predates those horrors and takes place on a much smaller, indeed clausterphobia-inducing, scale: a prestigious quasi-military academy in Austria during the waning days of the Hapsburg's Austro-Hungarian empire.

Out of what appears to be sheer, bored waywardness, Törless falls in with perhaps the two most disreputable and unpleasant students there, Reiting and Beineberg, who, soon after the story settles into its setting, discover that another classmate, the unfortunate Basini, is guilty of petty theft to settle his debts; stealing from one student to pay back another, a slave to his appetites. In sum, Basini is weak. He is thus a fine plaything for Törless's friends, who quickly decide there is much more to be had from tormenting the boy than from turning him in to the schoolmasters for formal discipline or to their fellow students for whatever punishment the larger group might mete out.

Basini is such a perfect victim, in fact, that he soon exercises a perverse sort of control over his tormentors; the more he surrenders to and fawns over the trio, the more extreme their behavior towards them grows until they each, in their different ways, attain a state of corruption that would seem unbelievable had we, the readers, not witnessed their seduction stage by stage. Törless stands apart from the depravity, but only to a certain degree; for while he could easily report it to the schoolmasters or act himself to stop it, he spends most of the novel in a moral paralysis to match the intellectual paralysis to which his studies of imaginary numbers in mathematics and his not-studies of Emmanuel Kant have brought him. Even when Basini succeeds in manipulating Törless into sympathizing with him at last, Törless is more interested in Törless and his experiences of the affair than in Basini's suffering. He is an adolescent; it's how we roll, at that uncertain age.

Which is to say that Young Törless is by no means a comfortable or a beautiful book, but rather an honest and disturbing one, Lord of the Flies without the island drums -- but by far a better book, I think. It's truly a pity that its brief and unflinching treatment of boarding school sexuality will probably keep it out of U.S. high schools forever, for it would be a far better way to help students come to terms with the fact that we're all capable of beastly behavior and it doesn't take a desert island or a large group to make us do it.

*Note: The edition to which the links above lead is not the same as the one I own and read. I suspect that modern translations (my copy is from the 1950s) may handle certain scenes and situations more directly and badly, but it's just a suspicion. Someday I may get my hands on the Penguin Classis edition and have a look, but I have a deep fondness for quality hardcovers from bygone days, so it will always be this edition on my shelves.

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