Having recovered from the dizzying experience of our latest Sebaldian adventures, it’s time to get back on the bus and head a little further eastwards. It’s the start of the twentieth-century, and we’re off to what, at the time, was a far-flung part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Our visit takes us to a military academy, a boarding school for the sons of the upper classes, but there’s something very rotten going on within these walls. Let’s find out what…
Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß (The Confusions of Young Törless) was the first novel of Robert Musil, an Austrian writer known mainly for his lengthy, acclaimed, unfinished novel, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man without Qualities). A classic Bildungsroman, this early work follows an adolescent caught between childhood innocence and the certainty of adult life, examining his struggles to come to terms with the difference he senses between himself and the people around him.
At the start of the novel, young Törleß is passing a free evening in the local village, having just seen his parents off from their visit to the academy. Along with one of his close friends, Beineberg, he drinks at a bar before dropping in on Božena, a peasant woman who has drifted from a life of servitude to one of entertaining men in search of female company. These initial scenes takes up a significant part of the novel, and even at this early stage, it’s clear that Törleß is a dreamer, gazing out of the window and wondering what lies behind the images he sees.
The real story begins once the two young men arrive back at the institute, when the third of their tight-knit group, Reiting, reveals that he has discovered the identity of the thief who has been taking money from the students’ lockers. However, instead of turning the culprit, Basini, over to the staff of the academy, he decides that this is the perfect opportunity to indulge in some blackmail. With the unfathomable Beineberg in agreement, Törleß finds himself pulled along into a situation where poor Basini becomes the trio’s plaything, with devastating results.
Much of the rest of the book focuses on Basini’s degradation at the hands of Reiting and Beineberg. Their cruel treatment involves threats to reveal his secret, savage beatings and sexual assault, and they’re able to get away with all this thanks to the design of the institute, with its many nooks, crannies and secret rooms. The story is told from Törleß’ point of view, and while he is less responsible for what goes on than his classmates, we still get to experience the bullying, albeit half-seen and heard through the darkness. There’s an obvious allegorical nature to the behaviour as Musil examines the power of the many over the individual, and the way this power is too often misused; with the teachers largely conspicuous by their absence, the novel has undertones of a Lord of the Flies-type scenario.
However, the plot of the debasement is only one of a pair of main ideas, and perhaps the lesser of the two. In truth, the novel is more concerned with Törleß and his growing mental development. It’s a psychological portrait, a novel of moods, where much of the text is internal, describing either our young hero’s thoughts or character (a Germanic Stephen Dedalus, perhaps). Having arrived at a turning point in his life, young Törleß is beginning to wonder what it’s all about:
“Es hat keinen Zweck. Du hast recht. Aber man darf sich das gar nicht sagen. Von alldem, was wir den ganzen Tag lang in der Schule tun, – was davon hat eigentlich einen Zweck? Wovon hat man etwas? Ich meine etwas für sich haben, – du verstehst? Man weiß am Abend, daß man wieder einen Tag gelebt hat, daß man so und so viel gelernt hat, man hat dem Stundenplan genügt, aber man ist dabei leer geblieben – innerlich meine ich, man hat sozusagen einen ganzen innerlichen Hunger…”
p.30 (Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 2013)
There’s no point. That’s true. But you can’t tell yourself that. Everything we do all day long at school – does any of it have a point? What do you actually get anything from? I mean something for you alone – do you understand? In the evening, you know that you’ve made it through another day, that you’ve learned this much, or that much, you’ve done everything you needed to, but in doing so you’ve remained empty – inside, I mean, you have a kind of total inner hunger… *** (my translation)
Gradually, he begins to narrow his focus to the duplicity of the world, wrestling with the concept of the object behind the word naming it, and the gap between the name and the thing. He comes to believe that we move from one to the other with knowing how the gap was bridged, leading him to seek answers in maths, religion and philosophy, before finally realising that they can only come from within.
However, as much as Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß describes the title character’s intellectual development, it’s hard to deny the emphasis on his sexual awakening. Scattered throughout the books are hints of this ‘confusion’, such as the involuntary comparisons of Božena with his mother and memories of wanting to be a girl when he was a young child. Gradually, he begins to learn that the world is not as he had been brought up to believe:
Dann war aber auch alles andere möglich. Dann waren Reiting und Beineberg möglich. War diese Kammer möglich… Dann war es auch möglich, daß von der hellen täglichen Welt, die er bisher allein gekannt hatte, ein Tor zu einer anderen, dumpfen, brandenden, leidenschaftlichen, nackten, vernichtenden führe. Daß zwischen jenen Menschen, deren Leben sich wie in einem durchsichtigen und festen Bau von Glas und Eisen geregelt zwischen Bureau und Familie bewegt, und anderen, Herabgestoßenen, Blutigen, ausschweifend Schmutzigen, in verwirrten Gängen voll brüllender Stimmen Irrenden, nicht nur ein Übergang besteht, sondern ihre Grenzen heimlich und nahe und jeden Augenblick überschreitbar aneinanderstoßen… (p.64)
But that meant everything else was possible too. That Reiting and Beineberg were possible. This small room was possible… Then it was also possible that an entrance led from the bright world of the day time that he had exclusively known until now to another gloomy, pulsing, passionate, naked, destructive one. That between those people whose lives moved in a fixed groove between the office and their family, as if in a solid, transparent glass case, and others, the outcasts, the bloody, the dissolutely filthy, those wandering in confusing passageways full of bellowing voices, there was not only a connecting path, no, their borders brushed up against each other secretly, closely, ready to be crossed at any moment… ***
Despite his initial disapproval, he becomes aroused by the sounds of Reiting and Basini copulating in the dark, and most readers will be able to predict his own later submission. The quotation above, taken from when Törleß first learns of Basini’s theft, points nicely to his own later ‘fall’ and debasement…
As you may have gathered, I found this a wonderful read, dark, brooding and nihilistic in places, with the barbarous action almost peripheral when contrasted with Törleß’ dilemmas (there’s an obvious nod of the head, in English, at least, to Goethe’s rather more dramatic Bildungsroman). Our friend’s distracted progress through this crisis of development is contrasted with Reiting’s amused cruelty and Beineberg’s obsession with the darker side of eastern religions. These two are depicted as monsters and manipulators, their characters already fully formed; Törleß, however, is still in his larval stage. Having little sense of what the future will bring, he drives himself half mad trying to figure it out.
A dense, philosophical work, Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß is not a book you’re likely to fly through, but a joy to read all the same. Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften has long been on my radar, and reading this earlier work has only made me more determined to give it a try. However, if the experience of reading today’s choice is anything to go by, one month will probably be nowhere near enough – I might need a German Literature Year for my next journey into Musil’s world…
The English version of the novel (The Confusions of Young Törless) is available in Shaun Whiteside’s translation from Penguin Classics.