March 2014

Arts & Letters

Robert Musil’s ‘The Confusions of Young Master Törless’

By Kevin Rabalais
Trans. Christopher Moncrieff; Alma Classics; $19.99

In the quartet of great 20th-century modernist writers that includes James Joyce, Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust, Robert Musil remains the most enigmatic member. That he failed to achieve household-name status must be blamed, in part, on the scope and relative difficulty of his 1800-page unfinished masterwork, The Man without Qualities – “one of two or three novels I love most,” Milan Kundera writes in The Art of the Novel, “but don’t ask me to admire its enormous size”.

While Joyce interrogated the eternal present and Proust the ceaseless past, the Austrian-born Musil (1880–1942) infused his fiction with philosophy. Along with his countryman and contemporary Hermann Broch (The Sleepwalkers), Musil recognised the novel’s capacity to explore the synthesis of all possible intellectual pursuits. He spent the majority of his writing life composing The Man without Qualities, his attempt to encompass the inner and public lives of a group of Viennese on the eve of World War One. Few non-academics today seem to read Musil’s opus in its entirety. We discover, however, a more accessible Musil in the world and ideas of his 1906 Bildungsroman, The Confusions of Young Master Törless (Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß, often translated without “Master”).

Musil was 25 when Törless was published, and it was a great success in his lifetime. Its subject matter guaranteed scandal. Set in the late 19th century at “W.”, an elite boys’ military boarding school in an outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the book seems to predict the rise of fascism in its depiction of calculated bullying and sexual abuse.

Törless – homesick and dissatisfied, a self-imposed outsider – searches for a foothold at W. as he grapples with his soul and the “first obscure stirrings of adolescent sexuality were gradually awakening in him”. Fascinated by two classmates’ physical and mental maltreatment of a fellow student, Törless, much like Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, privileges his own greatness above others. Increasingly drawn to the bullied boy, he assumes his own carefully orchestrated role in this physical and psychological intimidation. The calm lucidity of Musil’s prose makes these events all the more sinister. “Was there some universal law that decreed that there was something within us that is stronger, bigger, finer, darker and more passionate than ourselves?” Törless asks himself, only to answer with an emphatic “Yes.”

Readers of Joyce understand the significance of Dubliners in the progression that led to Ulysses, and Törless holds similar standing in Musil’s development. More than recent translations, Moncrieff’s Törless bristles with the sexual tensions and confusions that torment its main character. A slim novel, it demands much of its reader and provides great return.

Kevin Rabalais

Kevin Rabalais is the author of The Landscape of Desire.

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