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.


View Edition

From the front page

Image of Lieutenant General John Frewen. Image via ABC News Breakfast

The back of the back of the queue

Young people have waited patiently through the government’s slow rollout, but it’s now killing them

Image of Scott Morrison holding a vial of AstraZeneca vaccine. Image via Facebook

Vaccine resistance

Despite historically high vaccination rates, Australia has developed a significant anti-vax movement in the middle of a global pandemic

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Racing against time

The I-Kiribati Olympic sprinter hoping to draw attention to his nation’s climate catastrophe

Image of Julian Assange in London, April 11, 2019

The end game

WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange is slowly dying in a UK prison, as the US maintains its fight to have him die in theirs – but there is hope


In This Issue

© Didier Plowy

Christian Boltanski’s chance at life

The French artist in Sydney

Son Chhay’s hopes for Cambodia

Co-operation or coup?

Lorde performing at the Laneway Festival in Sydney. © Will Reichelt

Kids these days

Laneway, Lorde and other disappointments

Tim Fischer on the Ghan

From Adelaide to Alice Springs with a train devotee


More in Arts & Letters

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, ‘Portrait of Irène Cahen d’Anvers’ (La petite Irène), 1880

Breathless spaces: ‘The House of Fragile Things’

James McAuley’s examination of four great art-collecting families and the French anti-Semitism that brought their downfall

Image from ‘Shiva Baby’

Forebodings and a funeral: ‘Shiva Baby’

Emma Seligman’s funny but tense film is a triumph of writing and performance over spectacle

Image of Suzanne Ciani

Tip of the pops: ‘This Is Pop’ and ‘Song Exploder’

Two Netflix documentary series only manage to skim the surface of pop music history

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Time remaining

New poetry from the award-winning writer and critic


More in Noted

Image of Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, ‘A way of flying’ (c. 1819–1824)

Goya: Drawings from the Prado Museum

Goya’s dark and difficult works exhibited at NGV remind us how little the world has moved on from past horrors

Image of Carlo Crivelli, ‘Madonna and Child’ (1480).

European Masterpieces from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

QAGOMA’s exhibition goes beyond the usual blockbuster bling to favour lesser known works of the masters

Cover of ‘The Five Wounds’

‘The Five Wounds’ by Kirstin Valdez Quade

A young down-and-out man in a New Mexico village seeks transcendence in a ceremonial role as Jesus, in this debut novel

Image of Richard Bell’s ‘Embassy’, 2013

‘Richard Bell: You Can Go Now’

The MCA’s retrospective of the influential activist-artist provides a fluent deconstruction of white supremacy


Read on

Image of Scott Morrison holding a vial of AstraZeneca vaccine. Image via Facebook

Vaccine resistance

Despite historically high vaccination rates, Australia has developed a significant anti-vax movement in the middle of a global pandemic

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Jenny Morrison laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier during the Anzac Day commemorative service on April 25, 2020. Image © Alex Ellinghausen / AAP Image/ Sydney Morning Herald Pool

A rallying crime

For a country that loves invoking the virtues of wartime sacrifice, why have our leaders failed to appeal to the greater good during the pandemic?

Photo of installation view of the exhibition Camille Henrot: Is Today Tomorrow at NGV International. Photo © Tom Ross

Simultaneous persuasions: ‘Camille Henrot: Is Today Tomorrow’

Radical difference and radical proximity are hallmarks of the French-born artist’s NGV exhibition

Still from The White Lotus. © Mario Perez / HBO

Petty bourgeoisie: ‘The White Lotus’

Mike White’s scathing takedown of privilege leads July’s streaming highlights