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Young Torless ()

        Things just happen : that's the sum total of wisdom.
           -Torless, Young Torless

Torless, the young man of the title, leaves home to attend a boarding school in turn of the century Austria.  For the first time he is freed from the moral influence of his parents and is left to his own devices, with disastrous results.  At first he is merely homesick, but:

    Later, as his 'homesickness' became less violent and gradually passed off, this, its real character,
    began to show rather more clearly.  For in its place there did not come the contentment that might
    have been expected; on the contrary, what it left in young Torless's soul was a void.  And this
    nothingness, this emptiness in himself, made him realise that it was no mere yearning that he had
    lost, but something positive, a spiritual force, something that had flowered in him under the guise
    of grief.

So here is this young man, his soul a void, no parental guidance to help fill the void, and he's just entered a community where he'll be surrounded by his similarly unformed peers.  It just doesn't seem likely that much good can come of this situation, nor does it.

The first attachment Torless forms is with a prince from a conservative and religious family, but they become estranged.  Subsequently, he experiments with mathematics, philosophy, sexual relations with the local whore, and several other pursuits, in an attempt to fill the void.  But, by far, his most important relationship is with two other boys, von Reiting and Beineberg, who have decided to start psychologically, physically and sexually abusing a classmate, Basini, whom they caught stealing money.  Beineberg assures Torless:

    You needn't be shocked, it's not as bad as all that.  First of all, as I've already explained to you,
    there's no cause to consider Basini's feelings at all.  Whether we decide to torment him or perhaps let
    him off depends solely on whether we feel the need of the one or the other.  It depends on our own
    inner reasons.  Have you got any?  All that stuff about morality and society and the rest of it, which
    you brought up before, doesn't count at all, of course.  I should be sorry to think you ever believed
    in it yourself.  So I assume you to be indifferent.

When Torless later joins in the degradation of Basini he does so for reasons of his own, but it is the character of Beineberg--and his eagerness to exercise power over other, "lesser", beings-- that has earned the book a reputation of having forecast the rise of Nazism.  But Torless does take advantage of Basini's situation and begins to exploit Basini for sexual purposes, though he tries to hide this from the other two boys.  This leads to a falling out amongst the little gang and the whole sordid story is exposed.

Robert Musil has experienced something of a resurgence since a new translation of his mammoth, unfinished, masterpiece, A Man Without Qualities, was published several years ago.  That novel is considered one of the seminal works of Modernism--ranking him alongside James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Franz Kafka.  But his reputation had originally been established with the publication, at an early age, of this fine shorter novel.  In a certain sense, Torless is a boy without qualities.  Over the course of the novel he tries out a series of different belief systems, all of which are found wanting and some of which end up doing great damage to him and to others.  One wonders--considering books like this one, A Separate Peace, The Catcher in the Rye, The Lord of the Flies, and so on--why any parent would ever send their son away to school, let alone to an all-male boarding school.  As Musil describes the reasons for Torless's slide:

    The reason for it lay in the particular conditions of life at this school.  Here youthful, upsurging
    energies were held captive behind grey walls and, having no other outlet, they filled the imagination
    with random wanton fancies that caused more than one boy to lose his head.

    A certain degree of debauchery was even considered manly, dashing, a bold gesture of taking for
    oneself the pleasures one was still forbidden.  And it seemed all the manlier when compared with
    the wretchedly respectable appearance of most of the masters.  For then the admonishing word
    'morality' became associated with narrow shoulders, a little paunch, thin legs, and eyes roaming as
    harmlessly behind their spectacles as the silly sheep at pasture, as though life were nothing but a
    flowery meadow of solemn edification.

    And, finally, at school one still had no knowledge of life and no notion of all those degrees of
    beastliness and corruption, down to the level of the diseased and the grotesque, which are what
    primarily fills the adult with revulsion when he hears of such things.

    All these inhibiting factors, which are far more effective than we can really appreciate, were lacking
    in him.  It was his very naivety that had plunged him into vice.

It is interesting to contrast these books with works like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Chosen which depict how difficult it is to raise children so that they are morally centered even if you keep them at home.

Beyond this obvious level, the book can be read as a statement about the general attempt to replace traditional morality.  The moral decline that Torless lives out over the course of the novel essentially parallels the descent of modern man--initially cut adrift from family and religion, he passes through varying aspects of scientific rationalism, experiments with the pursuit of mere physical pleasure, and falls under the spell of Beineberg and his theory that all morality is a social construct, that each individual is free to follow his own whims.  Several times over the course of the novel, Musil assures us that Torless turns out okay in later life, that after this period of youthful confusion and experimentation, he grows into a sturdier adult.  One can only hope that the same will eventually be said of the species.

Musil was writing in the first full blush of Freudianism and the novel is somewhat marred by it's reliance on Freudian themes.  One hundred years ago, it may have seemed daring and honest to portray a young man's sexual fantasies about his mother; today, with Freud exposed as a quack and consigned to the ash heap of history, it simply makes Torless seem more aberrant than the author intended.

Still, it's an excellent introduction to the work of a really underrated author.  A Man Without Qualities, at least what I've read of it, is even better, a genuinely funny novel of Europe approaching the cataclysm of war and the destruction of the old order.


Grade: (B)


Robert Musil Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Robert Musil
    -REVIEW: Best Book of 1930: The Man Without Qualities (Elaine L. Wang, Granta)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Robert Musil Website
    -Robert Musil (1880-1942)(kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA : Your search: "robert musil"
    -ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA : Musil, Robert  (b. Nov. 6, 1880, Klagenfurt, Austria)
    -EXCERPT: from Young Torless
    -Robert Musil
    -The Musil Institut : Celebrating the Secular Values of Postmodern Europe
    -Robert Musil (Spartacus)
    -Robert Musil Literary Remains Databank PEP 1.0 (electronic Texts)
    -STUDY GUIDE: English 101 Notes for Robert Musil  Young Torless (1906)
    -BOOK LIST: Young Torless #45 on The 100 best gay and lesbian books of the century (Susan Ryan-Vollmar, Boston Phoenix)
    -BOOK LIST: Robert McCrumb's Favorite Books of the Century #3 Man Without Qualities (Books Unlimited UK)
    -ESSAY : The Qualities of Robert Musil (Roger Kimball, New Criterion)
    -ESSAY: A Writer With Qualities : The restoration of Robert Musil's epic novel 'The Man  Without Qualities' (Harvey Pekar, MetroActive)
    -ESSAY: Postmortem: The Man Without Qualities as Critique of Science
    -REVIEW: of After Britain: New Labour and the Return of Scotland by Tom Nairn On with the Pooling and Merging (Neal Ascherson, London Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: The Men Without Qualities : Neutra/Loos/Musil/Wittgenstein (Stuart Harrison)
    -ESSAY: Homage (J.M. Coetzee, Threepenny Review)
    -ESSAY: Multiculturalism and Personal Identity  (Jorn K. Bramann)
    -DISCUSSION: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Copyright (The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: of Young Torless (Tom Frenkel, Tom's Book Report)
    -REVIEW: of Man Without Qualities Modernity Laid Bare (Virgil Newmoianu, Crisis Online)
    -REVIEW: of The restoration of Robert Musil's epic novel 'The Man Without Qualities' (Harvey Pekar, Metroactive)
    -REVIEW: J.M. Coetzee: The Man with Many Qualities, NY Review of Books
        Diaries 1899-1941 by Robert Musil
    -REVIEW: of POSTHUMOUS PAPERS OF A LIVING AUTHOR By Robert Musil. Translated by Peter Wortsman (Anthony Heilbut, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  THE MAN WITHOUT QUALITIES By Robert Musil. Translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike (Michael Hofmann, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of William H. Gass: The Hovering Life, NY Review of Books
        The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil, translated by Sophie Wilkins, and translated by Burton Pike
    -REVIEW: John Bayley: Death and the Dichter, NY Review of Books
        Posthumous Papers of a Living Author by Robert Musil and translated by Peter Wortsman
        Five Women by Robert Musil, translated by Eithne Wilkins, and translated by Ernst Kaiser
        Robert Musil by Lowell A. Bangerter
    -REVIEW: of J.M. Coetzee: On the Edge of Revelation, NY Review of Books
        Five Women by Robert Musil, translated by Eithne Wilkins, translated by Ernst Kaiser, and preface by Frank Kermode
    -REVIEW: of Denis Donoghue: Musil, NY Review of Books
        Five Women by Robert Musil, translated by Eithne Wilkins, and translated by Ernst Kaiser

    -REVIEW: Nadine Gordimer: The Empire of Joseph Roth, NY Review of Books
        The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth
        Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth and translated by John Hoare
        'The Spider's Web' and 'Zipper and his Father' by Joseph Roth and translated by John Hoare
        The Emperor's Tomb by Joseph Roth and translated by John Hoare
        Flight Without End by Joseph Roth and translated by David LeVay
        The Silent Prophet by Joseph Roth and translated by David Le Vay
        'The Legend of the Holy Drinker' and 'Right and Left' by Joseph Roth
    -REVIEW: of Rebellion  by Joseph Roth The Empire Writes Back (JAMES WOOD, New Republic)