Saturday, June 10, 2017

Robert Musil's "The Confusions of Young Torless": Book Review
A serious, saturnine investigation of the sordid goings-on at a provincial boarding school, this sounds like what you'd expect. Robert Musil's first novel resembles the hothouse atmosphere mingling asceticism, philosophy, sexuality, violence and ideas which characterize his Five Stories and of course his unfinished, massive The Man Without Qualities. Its pre-WWI, Austro-Hungarian setting gets evoked well in the bleak opening scene, and the novella reeks of miasma, murk, and mischief.

Reiting, Beineberg and Törless punish their classmate Basini as a scrounger and a thief. The blackmail deepens, and Basini proves himself willing to debase himself as you'd imagine. Meanwhile. Reiting uses this situation to study the application of cruelty, while Beineberg waxes in esoteric fashion about Eastern this and Indian that. Törless tries to distance himself from the conniving ringleaders, but he too is drawn in, his curiosity aroused by lust and the need to straighten out his mind. It's been disordered by the pursuit of imaginary numbers, and a mathematical sub-plot is capped by a dream the protagonist has complete with Kant donning a peruke. Based on whatever happened to Musil in his military academy, its prescience into the rise of fascism seems inevitable.

Coming out in 1906, its depiction of a naked Basini, with welts, cowering in the dank quarters where the ritual abuse occurs, must have been shocking for some readers. It holds up despite some languid or self-involved passages, but it's not entertaining. Rather, it's an examination into dismal events. That atmosphere, and the boys' preening posturing presumptions, emanate in discomfiting fashion.(I review the Ernst Kaiser/ Eithne Wilkins translation, but this Penguin has the better cover photo.)
Amazon US 5-30-17

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