Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Young Törless (1906)

Robert Musil's Young Törless (1906) [also translated as The Confusions of Young Törless] is my next stop on the reverse-alphabetical-by-title version of Harold Bloom's Western Canon list.

Robert Musil (1880-1942) was an Austrian novelist who is best known for his lengthy, unfinished, and posthumously published novel The Man Without Qualities. Young Törless is his first novel, a coming-of-age story about a sensitive and literary young man named Törless and his experiences at an Austrian military boarding school. Musil first claimed that the book was based on his own experiences, but later denied that the book had anything to do with his own life.

Törless has a profound sense of indifference to regular life and a disconnection from his fellow pupils. Despite this, he has been befriended by two older students and accompanies them to their secret hideout in the attic of the school where they make decisions about how to wield their power and philosophies. Although he is with the other boys most of the time, Törless seems to live his life in his own head and on the sheets of paper where he writes out his thoughts and discoveries about life. Much of his time is spent analyzing his new-found sexual desires and wondering if the dark thoughts he has are shared by anyone else. Törless feels the best when he can make himself feel so martyred or shameful that he knows he must be different from the other boys at the school and from his parents and the other grown-ups.

When his two friends discover that a younger boy has stolen money from one of their lockers, they take it upon themselves to teach him a lesson. Törless is fascinated by the weaker boy and his acquiescence to the mental, physical and sexual torment brought on by the older students. Törless always holds himself at a distance from the other boys and their actions, even though he is intimately involved in the encounter, and it is only when he is forced to act that he makes any move to alter the situation.

Many readers have seen parallels to the rise of the Nazi party in Young Törless, and its scientific fascination with punishment, justice, and isolation make it a sometimes difficult book to read. Once the reader really enters the claustrophobic mind of young Törless, however, the philosophies and morality make for a fascinating piece of literature.

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