One is mistaken in calling this a story of disdain about boarding school life. Robert Musil's debut novel is about power and abuse, of cadets as sadistic torturers. It was a literary prophecy of the rise of fascism.
"The shortest distance between two points" was the way Robert Musil once described his debut novel. He even claimed to have written the book during his lunch hours while working as an engineer at the age of 25. Was it coquetry or true literary understatement? One will never know.
Writing to combat boredom
During Musil's life, his fame was a mixed bag. "My reputation is one of a major poet with only few editions," the author once wrote about himself.
It took a long time to get his first novel published. Numerous publishing houses initially rejected the completed manuscript.
Alfred Kerr, a feared theater critic to whom Musil had sent the manuscript, was the only one to express enthusiasm for the text. He was the one to get the book published by a Vienna-based publishing house in 1906. The reactions were overwhelming.
A debuting novelist had seldom been showered with so much praise. The Confusions of Young Master Törless would become Musil's only book success. It was less fragmentary, less experimental, but definitely more readable than his The Man Without Qualities. Later published as a paperback, it sold more than half a million copies and was translated into numerous languages. The 1966 film adaption of the novel, directed by Volker Schlöndorff, was critically acclaimed internationally.
What was so exciting about this slim novel for so many generations?
Training ground for the elite
Musil's The Confusions of Young Master Törless is set around the year 1900. Somewhere in the countryside of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, a young group of future elite are being trained at a military boarding school. Musil himself spent formative years in one such military school, which flowed into his writing. The school regime was marked by drills and cold impersonality.
"A sudden thought made his whole body contract. So was it the same for adults? For the whole world? Was there some universal law that decreed that there was something within us that is stronger, bigger, finer, darker and more passionate than ourselves? Something over which we have so little control that all we can do is scatter thousands of seeds of random, until suddenly a plant shoots up like a dark, sombre flame and soon grows taller than we are? (...) And from every fibre of his being came the impatient answer: 'Yes.'"
Sadism as punishment
In the book, Basini, one of the cadets, steals from his fellow pupils in order to repay his debts. He is discovered and must, from then, withstand the sadistic humiliations the other boys impart on him.
Sexual enslavement and psychological humiliation — Musil reveals what human beings are capable of when they have the opportunity and the power. Pure cruelty and human degradation are the motivating factors in the narrative. The book itself is a rational analysis of the irrational in light of the disintegrating monarchy.
In hindsight, Musil recommended interpreting The Confusions of Young Master Törless as a literary parable of the Third Reich.
He said that with his characters Beineberg and Reiting, the class despots, he anticipated some of the characteristics of dictators Mussolini and Hitler. Protagonist Törless was more of a typical camp follower, he said. The boarding school itself could be seen as a conglomeration of all human possibilities, and a dark premonition of impending disaster.
Robert Musil: The Confusions of Young Master Törless, Alma Classics (German title: Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß, 1906). English Translation: Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike.
Robert Musil was born near Klagenfurt, Austria, in 1880 and died in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1942. In addition to his debut novel The Confusions of Young Master Törless and the fragmentary novel The Man Without Qualities (1930/32), he wrote dramas, stories, essays and reviews.