The Confusions of Young Torless

by Robert Musil

Paperback, 2013





Alma Classics (2013), 250 pages


Die Erzählung, die eigene Erlebnisse des Autors aus seiner Kadettenzeit verarbeitet, schildert mit psychologischer Subtilität die seelischen Spannungen junger Menschen.

Media reviews

I Robert Musils klasseromsfascisme ligger spiren til kommunistenes ideologiske fanatisme og nazistenes industrielle folkemord. I den tysk-østerrikske verden omkring forrige århundreskifte hørte det med at unge gutter ble sendt på kadettskole. Slik også med unge Tørless. Han finner seg til rette, først nysgjerrig, så med resignert ro. "Lengter Lillegutt hjem?" spør plutselig den to år eldre Reiting. Tørless blir et lett bytte for det systemet Reiting og Beneberg har bygget opp i utkanten av – eller i forlengelsen av – skolens regler. Det begynner med at de presser den litt puslete Basini for penger han skylder dem. Det fortsetter med systematisk tyrannisering og mishandling. Inspirert av skolens idealer om legemlig og åndelig disiplin og forakt for svakhet, bygger de sitt eget, fordreide univers av maktbrynde og underkastelse. Tørless er vitne, men tyranniets mekanismer kan ikke forhindre at han også blir medskyldig. Samtidig er han forvirret; han er både frastøtt og tiltrukket av stakkars Basini. Men tvetydighet passer ikke inn i et diktatur.

User reviews

LibraryThing member JimmyChanga
The Confusions of Young Torless is an incredible book, reminiscent at times of Rilke in its ability to wrestle with complex spiritual and psychological themes. Reading this book was like constantly trying to grasp something slightly abstract, slightly out of reach, though very human and real and rooted in language. This is an ambitious (though short) book, an extremely thoughtful and difficult read.Maybe it is fitting that the book is so hard to describe, since one of its main themes is the ineffable-ness of certain human experience. One thing the book is NOT about, however, is the "devastating" effects of the "abuse of power" as it states in the back of the book. Sure, that's what happens, but the author's focus seems determinedly "off", always in the head of young Torless, who approaches the events that unfold with a much deeper and complex inquisitiveness than the simple moral lesson/parable suggested in that blurb.At the center is the metaphor of imaginative numbers. Torless learns of them in math class, and spends some pages thinking about how we can start with something completely real, apply an element that does not exist to it (but we pretend it does, temporarily, just for the sake of conjecture) and that the logical result of that (because the imaginative numbers eventually cancel each other out on both sides of the equation) is a real result. But that the bridge between the two real worlds is one that's completely made up.This metaphor, though not always explicitly stated, can be applied to many of the themes in this book: the way our conceptions of "self" are propped up by a set of lies we tell ourselves, the way we conduct our lives in the daytime differently from at night (though we need the night as a bridge to get to the next day), the way we can be completely rational with our thoughts even though we are essentially emotional (and irrational) beings.The confusion of young Torless becomes our confusion as he thinks obscurely about these themes among many others: guilt, shame, pride, sexuality, the contradictions of the self, coherence between mind, body, and soul… and how we smooth over these contradictions of ourselves. The writing itself is sometimes very confusing, I often found myself lost in what the book was trying to say (especially in the first 50 pages, which seemed at times aimless), but it is that effort that slowly begins to make sense as the book reveals itself; as the book gets less and less abstract, the writing itself becomes more tangible.… (more)
LibraryThing member kant1066
Despite its obvious second-class status behind Musil’s much more canonical “The Man Without Qualities,” this novel’s reputation still precedes it. Sometimes this can present an interpretive problem, and I think that is what happens here. Considering the overt mixture of both violence and masochism and their relationship to (especially political) power and the date of publication (1906), Musil’s novel is bound to be read as a critique of what “he saw coming” – the failure and abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the promise of a democratic Weimar Republic, and the eventual rise of the National Socialists and breakdown of liberal parliamentarianism as Germany had known it up to that point. There are certainly instances in which political circumstances are paramount in the consideration of a piece of fiction. I would never argue that this is an exception. However, to argue that Musil anticipated something like the rise of fascism an entire generation before it came to be would be to commit the critical mistake of a posteriori reasoning.

The novel is horrifying enough without any knowledge of pre-Weimar Germany, but the entire piece – essentially a novel-length reflection on the brutality of power gone awry – can be read with political implications still. The novel opens with Torless being delivered by his blithely unsuspecting parents to an all boys boarding school. The events revolve around Torless (whose first name we never learn) and three others boys: Reiting, Beineberg, and Basini. One day Torless, Reiting, and Beineberg catch Basini stealing some money from one of the follow boys, and begin to threaten and ostracize him over it; in time, this turns into physical abuse, and eventually Reiting and Beineberg “taking turns” violently sodomizing Basini.

Instead of evoking a pure disgust in Torless, a complex mixture of pure sexual passion and moral confusion ensues which provides the forward momentum for the novel. Torless’ own less-than-ambiguous homosexuality only adds to his feeling as an outsider, and to his “confusions.” He is at once physically drawn to Basini’s small, tender, epicene physique, but revolted by the violence that he endures at the hands of those who he thought to be his friends. When Torless finally advises Basini to report his abuse, a formal investigation comes to an unsurprising conclusion, but I won’t spoil it here.

During his testimony, Torless gives a bewildering speech on the nature of the rational and irrational. It consists of an expansion on what Reiting says earlier in the novel in regards to torturing Basini: “If everyone, and there are no many, contributes just enough it’s enough to tear him to pieces. I like these mass movements as a rule. No one intends to do anything in particular and yet the waves grow ever higher until they crash together over everyone’s heads. You’ll see, no one will stir, yet there will be a raging storm. It gives me extraordinary pleasure to stage something like that” (130-131). Words like these, from the mouths of babes, make it easier to understand why “The Confusions of Young Torless” is so easily read as Musil trying to be yet another author-prognosticator.
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LibraryThing member Banoo
Törless is confused. He goes to an all-boys school. He is confused. He thinks of women. He thinks of men. Things happen. One boy steals. Other boys find out about the theft. They take advantage of this knowledge. Törless is confused. He wants to see cruelty. He's indifferent. He cares. He doesn't care. Visits to the attic and sermons, sermons flavored by Kant, sermons flavored by Indian traditions and myths, sermons served from a confused Törless. Törless is confused. Brian was confused. When Törless started to understand, Brian started to understand. Too much philosophical talk gives me headaches. Then we had WWI, and because we didn't know, we had WWII. Musil evidently knew, but Musil confused me. It was the confusions of an older Brian.

Dying is only a consequence of the way we live. We live from one thought to another, from one feeling to the next. Because our thoughts and feelings do not flow peacefully like a stream, they 'occur to us', they drop into us like stones. If you observe yourself very carefully, you will feel that the soul is not something that changes its colours in gradual transitions, but rather that thoughts leap forth from it like numbers from a black hole. One moment you have a thought or a feeling, and all of a sudden there's another one there, as though it had sprung from nowhere. If you pay attention, you can even sense the moment between two thoughts when everything is black. That moment - once we have grasped it - is nothing short of death for us.

Well, dammit... I went and confused myself again...
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LibraryThing member veilofisis
'A thought—it may have passed through our brain long ago—comes to life only at the moment when it is joined by something that is no longer thought, no longer logical, so that we feel its truth beyond all justification, like an anchor tearing from it into blood-filled, living flesh...'

The Confusions of Young Törless is one of those rare, incendiary books that reframes remarkably diverse avenues of thought without sacrificing an inner-cohesion: here we can find winding, tortured examinations of subjects as diverse as social anxiety, epistemology, mysticism, morality, sexuality, sadism, classism; if the novel succeeds at weaving such disparate threads into a symmetrical whole, it is because the titular Törless' journey from naïveté to young adulthood remains isolated as a single point in both time and experience—The Confusions of Young Törless is, expressly, a life examined: but it is a life as difficult to dissect in circumstance as in totality. That it is simultaneously an eerily prophetic cautionary tale (to a point) capable of deftly illustrating the wanton cruelty and corrupting influence of power upon the youth of a pre-Fascist Europe and also a haunting profile of adolescent homosexuality is a testament to Robert Musil's unique talents for subtlety, depth, and hypnotically inward-peering honesty.

Törless, a thoughtful boy, is sent away to a prestigious boarding school, where he finds himself in the company of two other young men (proto-Fascists, both), Reiting and Beineberg; the former idolizes Napoleon and aspires to high authority while the latter possesses a noxiously parochial mystic strain (a remarkable bit of precognition on Musil's part, given the obsession with Occultism that the Nazis, decades later, would fixate upon). Törless, meanwhile, spends much of his time consumed by a kind of inner anarchy, considering at length the paradoxes and slippery formlessness of his own philosophical, near-existential, obsessions—namely, highly contentious questions surrounding the 'what' and the 'why' of the confusing dualities of the rational and irrational (particularly well-illustrated by a meditation on imaginary numbers). A relatively jejune crime—a theft—committed by a further adolescent, the lithe and attractive Basini, sets in motion a series of shockingly debauched episodes in which the three young men—Törless chiefly (though hardly exclusively) in the role of observer—brutally rape, defile, and lambaste the meek, effete, and troubled Basini. Over the course of these debasements, Törless' confusion over his mingled attractions and repulsions regarding Basini, as both an object of disdain and almost transcendent beauty, forces Törless to confront more openly both the anomie of his peers and his own curiously all-encompassing weltschmerz, all the while professing an ultimate indifference towards the fate of the long-suffering Basini.

It is within this last that much of the novel's complexity develops: Törless is concerned with his own development and self-understanding, without exception; and while impulse forces upon him a more magnanimous view of Basini's plight (insomuch as it amounts to torture), when the dust clears, his repudiation of the barbarism of his peers is more a byproduct of his dismissal of petty arrogance, 'mysticism,' and incongruities of logic than a defense of the abused. He loathes the idea of Basini as much as he finds cause for ridicule in the credos of Reiting or Beineberg, which effectively neutralizes the situation, amid his exhaustive meditation; the highly-immoral persecution of Basini is only disturbing to Törless inasmuch as it distracts him from concrete direction within his own life. Törless never fully disavows or approves of the crimes central to the novel's plot: though it can be argued that by reducing the aggressors to the same feeble folly as the victim, Musil illustrates the hypocrisy and inanity of authoritarianism through the omnipresence of narration.

Robert Musil is chiefly noted for his unfinished The Man Without Qualities, an influential text of Modernism; but it is in The Confusions of Young Törless, his first novel—penned at a mere twenty-six-years-old and highly influenced by his own years in boarding school—that Musil bridges the gap between the Symbolist and Decadent schools contemporaneous with his youth and the Postmodernism that was to evolve in the aftermath of the political and social movements (only in their infancies at the time of publication) that the novel, arguably, presages. Reiting and Beineberg have their analogues in various political figures of the coming decades and it takes little imagination to see these remarkably human characters—here described in their youth with all its folly, naïveté, arrogance, and pretension—as the seeds of later Hitlers, Francos, and Mussolinis. Given the themes, accents, and dubious moralities of The Confusions of Young Törless, then, it is hardly surprising that the Nazi government that came to power in the latter years of Musil's life saw fit to burn it: a circumstance as decidedly absent of justice as the conclusion of the novel itself.

Very seldom are novels written from places of personal experience without collapsing, even if only briefly, into the motions of maudlin nostalgia or self-defense. This is not one of those novels—from first page to last, this affecting and disturbing account of anxiety, decadence, and the liberation of the intellect is almost clinically concerned with the candor of its narrative. Lacking heavy-handed leitmotif or obvious allegory, indifferent to the attractive glimmer of intellectual or emotional trifles, The Confusions of Young Törless—a century onwards—remains both a classic of Expressionist literature and a strikingly effective indictment of subjugation and violence, even if only through the lens of its protagonist's detached and highly-abstract inquisitions.… (more)
LibraryThing member mike_wasson
A novel of homoerotic sadomasochism at a boys' military acedemy, and yet -- perhaps really about something else altogether, a portrait of the artist as a young aesthete. Often I found myself thinking of Proust, in his delineations of the fine gradations of interior moods. A strikingly morally ambiguous novel.
LibraryThing member V.V.Harding
The Confusions of Young Törless is a chilling story of unsupervised adolescent power-tripping made positively frightening in light of subsequent history. But a reader shouldn't know too much, not even what it says on the book cover, before engaging with the work: the story unfolds with a quiet deliberateness that should be able to carry one along without prior ideas of what will happen or where it came from or what it represents.

So I'll limit further comments to the translation and edition. The Shaun Whiteside translation is invisible, representing the youthful states of mind in an appropriate manner. The introduction by J.M. Coetzee should have been an Afterword: it should not be read before the novel itself. Biographical and historical information constitute the majority of its content, which had a rather flat feeling after the emotional effects of the fiction itself.

And not only for the translation but for the physical aspects I highly recommend the Penguin edition of The Confusions of Young Törless pictured here: the cover photograph, which can be studied in lieu of reading the text on the back, is a wonderful photo in its own right, and peculiarly suitable to appear on the cover of this work.
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LibraryThing member kettle666
I wish I could read this in German but I know I will never have such fluency so it'll have to continue being my fantasy. This Penguin paperback is still on my shelf, and whenever I pick it up I feel its magic. Even in translation it works. It must be even more powerful and astounding in the author's own words. I went on to read the author's masterpiece, the three volumes of A Man Without Qualities, but Torless remains the favourite for me.… (more)
LibraryThing member sushicat
Young Trless is attending boarding school somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, along with other young men of the upper class. It's a world of intrigues and wrangling for standing within this closed society. As he hooks up with a group of young men, they edge each other on to daring acts and search of ways to reach positions of power over others. Through knowledge of compromising information, they get control over a young man to the point where they force him to complete surrender.

On the one hand the story is firmly set into the time it is written and paints a fascinating picture of the boarding school environment in that era. On the other hand the dynamics between the boys are some that are rather timeless and frightening. There are a lot of musings of Törless about his role in these developments and the standards he wants to hold himself to - a bit too much at times.
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LibraryThing member jeffome
This was a book I randomly pulled off the shelf to bring on my little Christmas jaunt to visit family, simply because it looked like the right size that would allow me to finish it on the trip. It was an unexpected puzzling little piece. Part way through, I found that I didn't want to stop reading, in spite of the fact that it was a wee bit heavy in the thinking department. Basically, this is Torless` adolescent coming of age story in an eastern European military boarding school that chronicles his deep quest to try to understand the connection between his routine daily real world & all of the mental, psychological and sensual new revelations that continue to creep into his psyche. He is truly bothered by his inability to fill in the gaps between those 2 realms. While school mates of his are eagerly testing their own limits in learning to exert power over others, he is frantically trying to understand the mysterious forces that lead them to want to exert power in the first place. As I said earlier, this is a lot of deep thinking for a guy like me that merely reads to be entertained. But the places this book went were so unexpected, that I got hooked into it beyond my expectation. Musil's melding together of adolescent mob mentality, the metaphysical aspects of mathematics, morality, ethics, sexual exploration with a prostitute and with each other, and the study of one's soul is rather remarkable...& I never got completely lost in the psychological gymnastics! (Of course that was likely due to the fact that it was from the perspective of an adolescent teen, so there was hope for me.) Overall, a surprising little novella. Glad I chose it....… (more)
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
Robert Musil is one of my favorite authors and his story of Young Torless, published in 1906, is one reason. The novel reflects an obsession in this period with educational institutions and the oppressive impact they exert on personal development. While it is in the tradition of the German Bildungsroman, the novel of education, it is critical of educational system and the institutionalized coercion portrayed in the novel. In my reading experience I compared it with the experience of Philip Carey in Maugham's Of Human Bondage or other traditional British school novels (see Tom Brown). In the American tradition, one thinks of J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye as representing a protest against a social disciplining that is also a disciplining of sexuality. Sexual disciplining can often become the standard for other forms of discipline.

The novel tells the story of three students at an Austrian boarding school, Reiting, Beineberg and the titular young Törless. The three catch their classmate Basini stealing money from one of them and decide to punish him themselves instead of turning him in to the school authorities. They start an abusive process, first physically and then psychologically and sexually, while also blackmailing him by threatening to denounce him. While the treatment of Basini becomes openly sexual and increasingly sadistic, he nevertheless masochistically endures it all.

It is the moral and sexual confusion of young Torless that leads him to join Beineberg's and Reiting's degradation of Basini; he is both sexually attracted to Basini and Beineberg and repelled by them. Even though he is a willing participant he tells himself that he is merely trying to understand the gap between his rational self and his obscure irrational self. In a modern way he is both a disturbed and despairing observer of his own states of consciousness. Basini professes love for Törless and Törless begins to reciprocate, but he is ultimately repelled by Basini's unwillingness to stand up for himself. His disgust with Basini's passivity ultimately leads him in a curious way to stand up to Beineberg and Reiting. When the torment becomes unbearable, Törless secretly advises Basini alleviate his situation by confessing to the headmaster.

While an investigation is made, the only party to be found guilty is Basini. Törless makes a strange existential speech to the school authorities about the gap between the rational and irrational: "I said it seemed to me that at these points we couldn't get across merely by the aid of thought, and we needed another and more inward sort of certainty to get us to the other side, as you might say. We can't manage solely by means of thinking, I felt that in the case of Basini too." (p 208)
After he had finished, "When he had left the room, the masters looked at each other with baffled expressions." (p 212)
They decide he is of too refined an intellect for the institute, and suggest to his parents that he be privately educated, a conclusion that he comes to on his own.

Other subplots include Törless's experience with the local prostitute Božena, his encounter with his mathematics teacher, and his analysis of his parents' attitudes toward the world. The severity of the conditions makes one wonder about Musil's own experience. One important theme Musil also takes up is the Nietzschean idea of the dichotomy between Apollo and Dionysus. This can be seen in the "two worlds" (p 45) in which light is contrasted with dark, the controlled and disciplined intellect with more spontaneous sensuality.

Young Torless is an impressive short novel with a depth of meaning and character that often is not achieved in much longer works. It is a
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LibraryThing member umkaaaa
I did not find this an interesting read overall. It is the coming of age story of a boy in a pensionate in central Europe. Themes of sexuality, power, homosexuality are explored. I did not like the hero very much. I thought he mostly rambled on about feelings with which I could not identify.
LibraryThing member hbergander
Musil's ingenious premonition - the coming desaster of the Jewish tragedy
LibraryThing member Dreesie
I did no enjoy nor relate to this book. Boys are mean, basically. I imagine men--at least those men that might be able to relate to a c1900 Austro-Hungarian boys' boarding school or a similar situation--might be able to relate to this much better and might find it much more moving.

Per the intro, Musil said that nothing in here didn't happen, essentially. But we all know kids can be cruel. Girls exclude, boys torment. And the boys in here do torment. Largely upper class kids sent to a boarding school with way too much unsupervised time to themselves.… (more)
LibraryThing member araridan
At its core, "Torless" is a story about the trials/scandals of a group of adolescents at a boarding school. The boys are at a time in their life where they are escaping the innocence of childhood, but being primed to become men. So we see Torless being confused by his feelings towards his mother and seemingly having a boner for a good portion of the book. I was intrigued by the main plotline involving some violence/homosexuality...both of which seem to means of oppression in the book. What didn't work for me so well was the interjection of musings upon the idea of the soul, and sin, and other philosophical rantings. Normally I'm drawn to books that are able to combine a weird story with rants (Gargoyles by Bernhard, Beckett, etc), but in this story, the philosophy seemed tacked on. Some parts definitely did overtly tie in with the main plot...and there's a good chance that those parts which seem disjointed were purposely included to exemplify the "Confusions" part of the title.… (more)
LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
What to do with the young man who so willingly abases himself? And those willing to abase him? That's the book in a nutshell.


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