A review of Young Törless by Robert Musil

Reviewed by Tom Frenkel

For some time, I had heard about Robert Musil’s novel The Man Without Qualities. There’s something creepy about that title that always has stuck in my mind. So, when I saw another novel by Musil at my famous local thrift shop, I thought I’d give it a go. While TMWQ dates from 1930-plus (it’s a multi-volume effort), Young Törless (the novel I found) is an early work, from 1906 … and is a single volume of manageable size. I read the Signet Classic edition, with its useful one-page summary of the author’s life up front (including a picture of the writer), and its Afterword, which I will read shortly, now that I have my own thoughts somewhat organized! (Note: this book, amazingly for such a well-known writer, seems to be out of print in English.)

In a sense, Young Törless could be called “The Boy Without Qualities”, since at the beginning of the novel, Törless, the young protagonist, is described as having “no character at all”. Törless is a student (adolescent age I guess) at a boarding school. Though Musil is Austrian, I suppose this novel could be put into the category of Bildungsroman, the “class of novel in German literature that deals with the formative years of an individual”, as the handy (free!) online Britannica puts it. YT is a “boarding school” novel, and it certainly has what you might think that implies. I don’t think I’m giving a whole lot away when I say that there are homosexual encounters between the boys. Or that some boys get beat up by others. But there is much more to this novel than that. In some ways it reminds me of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. (You can see my review of that novel at www.compulsivereader.com .) There is the similar feel of the novel as the “play of ideas”. And more in particular, both books explore non-Western concepts in some depth. (Actually I should say that Mann’s book reminds me of Musil’s, for TMM wasn’t written until 1924!) I wish I could say that I was as captivated by YT as I was by TMM, but ‘taint so. While TMM seemed totally integrated, I do have to say that with YT the parts (i.e. the ideas) impressed me more than the whole. But, I am by no means sorry I read YT … and as I’ve mentioned, it is of modest length (less than 200 pages).

I wouldn’t recommend YT, however, if you happen at the time to be feeling rather unstable mentally! The book can be unsettling. At one point, inanimate objects have for Törless a quality of oddness about them, and two of T’s fellow students seem to be no more than characters in a dream. At another place (though this may be more strange than unsettling), Törless visits a prostitute, but not for the experience itself; only so that he could have the memory of it! And there are contradictions, such as T feeling he was coming closer to “events, people, things, and even himself”, yet … also feeling that he was withdrawing from them at the same time.

By now you probably shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that there are many Freudian concepts in this book. Actually, Freud was still pretty much a “new thing” in 1906, when YT was written. Freud’s Studies in Hysteria (co-written with Josef Breuer) came out in 1895 and was one of the pioneering works to deal with the concept of the “unconscious”. So what do we have in YT? Feelings or thoughts that can endure only for a moment, or that flash on the edge of the mind. We also find the concept that “there is something in us that is stronger than ourselves”. And there is a discussion of “dead” versus “living” thoughts. Though we may be following a rational line of thought, it will not be “living” unless it links up with the forces that exist in us at a below-conscious level.

Another 20th-century concept that resonates in this book is quantum theory. In 1900, Max Planck theorized that energy is radiated not continuously, but rather in discrete packets called “quanta”. Perhaps this comparison is a bit of a stretch … but there is quite a discussion, in YT, of how our lives are not really continuous; rather, we only live in moments when thoughts and feelings occur — and we “die” in between.

As I mentioned in connection with Thomas Mann, YT also explores the non-Western notion that physical laws don’t always reign supreme. An example given is of Oriental “fakirs”, who can transcend physical pain when they “see their souls”. Hypnotism is also a theme, as a force — outside the realm of physics — which can have a strong effect on people.

Mathematics has a large role in this book. I’ve always had a fondness for math, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fuller treatment of how it could relate to other aspects of life. Take the concept of infinity. Törless had always thought of it as just a construct that one could use for certain calculations. But suddenly, he looks up at the sky and has the terrifying sensation that the sky goes on forever, “wild and annihilating”.

But in the mathematical area, it was the subject of imaginary numbers that I found the most provocative of all. Another student tries to convince Törless that the square root of -1 is nothing to worry about; the point is that one can arrive at quite real and useful results by using it. But Törless refuses to be so easily pacified. He opines that calculating with imaginary numbers is like crossing a bridge which is quite visible and solid at each end, but whose middle is just a yawning gap! Törless goes on:

But what I really feel is so uncanny is the force that lies in a problem like that, which keeps such a firm hold on you that in the end you land safely on the other side.

Törless’ fellow student, Beineberg, responds:

You’re starting to talk almost like the chaplain, aren’t you? You see an apple — that’s light-waves and the eye and so forth — and you stretch out your hand to steal it — that’s the muscles and the nerves that set them in action — but between these two there lies something else that produces one out of the other, and that is the immortal soul, which in doing so has committed a sin …

So both imaginary numbers, and the human soul, are notions which are inconceivable in any ordinary sense, yet which are both indispensable to the carrying out of our daily lives. (Of course, the use of the Adam-and-Eve apple story for the analogy adds another layer to all of this …)

And while we’re on the subject: Thinking about imaginary numbers got me to wonder, are not “ordinary” negative numbers pretty strange too? Can one have -3 apples? And then … how about zero? Zero is not really a number the way 1,2,3, … are — is it?

Coming back to the book at hand — and on a more somber note — I have to admit that at certain points in my reading, I thought I could see some evidence of a state of mind that might result in the Holocaust which was to come 30 years later. In justifying the “tormenting” he will give to the student Basini, Beineberg tells Törless:

People like Basini, as I told you before, signify nothing — they are empty, accidental forms. True human beings are only those who can penetrate into themselves, cosmic beings that are capable of that meditation which reveals to them their relationship to the great universal process. These people do miracles with their eyes shut, because they know how to make use of the totality of forces in the universe, which are within them just as they are also outside them.

If this isn’t the “Übermensch” — the “Superman” — I don’t know what is. This sounds dangerously like how the Nazis could rationalize the murder of Jews and others. I’m not saying that Musil believed this himself, but it’s scary enough even if one of his characters believes it.

So to summarize: Young Törless is not an easy novel to navigate through. And actually, I’m not even sure if it’s a totally successful one. But IF you want to get a taste of a major novelist of this century that is just concluding — AND if you are interested in seeing major currents of 20th-century thought played out in a novel — AND if you are feeling relatively stable psychologically at the moment — THEN Young Törless might just be for you.

Tom Frenkel

frethoa AT aol DOT com

27 December 1999