Monday, October 21, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“YOUNG TORLESS” by Robert Musil (Die Verwirrungen des Zoglings Torless first published in German 1906; first English translation, as Young Torless, by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser published 1955; later Penguin Classics translation, as The Confusions of Young Torless, by Shaun Whiteside published 2001)

What’s in a title? Quite a lot as it turns out. On my shelf I have a hardback copy of a translation of a novel by the Austrian Robert Musil (1880-1942). The translation dates from the 1950s (Secker and Warburg, London, 1955, to be precise) and it is called simply Young Torless. But the preface, by Alan Pryce-Jones, reminds us that the original German title is Die Verwirrungen des Zoglings Torless, which, he explains, means something like The ‘Perplexities’ of Young Torless. And although I haven’t consulted it, I know there is a later Penguin Classics translation, by Shaun Whiteside, called The Confusions of Young Torless. Apparently there is yet a third translation, by Christopher Moncrieff, which also calls it The Confusions of Young Torless.

I’m labouring this point for a couple of reasons. First, because I’m always perplexed (or confused) over why one novel requires three separate modern English language translations, especially as I’ve heard nothing to suggest that any of the three translations omits (or censors) anything from the original German-language version. Second, because although I have read the translation that doesn’t include it in the title, Young Torless is indeed a novel about perplexities. They are the perplexities of a sensitive male adolescent in that awful gap between the certainties of childhood and the greater confidence of adulthood. At least, these are the perplexities of the thinking adolescent. Those who don’t think aren’t perplexed.

In many respects Young Torless could be regarded as the classic German-language novel about the perplexed adolescent male in the same way that Le Grand Meaulnes [look up my comment on it via the index at right], The Catcher in the Rye, Sons and Lovers and (possibly) A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are respectively the classic French, American, English and Irish novels on the same general theme. All these novels are Bildungsromanen and have at least some scenes where there is a tension between the adolescent and the school (or schools) he attends – although a lot less in Le Grand Meaulnes and Sons and Lovers than in the others. Young Torless is dominated by its school setting. It takes place in an elite boarding school, where (although they regularly smoke cigarettes when out of school bounds) the students wear military uniform, complete with ceremonial swords and the clicking of heels. The school is in the eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is culturally isolated. Its Germanophone students and staff are surrounded by a Slavic population with whom (as an early chapter tells us) they do not mix. The boarding school’s atmosphere is more enclosed, more rarified, more ripe for intense psychological conflict than the school setting of any other novel I know, and in the end, reading Young Torless is a wrenching experience.

It goes like this.

As soon as Torless is left at the school by his well-to-do parents, he feels intense homesickness. The opening four or five pages of the novel give an exact analysis of the psychological phases of homesickness before Torless reluctantly surrenders his nostalgia for home. But, though a thoughtful and sensitive boy, Torless’s way of accepting his new environment is to mix with the roughest and least academic boys in the place.

He becomes friends with Beineberg and Reitling.

Beineberg fancies himself as a philosopher, intensely interested in the mystic East and tales of fakirs and their extraordinary powers. Reitling has a more straightforward hunger for power. The lack of the opposite sex hangs over all the boys. In an early scene, Torless and Beineberg, on a day off, visit the matter-of-fact peasant prostitute Bozena, but the experience basically disgusts Torless and fulfils none of his erotic desires.

Beineberg and Reitling catch another student, Basini, stealing from one student to pay his debts to another. Basini is pretty, effeminate and implicitly homosexual. Rather than reporting Basini to the school authorities, Beineberg and Reitling decide it would be more amusing to blackmail him by making him their “slave”. They regularly take Basini up to a special hiding place in the attic, to which they have already introduced Torless. There they strip Basini naked, beat him and torture him with games intended to make him grovel. It is heavily suggested that Reitling also sexually abuses Basini; and Beineberg wishes to do so.

Torless is the passive witness of much of this, regarded by Beineberg and Reitling as their supporter.

Torless has mixed feelings about what is happening, as he does about every aspect of his own character. These are his “perplexities”. He despises Basini. He desires Basini. At one point we are told he becomes “sexually excited” (meaning, presumably, that he gets an erection) as he watches the two thugs at work on the smaller boy. He knows the torture is mere sadism and bullying. He is detached from the torture and tries to look on it as a mere interesting instance of human behaviour. He listens to Beineberg’s pompous, self-justifying “mystic” and abstract discourses and retreats into wondering about the nature of illusion and reality. He looks out windows and wonders. He has an intense conversation with his mathematics teacher about the reality of negative numbers and whether anything can be proven to be real.

At one point, when Beineberg and Reitling are absent from the school, Basini, his body now covered in welts and bruises, creeps to Torless and begs him to be his “protector”. Torless is disgusted and despises the weakling. Basini takes off his clothes and climbs into bed with Torless. Torless is moved and excited by his girlish form. He is excited to “passion”. Presumably this means he has an orgasm.

Torless refuses to help Basini, but Beineberg and Reitling discover that he has been consorting with Basini behind their backs. The climax comes when they arrange to humiliate Basini publicly by having him beaten up by a whole class of boys. Finally, Torless tells Basini that he can save himself only by confessing everything about his theft of money to the school authorities. Basini does so and is expelled. Torless makes a half-hearted attempt to run away from school. When he is brought back, he faces a teachers’ board of enquiry about what has been going on. Trying to explain himself and how he feels about everything, Torless gives a rambling philosophical discourse on the difference between reality and illusion and how hard it is to be precise about anything. The school’s principal decides that he is far too sensitive a soul to be at a boarding school in the first place and writes to his parents to say so. The novel ends with Torless returning home and presumably entering into adult life after his horrible experiences.

Like Joyce, Alain-Fournier and Salinger, Robert Musil was a comparatively young man when he wrote this classic of adolescence. He wrote Young Torless when he was a university student, aged 22 and 23, and it was published when he was 26. It was a scandalous success, shocking for its sexual content, which is still hair-raising. The school the novel depicts apparently resembles closely the elite boarding school Musil himself had attended (and before him the poet Rainer Maria Rilke), but Musil insisted that none of the novel’s events were based on anything he had witnessed.

The novel’s mode of narration is distinctive. Musil uses the third person limited voice, allowing us to see all Torless’s thoughts and feelings (and nobody else’s) but keeping detached from Torless. In a way, Musil assumes the voice of the omniscient adult, sometimes commenting ironically on the adolescent’s self-importance. The irony is so deft that the hasty reader may not notice it. Take this early passage, in which he has just described the worthy and lofty books, with their expressions of ideas and emotions, that the young man reads. Goethe, Schiller, Shakespeare etc. Then Musil adds, crushingly:

For these associations, originating outside, and these borrowed emotions, carry young people over the dangerous soft spiritual ground of the years in which they need to be of some significance to themselves and nevertheless are still too incomplete to have any real significance.” (p.9 of 1955 translation)

The awful oppressive power of the school environment is particularly potent because the novel makes the teachers and other adults virtually invisible. There are no scenes set in lessons or classrooms (until the teacherless classroom in which Basini is beaten by a swarm of boys) and no teacher is named. Torless is depicted speaking to teachers twice only. The first such conversation (with the mathematics teacher) is halfway through the novel. The second is at the very end when he confronts the board of enquiry. The net effect of this is to emphasise how much the boys have internalised and then redirected the ethos of an authoritarian institution. Ostensibly, this is not a story of teachers mistreating adolescents, but of adolescents mistreating other adolescents. (“Tom Brown’s Schooldays meets Lord of the Flies” as I heard somebody describe it.) Yet clearly the institution itself has influenced the way the adolescents behave.

Despite its specific cultural and historical setting, there are many things that make this novel universal. There is that tentative adolescent quest for a firm identity once childhood certainties have been pulled away. In a way that some might consider particularly Germanic, Torless and his peers speculate cloudily and at great length on metaphysics, ideals, illusion and truth. They are seeking, but not yet finding, a firm grounding, and are still unfamiliar with the state of personal autonomy. In an acute piece of observation, Musil at first has Torless caving in completely to the ideas of Basini’s tormentors. There is at once that adolescent desire to be separate from parents and family and yet at the same time to conform to peers. Indeed sensitive Torless is the passive conformist, not once actively helping Basini and in the end leaving him to his own devices.

Beineberg, who often disguises his sadism in terms of the questing soul, asks Torless “Why do you keep staring out of the window? What is there to be seen? Torless replies that he is wondering whether things have a language of their own. The author then cuts in:

 “But actually he had gone on to thinking about something else, which he did not wish to speak of. That high tension, that harkening as if some solemn mystery might become audible, and the burden of gazing right into the midst of the still undefined relationships of things – all this was something he had been able to endure only for a moment. Then he had once again been overcome by a sense of solitude and forlornness, which always followed this excessive demand upon his resources. He felt: there’s something in this that’s still too difficult for me. And his thoughts took refuge in something else, which was also implicit in it all, but which, as it were, lay only in the background and biding its time: loneliness.” (p.26)

Later, the quest for personal autonomy is made even more explicit:

Then he would yearn to feel something firm in himself at long last, to feel definite needs that would distinguish between good and bad, between what he could make use of and what was useless, and to know he himself was making the choice, even though wrongly – for even that would be better than being so excessively receptive that he simply soaked up everything…” (p.54)

But, together with the quest, there is that adolescent scepticism of all things, which impedes the entry into adulthood:

He felt the urge to search unceasingly for some bridge, some connection, some means of comparison, between himself and the wordless things confronting his spirit. But as often as he put his mind at rest about any one idea, there would be again that incomprehensible objection: It’s all a lie. It was as if he must work out an unending sum in long division with a recurring decimal in it, or a if he were skinning his fingers in the frantic struggle to undo an endless knot.” (p.92)

To talk about and about things without ever confronting them – that is a universal adolescent habit too, even if we meet it here in Germanic guise.

So it is as an intense dissection of a half-formed mind that I value Young Torless and find it a rewarding experience.

But I know there are two other dominant ways this book has been analysed.

One is to link it with the Vienna of Musil’s contemporaries Freud and Schnitzler, and see it as a story of repressed and wayward sexuality. Uncertainty about sexual identity is, after all, as much a part of adolescent experience as uncertainty about selfhood, reality or valid values. So we have analyses of the novel, which split the difference between homo-sociality (the experience of living in a single sex environment); homo-eroticism (sexual arousal by a member of the same sex) and fully-formed homosexuality. Is this a “gay” novel, as some websites now rather glibly assume? Indeed, I saw one such website which suggested that (though it is sometimes taught in German high schools), Young Torless couldn’t be taught in American high schools because conservatives would object to its “gay” content. (My own thought is that it couldn’t be taught in American high schools because most American adolescents would find it too intellectually challenging).

I’m not sure this is the point of the novel. Certainly it is sexually explicit, but the homo-eroticism it depicts is the sexuality of the prison, and not of free and fully-formed desire.

Very early in the novel (pp.6-8), and before the “story” proper starts, there is an account of Torless’s relationship with a young prince whose manners are described in terms that would now be called “camp”. Torless is at first attracted to him, but then begins to tease him mercilessly – prefiguring the later complexities of homo-social relationships in the novel. Beineberg and Reitling’s sexual exploitation of Basini is the sexual exploitation of an available object. And, to the very end, Musil is ambiguous about Torless’s own orientation. He comments:

But it would be entirely wrong to believe that Basini had aroused in Torless a desire that was – however fleetingly and perplexedly – a thorough-going and real one. True, something like passion had been aroused in him, but ‘love’ was certainly only a casual, haphazard term for it, and the boy Basini himself was no more than a substitute, a provisional object of this longing. For although Torless did debase himself with him, his desire was never satisfied by him; on the contrary, it went on growing out beyond Basini, growing out into some new and aimless craving….. It was the secret, aimless, melancholy sensuality of adolescence, a sensuality attaching itself to no person, and like the moist, black, sprouting earth in early spring, or like dark, subterranean waters that some chance event will cause to rise, sweeping the walls away.” (pp.165-166)

That bit about the “secret, aimless, melancholy sensuality of adolescence, a sensuality attaching itself to no person” seems to suggest masturbation, and Basini as merely a stimulus to such.

The other way the novel has been considered is as a harbinger of Nazism (which, in its SA and SS, did have its own core of homo-erotic appeal). Nearly thirty years after writing the novel, Musil (married to a Jewish wife and very anti-Nazi) gave credence to this interpretation when he compared Reitling with the naked power-seeking side of Nazism and Beineberg with a racially-conscious, Superman-worshipping Nietzschean philosopher.

Okay – the homo-erotic content and the social awareness are there in the novel, but I’d still stick to my view that it’s the analysis of a tentative adolescent mentality that makes Young Torless a classic.

Interesting footnote: Many years ago I saw a film society screening of Volker Schlondorff’s debut feature film, made in 1966 and adapted from Musil’s novel. He chose to call it simply Der Junge Torless (Young Torless) without the “perplexities” bit. It was shot in black-and-white and was very popular with the critics, winning a prize at Cannes. I remember it as a grim and chilly movie, but I am fairly sure that, while it depicts the novel’s setting and core situation accurately, it does not follow the action of the novel closely. I have been able to access only a few clips of it on Youtube. These include a (subtitled) trailer for its original German release, which says “this is not a literary adaptation, but a film from a young and talented director”. Given that so much of the novel is internal commentary, I believe this is indeed the case.

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