This short novel launched Robert Musil onto the literary scene when it was first published by in 1906. Since then there have been claims that it was an account of his own school life as well as explaining the German outlook, the outbreak of the first world war and the ultimate rise of fascism.
J. M. Coetzee gives an interesting account in his introduction to this novel, but ultimately to explain all the intricacies and ideas arising in this would take something bigger than the actual story to fully explain. Due to this you shouldn't be put off by its smallness, because ultimately you will get something out of this akin to a novel five times the size.
Torless (we never get to know his first name) is sent to the military boarding school called 'W'. The education at these schools were below that which was offered at the more classical gymnasia, but was of a good enough standard. From Torless' point of view we see what happens when one of the pupils is caught stealing money. With a group of boys deciding that they should offer correction, the matter is kept from the school authorities. What happens then is the basis of the novel. From a beating this story goes much further, the boy who is punished has to undergo more humiliating treatment that is sexual, and more like a bdsm relationship.
With bullying at schools as well as other places frequently cropping up in the news this book still has the ability to shock, as it did at the time of publication. Some people may find this a bit disturbing to read, but it is well worth it, and the story will echo a long time afterwards, with its amorality, expressionism and psychology.
on 29 October 2011
Although the book has some features of a 'novel of formation' about a short period in the life of confused young Torless, interest has tended to focus on the outrageous bullying of the hapless Basini.
The bullying - mainly by two other boys, with Torless generally as an onlooker - is described in terms of explicitly homoerotic cruelty. Not content with whipping, humiliating and tormenting the victim, the bullies also make him go to bed with them afterwards; and to cap it all, much of the cruelty is accompanied by pseudo-philosophical and pseudo-mystical verbiage.
The novel adheres to the conventions for school stories: the bully boys get away with their actions, and it is the victim who is expelled.
Musil was a highly astute observer of Central Europe, and in the 1940s and beyond it was fashionable to claim that he had in some sense predicted or at least foreshadowed the horrors of Nazism. Nowadays one is much more sceptical of such specific claims. However, it is unsurprising that his books were burnt and banned by the Nazis and that Musil fled to Switzerland when they annexed Austria. There is a whiff of foreshadowing ...
When the book first appeared in German in 1906 it was considered shocking on a whole range of counts, and it still has the capacity to shock. An earlier review describes the book as 'raw and oddly heavy metal'. Agreed. I'm not so sure about the earlier reference to 'bdsm': that is generally done by mutual consent for the pleasure of all concerned. What Musil describes is systematic and intensifying sadism without the victim's consent for the sexual gratification of the sadists only. Yes, there are indeed very 'dark angels' here.
on 30 April 2016
An amazingly honest brutal raw tragedy of a book, a coming of age story, it trawls the deepest dark night of the soul. A group of boys in an elite boarding school struggle, in their different ways, with the confused loneliness and unrooted desperation of their incipient masculinities and the flawed human condition. Its deeply relentless introspective style disturbs as Freud's case studies disturb - we can't help but catch glimpses of ourselves in there, the identifications we make repel us from ourselves and from each other at the same time as they force us to understand that being moral and accountable is never never straightforward. One boy is hideously bullied in a vile foreshadowing of the two wars that were to come. This book was written in 1906 when the author was yet in his mid-twenties. It is an amazing achievement and, despite its darkness - no, actually, because of its darkness - I would thoroughly recommend it. Think Le Grand Meaulnes meets Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies. Then multiply the dark terrors of burgeoning masculinity by a hundred.
on 30 November 2001
This book is aptly titled, for young Torless is certainly confused; confused about personal and institututional power, about the founts of sexual passion and his own orientation. He questions the purpose and meaning of education, his own and in general. He perceives language is inadequate to its task. In his crisis it dissociates from the worlds and states of consciousness which it supposedly describes. He has a beef with academic specialists, as men who have had all the poetry caned out of them. Two pages of Kant make the kid sweat, but he has a fraught and engaging relationship with imaginary numbers.
Trapped in an academy at the bleak and dusty edge of the realm, homesick and morally inept, he falls in with a couple of emotionally and philosophically uncomplicated elder cadets- whose personalities are uncannily well suited to an old school military ethos. Torless' confusions make him susceptible to these fellows, and he is inducted into a kind of cult of masculine cruelty (for sophomores), with trappings of blood and eros. This suits his comrades better than it does him, and his confusions eventually attain unsupportable dimensions.
The social psychology here is strictly Nietzschean, as is the general approach to morality. Model psychological experiences also evidently owe Old Fred a debt. Musil adds, perhaps superflously, a generous measure of extra murk, for mood I suppose. The confusions of Torless are often aptly mirrored in the prose. Add to this the incurable solipsism of the protagonist and you get alot of odd and murky speculations. But these are usually very interesting. Some of the descriptions of psychological states and the autumnal world were quite precise and beautiful, reminding me of the poet Rilke more than anything else.
This book is often raw and oddly heavy-metal. If you don't care to wrestle with so-called dark angels, don't take it up. Otherwise, dig in.