1906 – the confusions of young torless ~ robert musil

I don’t know about you, but I will always feel as if I lost something when I grew up.

If you asked me to define what exactly it was I was missing, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. All I could say that it was a sense of dazed wonder at the world, and everything in it. It’s something that simply cannot be expressed in words. And, likewise, if you asked me when I lost the ability to access this secret emotion, I wouldn’t be able to answer that, either. I guess it was somewhere in my teens.

The book I read this week is about teenagers. However, it’s not a book I’d necessarily recommend teenagers to read. Not unless I really wanted to leave them scarred for life

This book reminded me sharply of the sheer confusion of being young; the sheer pain of being a sensitive, difficult, awkward teen – and the way something simple could send my thoughts off on a tangent that would keep me preoccupied for weeks. Months, even. I’d almost forgotten about that.

However, this week’s book has other, more disturbing themes; themes I can’t identify with. Deep, dark themes; the kind of themes I didn’t think you could even write about back in 1906. Because we all know that children aren’t always the sweet little things we’d like to believe they are…

This week’s book concerns a taboo topic – the capacity of young people for evil. Even though it was written in 1906, it makes Lord of the Flies look more like The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

You have been warned…

The Confusions of Young Törless

by Robert Musil

Published in 1906

“And now, Törless did begin to write – but hastily, with no attention to form ‘I feel,’ he wrote, ‘something within me, and don’t really know what it is.’ But then he quickly crossed the line out and wrote in its place: ‘I must be ill – insane!'” (…) “‘Insane – or what else could it be, when things that seem normal to other people seem so strange to me?'”

– Robert Musil, The Confusions of Young Törless, page 99

The Confusions of Young Törless was Austrian author, Robert Musil’s first published work.

It’s narrated in the third person, written without chapters in one long steam of words. Musil never tells us Törless’ first name, or exactly how young he really is.

Törless is a student at an exclusive boarding school for boys. He’s intelligent, his thoughts shine with adolescent brilliance. He asks his teachers questions they can’t even begin to comprehend, let alone answer. Other kids simply don’t get Törless. These days, he’d probably dress in black, wear copious amounts of eyeliner and listen to songs about death on his iPod. Black, of course.

More so than most teens, Törless is consumed by questions about the world around him. Something as simple as a blue hole in the clouds (paging Doctor Freud!) is enough to render him faint with emotion and excitement.

Törless finds companionship with two older boys – the equally bizarre Beineberg and Reiting, two other outcasts.

(Oh yeah – and he also confides in Bozena, a middle-aged prostitute, who makes a killing from the boys from the school)

Basini, another student at the school, smaller and weaker than the other boys, is accused of stealing money, and Beineberg and Reiting decide to bring him to justice.

Well, at least, that’s how it begins. After a series of nightly beatings in the boys’ secret attic hideout, the stolen money is quickly forgotten, and the boys begin to torture Basini for the sheer pleasure of it. Törless witnesses the violence, but doesn’t actively participate. Half of him is disgusted. The other half is secretly aroused.

Then, Beineberg and Törless learn that Reiting has been meeting Basini secretly at nights on his own. Beineberg followed them, and witnessed them together. Naked.

Törless is drawn to Basini, and, before long, the two are locked in their own secret, self-destructive cycle of violence and desire…

I did warn you. The Confusions of Young Törless is one seriously twisted read. It’s not for the faint of heart. Written in 1906, it doesn’t, of course, describe much of what passes between the boys. This is not pornography, after all – if you’re looking for explicit detail, you’ll be disappointed.

A modern novel wouldn’t refrain from exposing readers to every detail imaginable; the more graphic, the more literary. But somehow, Musil’s implications are even more gut-wrenching than the plain truth.

I won’t reveal the book’s violent climax – but I will tell you this: it’s disturbing. Will Törless stand up to his friends for what is right? And just what is right, anyway? This is the kind of book that you don’t forget in a hurry.

Something that strikes me, and other readers, about Young Törless is the fact that it discusses issues of murky, uncertain morality, the abuse of power, weakness, and institutionalised violence – in 1906. Decades before the rise of Fascism, Robert Musil seems to have predicted the terrifying evil of the Second World War.

You can’t help but wonder if this point would still be made if Young Törless hadn’t been written in German…but, nonetheless, reading this book with the events of the following decades in mind, Young Törless does seem eerily prophetic.

Robert Musil’s writing is…interesting. Sometimes, it’s clear. Other times, it’s oblique. Much of the action in Young Törless goes on inside Törless’ head. Which would be fine, if only Törless’ thoughts were clear. As I mentioned in the introduction to this review – I really appreciate Musil’s description of the confusion, the wonder of being young, that elusive emotion we can no longer access in adulthood. The way he compares the young to the old (the school’s teachers, who are dull, grey and lifeless) was fantastic.

But there’s one major problem with reading Young Törless: everyone is so damn confused! Törless isn’t the only one – his friends are just as tormented as he is. It’s almost infectious.

Each of the boys discusses their own unique philosophical dilemmas in depth, but none of them seems to really have a clue what the others are really on about. And frankly, neither did I. It’s all very philsophical and…German. The deeply internalised nature of Törless’ observations of the world – even though they’re narrated from a third-person perspective – are often too convoluted to keep up with. Well, for me, at least. The ending of the book, in which Törless, in a triumphant monologue, explains his actions to his teachers, loses a little of its impact because it’s just so confusing.

Young Törless might have come to grips with his confusions, but personally, I was left scratching my head.

If you’re looking for a nice, warm, fluffy book, this is definitely not it. The Confusions of Young Törless is another of those books with the capacity to leave you damaged for life. It’s confronting, challenging, uncomfortable. And profoundly confusing.


Official Book to the Future Rating:

Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!

Should I read it?

Not if you ever want to sleep again. The Confusions of Young Törless is well-written, but it will leave you reeling. If you’d rather believe that teens and children are sweet and innocent and pure – then don’t read this book. Read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone instead.

In a word:


Author: Michelle

Reader, writer, wannabe. Literary critic (with training wheels on). Blogging my way through the 20th century's classic novels in chronological order.

Something to say?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.