Authors: Robert Musil
“Young Törless,” from
Robert Musil Copyright 1986 by The Continuum
Reprinted with permission
Robert Musil was born in 1880 in Klagenfurt, capital of the Austrian province of Carinthia. His mother, who came from the upper bourgeoisie, was a highly strung woman with an interest in the arts. His father was an engineer in the imperial administration who in his later years would be rewarded for a career of faithful service with elevation to the minor nobility. Musil Senior accepted without protest a liaison between his wife and a younger man, Heinrich Reiter, that began soon after his son’s birth. Reiter later settled in with the Musils, in a
ménage à trois
that endured for a quarter of a century.
Musil himself was an only child. Younger and smaller than his classmates at school, he cultivated a physical toughness that lasted all his life. His home life seems to have been tempestuous; at the demand of his mother - and, it must be said, with the boy’s enthusiastic agreement — he was sent at the age of eleven to board at a military
outside Vienna. From there he moved in 1894 to the
in Mährisch-Weisskirchen near Brno, capital of Moravia, where he spent a further three years. This school became the model for ‘W.’ in
Rather than follow a military career, Musil decided to study engineering, and at the age of seventeen enrolled in the
in Brno, where his father now taught. Here he plunged into his scientific studies, disdaining the humanities and the kind of student attracted to the humanities. His diaries reveal him as preoccupied with matters of sex, but in unusually thoughtful ways. He found it difficult to accept the sexual role prescribed for him as a young man by the mores of his class, sowing his wild oats with prostitutes and working girls until it was time to make a bourgeois marriage. He began a relationship with a Czech girl named Herma Dietz who had worked in his grandmother’s house; against the resistance of his mother and at the risk of losing his friends, he lived with Herma in Brno and later in Berlin. Choosing Herma constituted a major step in breaking the erotic spell his mother had over him. For some years Herma was the focus of his emotional life. Their relationship — straightforward on Herma’s side, more complex and ambivalent on Robert‘s — became the basis of the story ‘Tonka’, collected
in Three Women
In intellectual content, the education Musil had received at his military schools was decidedly inferior to the education offered by the classical
In Brno he began attending lectures on literature and going to concerts. What began as a project in catching up with his better-educated contemporaries soon turned into an absorbing intellectual adventure. The years 1898 to 1902 mark the first phase of Musil’s literary apprenticeship. He identified particularly with the writers and intellectuals of the generation that flowered in the 1890s, active in various strands of the Modernist movement. He fell under the spell of Mallarmé and Maeterlinck; he rejected the naturalist premise that artwork should reflect a pre-existing reality. For philosophic support he turned to Kant, Schopenhauer and (particularly) Nietzsche. In his diaries he developed the artistic persona of ‘Monsieur le vivisecteur’, exploring states of consciousness and emotional relations with his intellectual scalpel, practising his skills impartially on himself, his family and his friends.
Continuing, despite his literary aspirations, to plan for a career in engineering, he passed his examinations with distinction and moved to Stuttgart as a research assistant at the prestigious
But his work there bored him. While still writing technical papers, and inventing an instrument for use in optical experiments (he patented the device, hoping, rather unrealistically, that it would provide him with enough money to live on), he embarked on a novel,
The Confusions of Young Törless.
He also began to lay the ground for a change in academic direction; in 1903 he finally abandoned engineering and left for Berlin to study philosophy and psychology.
was completed in early 1905. After it had been turned down by three publishers, Musil sent it to Alfred Kerr, a respected Berlin critic. Kerr lent Musil his support, suggested revisions, and reviewed the book in glowing terms when it appeared in print in 1906. Despite the success of
however, and despite the mark he was beginning to make in Berlin artistic circles, Musil felt too unsure of his talent to commit himself to a life of writing. He continued with his philosophical studies, taking his doctorate in 1908.
By this time he had met Martha Marcovaldi, a woman of Jewish descent seven years his senior, separated from her second husband. With Martha - an artist and intellectual in her own right,
with contemporary feminism - Musil established an intimate and intensely sexual relationship that lasted for the rest of his life. They were married in 1911, and took up residence in Vienna, where Musil had accepted the position of archivist at the
In the same year Musil published his second book,
consisting of the novellas ‘The Perfecting of a Love’ and ‘The Temptation of Quiet Veronika’. These short pieces were composed in a state of obsessiveness whose basis was obscure to him; writing and revision occupied him day and night for two and a half years.
When war came, Musil served with distinction on the Italian front. After the war, troubled by a sense that the best years of his creative life were slipping away, he sketched out no fewer than twenty new works, including a series of satirical novels. A play,
(1921), and a set of stories,
(1924), won awards. He was elected vice-president of the Austrian branch of the Organization of German Writers. Though not widely read, he was on the literary map.
Before long the projected satirical novels had been abandoned or absorbed into a master project: a novel in which the upper crust of Viennese society, oblivious of the dark clouds gathering on the horizon, discusses at length what form its next festival of self-congratulation should take. The novel was intended to give a ‘grotesque’ (Musil’s word) vision of Austria on the eve of the World War. Supported financially by his publisher and by a society of admirers, he gave all his energies to
The Man without Qualities.
The first volume came out in 1930, to so enthusiastic a reception in both Austria and Germany that Musil — a modest man in other respects — thought he might win the Nobel Prize. The continuation proved more intractable. Cajoled by his publisher, yet full of misgivings, he allowed an extended fragment to appear as the second volume in 1933. He began to fear he would never complete the work.
A move back to the livelier intellectual environment of Berlin was cut short by the coming to power of the Nazis. He and his wife returned to the ominous atmosphere of Vienna; he began to suffer from depression and poor health. In 1938 Austria was absorbed into the Third Reich. The couple moved to Switzerland. Switzerland was meant to be a staging-post
to a home offered by Martha’s daughter in the United States, but the entry of the United States into the war put paid to that plan. Along with tens of thousands of other exiles, they found themselves trapped.
‘Switzerland is renowned for the freedom you can enjoy there,’ observed Bertolt Brecht. ‘The catch is, you have to be a tourist.’ The myth of Switzerland as a land of asylum was badly damaged by its treatment of refugees during World War Two, when its first priority, overriding all humanitarian considerations, was not to antagonize Germany. Pointing out that his writings were banned in Germany and Austria, Musil pleaded for asylum on the grounds that he could earn a living as a writer nowhere else in the German-speaking world. Though allowed to stay, he never felt at home in Switzerland. He was little known there; he had no talent for self-promotion; the Swiss patronage network disdained him. He and his wife survived on handouts. ‘Today they ignore us. But once we are dead they will boast that they gave us asylum,’ remarked Musil bitterly to Ignazio Silone. Depressed, he could make no headway with the novel. In 1942, at the age of sixty-one, after a bout of vigorous exercise on the trampoline, he had a stroke and died.
‘He thought he had a long life before him,’ said his widow. ‘The worst is, an unbelievable body of material — sketches, notes, aphorisms, novel chapters, diaries - is left behind, of which only he could have made sense.’ Turned away by commercial publishers, she privately published a third and final volume of the novel, consisting of fragments in no hard and fast order.
Musil belonged to a generation of German intellectuals who experienced the successive phases of the breakdown of the European order between 1890 and 1945 with particular immediacy: first, the premonitory crisis in the arts, giving rise to the various Modernist reactions; then the war and the revolutions spawned by the war, which destroyed both traditional and liberal institutions; and finally the rudderless post-war years, culminating in the Fascist seizure of power.
The Man without Qualities —
a book to some extent overtaken by history during its writing — set out to diagnose this breakdown, which Musil more and more came to see as originating in the failure of Europe’s liberal elite since the 1870s to recognize that the social and political doctrines inherited from the Enlightenment were not adequate to the new mass civilization growing up in the cities.
To Musil, the most stubbornly retrogressive feature of German culture (of which Austrian culture was a part - he did not take seriously the idea of an autonomous Austrian culture) was its tendency to compartmentalize intellect from feeling, to favour an unreflective stupidity of the emotions. He saw this split most clearly among the scientists with whom he worked, men of intellect living coarse emotional lives. The education of the senses through a refining of erotic life seemed to him to hold the most immediate promise of lifting society to a higher ethical plane. He deplored the rigid sexual roles that bourgeois mores laid down for women and men. ‘Whole countries of the soul have been lost and submerged as a consequence,’ he wrote.
Because of the concentration in his work, from
onwards, on the obscurer workings of sexual desire, Musil is often thought of as a Freudian. But he himself acknowledged no such debt. He disliked the cultishness of psychoanalysis, disapproved of its sweeping claims and its unscientific standards of proof. He preferred a psychology of what he ironically called the ‘shallow’ — that is, experimental - variety.
Both Musil and Freud were in fact part of a larger movement in European thought. Both were sceptical of the power of reason to guide human conduct; both were diagnosticians of
fin de siècle
Central European civilization and its discontents; and both assumed the dark continent of the feminine psyche as theirs to explore. To Musil, Freud was a rival rather than a source.
His preferred guide in the realm of the unconscious was Nietzsche (‘master of the floating life within’, as he called him). In Nietzsche Musil found an approach to questions of morality that went beyond a simple polarity of good and evil; a recognition that art can in itself be a form of intellectual exploration; and a mode of philosophizing, aphoristic rather than systematic, that suited his own sceptical temperament. The tradition of fictional realism had never been strong in Germany; as Musil developed as a writer, his fiction became increasingly essayistic in structure, with only perfunctory gestures in the direction of realistic narrative
Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless (Verwirrungen
are perplexities, troubled states of mind;
is a rather formal term, with upper-class overtones, for a boarder at a school) is built around a history of sadistic victimization at an elite boys’ academy. More specifically, it is an account of a crisis that one of the boys, Törless (his first name is never given), experiences as a result of participating in the deliberate humiliation and breaking down of a fellow student, Basini, who is caught stealing. The exploration of this inner crisis, moral, psychological, and ultimately epistemological, rendered largely from within Törless’s own consciousness, makes up the substance of the novel.
In the end Törless has his own breakdown and is discreetly removed from the school. Törless’s sense is that he has weathered the storm and come through. But it is not clear how far we are intended to trust his newfound confidence, since it seems to be based on a decision that the only way of getting along in the world is not to peer too closely into the abysses opened up in us by extreme experience, particularly sexual experience. The single glimpse we are allowed of Törless in later life suggests that he has become not necessarily a wiser or a better man, merely a more prudent one.
In later life Musil denied that
was about youthful experiences of his own, or even about adolescence in general. ‘The reality one is describing is always only a pretext,’ he said, meaning (one presumes) that the action of the novel was simply a vehicle to allow him to explore a certain state of mind. Nevertheless, the originals of Basini and of his tormentors Beineberg and Reiting can easily be identified among the boys Musil knew at Mährisch-Weisskirchen, while one of Törless’s deepest confusions - about the nature of his feelings towards his mother — is mirrored in Musil’s own early diaries. The gap between Törless’s own outward sang-froid and the seething forces within him, between the well-regulated daily life at school and the eerie nocturnal floggings in the attic, has its parallel in the gap between the orderly bourgeois front presented by Törless’s parents and what he darkly knows must go on in the privacy of their bedroom.