In the introduction to Shaun Whitehead’s translation of The Confusions of Young Törless, J.M. Coetzee writes about Musil, “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.”
When, as an adolescent, Törless is dropped off at one of Austria’s most prestigious boarding schools, he feels alone, untethered and confused. No longer under the constant guidance and moral direction of his parents, he must find own way—emotionally, morally and physically—among other boys struggling with the same issues. Törless’s loneliness and solitude weigh heavily on him throughout the narrative. At times his isolation seems to crush him. Musil oftentimes weaves natural images into his description of Törless’s emotional isolation:
Then a pleasant memory came to him. The house in the country where they had spent the previous summer. Nights in the silent park. A velvet-dark firmament quivering with starts. His mother’s voice from the depths of the garden, where she was walking with Papa on the faintly shimmering gravel paths. Songs that she sang quietly to herself. But again…a cold shiver ran through him…there was that painful comparison. What might the two of them have been feeling? Love? No, the idea was now occurring to him for the first time. Love was something quite different. Not something for grown-ups and adults; let alone for his parents. Sitting by the open window at night and feeling abandoned, feeling different from the grown-ups, feeling misunderstood by every laugh and every mocking look, being unable to explain to anyone what one meant, and longing for for someone who might understand…that is love! But you have to be young and lonely for that.
Törless’s mother and his conflicted emotions about her are also prominent in the book which is not surprising since, as Coetzee points out, Musil himself wrote about his own maternal confusions in his diaries. Torless begins to explore his own ideas of morality by exploring his sexuality. He visits a local prostitute, which is a common pastime of many of the boys at the school. He tries to explore mathematics and the philosophy of Kant in order to cast off his feelings of loneliness.
But his life takes a sinister and confusing turn at the school when he witnesses two of his classmates mentally, physically and sexually tormenting a boy that they catch stealing money. Basini has several debts which he can’t pay–his mother is a widower on a fixed income—and resorts to stealing from the other boys. Even among the upper classes there is a pecking order based on wealth.
The passages in the book that describe the boys tormenting and torturing Basini are difficult to read. Musil’s casual comment that such things are common among all male boarding schools in the late 19th and early 20th century was sad and horrifying. But in the end Torless rejects the mores of these bourgeois boys and makes the decision to leave the school. But, as his mother comes to the school to take him away, the book ends on an interesting note, reminding us of Törless’s continuing struggle with sex, morality and emotions: “And he breathed in the faintly perfumed fragrance rising from his mother’s waist.”