the place is an exclusive all-boys boarding school in Austria. the time is the turn of the 19th century. three boys: Törless, Beineberg, and Reiting. Reiting is an amiable, energetic sort; his aggressive nature is balanced by his charm and ease in the world. Beineberg is an anti-intellectual intellectual; much like his father, he yearns to be a mystic. in Törless, still waters run deep and much of the material world holds little interest for him; contemplation and melancholy are his hallmarks. what are three such precocious lads to do with themselves? there is the village whore to spend time with, but these boys' ambitions go further. what to do, what to do? how about find a fellow schoolchum, learn about his weaknesses, and then grind him into nothing; torment and humiliate, beat, sexually abuse. and so there is a fourth boy: Basini. the three boys play with him.
The Confusions of Young Törless was published in 1906 by Robert Musil. apparently it is autobiographical in nature. it is a philosophical treatise and a classic coming of age novel.
although the novel's narrative is centered around the endless debasement of the passive Basini, that degradation is not at all the novel's primary concern. it is there in the title: the book is about confused young Törless: his quest for logic in an illogical world and his need to quantify the ineffable and his barely-understood desire for transcendence, for an escape from small minds and fixed roles and murky morality.
a boy will fight against his surroundings, he will struggle with authority figures, he will be cynical without experiencing enough of the outside world to earn that cynicism. a boy will rationalize or a boy will simply choose not to think about things that disturb him. a boy will strive, a boy will yearn, a boy will barely understand himself. but a boy will try. and he may force others to do the same.
there are worms. a worm is a symbol of decay. or rebirth? a cord dangling from drapes looks like a writhing worm in the moonlight. there is a red worm of blood that trickles down Basini's face.
there is an eye; Törless sees it in the boys' secret hideaway. it is an eye made of dust motes and shadows and dim shafts of light. he sees it in the midst of one of Basini's beatings. he contemplates it. what does this eye behold? what is the story of this eye?
there are windows. windows are a window to the unknown; Törless stares through many windows. windows are a window to memory; Törless recalls sounds he once heard through windows. the sky is a window; Törless stares at the sky and is filled with awe, wonder, and fear. Törless is a thinker, Törless is a dreamer. Törless has disturbing feelings: some about his mother, some about the local whore, some about Basini. Törless has hallucinatory dreams with meanings he can only slightly grasp. he tries to share these feelings, these dreams, but no one ever understands.
Törless, Törless, Törless. oh, Törless! you and your yearning, your dreams.
fuck you, Törless. of the three boys, I think you are the worst. Reiting likes Basini to read him stories about conquering heroes; then he fucks and beats him. Beineberg likes to use Basini as a footrest, make him bark like a dog, beat him; sometimes he fucks him. Törless asks Basini searching questions about how he feels, what is going on inside of him while all of this is happening; he makes Basini speak when Basini would rather cry; sometimes he fucks him. guess who Basini falls in love with? Reiting and Beineberg's motivations are banal (despite Beineberg's laughably pretentious attempt to intellectualize his predations): they are cruel boys who enjoy brutalizing someone under their thumb. Törless is not like them, he's a sensitive lad. he wants to understand many things, imaginary numbers and order vs. chaos and the logic of dreams. unlike his friends, he is not a malevolent sort and his sexual arousal at Basini's tortures confuse him. poor, confused Törless! Basini means nothing to him, he considers him to be "meaningless" - except as one of many puzzles he is desperate to figure out. fuck you, Törless. your confusions are nothing compared to what you and your buddies dole out.
the problem with this thoughtful, absorbing, boring, poetic, mechanistic, frustrating, compelling, often brilliant novel is that it is exactly like its title character. it is not about the debasement and Törless' key role there. it is all about our protagonist's struggle, his inner life. well, it was a bit hard for this reader to focus on such things when throughout all of the philosophical musings are brief descriptions of the boys' predations. the intellectualization of such acts, their use as metaphor, all the world's a play and we are merely actors on a stage, what goes on behind the curtain and within a mind... honestly I don't give a flying fuckeroo about all that when some weak kid is getting destroyed by stronger kids. you used the wrong metaphor, Musil. all the philosophical musings - I would say 90% of the novel - were rendered obnoxious and uninteresting after it became clear that Musil himself is disinterested in what is happening to Basini. like the novel's protagonist, the author also views Basini as meaningless. Musil, you are like Törless. you make that crystal clear. and that is not a good look.