There have been plenty of novels about fascism; that is clear enough.
The Confusions of Young Törless, Robert Musil’s 1906 debut novel, is one of them. Except, hold it, in 1906 there was no fascism. I assume that Musil was such a keen observer of some of the psychology of the proto-fascist movements of his time, like the anti-Semitic political parties that were governing Vienna, that he was able to tease out the direction of events. Or else the fascist bullies in Young Törless are exact portraits of boys Musil knew in school who just happen to prefigure the future. Could be. Either way, it is weird.
Young Törless lives at an isolated boarding school on the Hungarian plains. The covers of the Penguin Classics edition and the older Pantheon I read include helpful photos that remind me that the students are always in military uniform, at least when they are not naked.
Törless has fallen in with “the boys who counted as the worst of his year,” a bad set, the brutal Reiting and the mystical Beineberg. Reiting discovers that another boy, Basini, has been stealing, and the trio begin to blackmail Basini. What Reiting wants from Basini is power; Beineberg wants a specimen on which to test his esoteric theories; the Törless, passive, but cruel in his own way, want answers to metaphysical questions. And sex, they all want sex, which they extract from Basini in one way or another:
“You know that sort of thing, it happens every few years. But they went a bit too far.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well – how! Don’t ask such silly questions! And that’s what Reiting’s doing with Basini!”
Törless suddenly understood what he meant, and he felt a choking in his throat as if it were full of sand. (75)
This is almost the limit of the novel’s explicitness, in other words wild stuff for 1906, plus it is not quite the limit. Törless’s response to Beineberg’s news is actually pretty explicit. One of Törless’s confusions is that he is homosexual, or so I see it, although that is an interpretive question. Perhaps it is a just a phase in Törless’s development.
It is for Reiting, by contrast, who is simply a monster, with sex as another form of humiliation for when he tires of beating and insulting Basini. Reiting in his later life will marry a women of his class and chase women below him; he will enter politics, eventually joining the Austrian Nazi Party and rising to a high position after the Anschluss. Obviously this is not in the novel. But is is Reiting who says things like “And anyway, I have a liking for these mass movements” (175) while planning a violent public humiliation of Basini.
Reiting is really just a charismatic thug, while Beineberg’s evil is ideological. He is under the influence of Eastern mysticism and perhaps some form of degenerate Nietzschean thought:
“First of all, as far as Basini goes, it’s me view he’s no loss in any case. It makes no difference whether we go and report him, or give him a beating, or even if we torture him to death, just for the fun of it. Personally. I can’t imagine that a creature like that can have any meaning in the wonderful mechanism of the universe. (77)
Beineberg calls Basini a worm – step around him or on him, what difference does it make. At this early point in the novel, it is likely a reader takes this all as adolescent bluster, which it is in part. But Musil’s novel is also about the other part, the part that acts.
Also, there is the stuff about math.