Nervous romanticism: Robert Musil, Young Törless

Robert Musil, Young Törless. Translated from the German by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser, ed. Burton Pike. Part 1 of Selected Writings in the series The German Library, vol. 72 (The Continuum Publishing Co., New York, 1995).

 Robert Musil was born in Austria in 1880 and died in Switzerland in 1942. He’d been living in Germany, but left with his Jewish wife to escape the monstrosities of the Nazis and their dictators. There are ominous foreshadowings of this regime in his novel Young Törless.

Musil began working on it when he was in his early twenties. There is a plot of sorts – an adolescent boy is caught stealing from his fellow pupils at a swanky, stuffy military academy for boys (the setting is evidently based on Musil’s own unhappy education). A small group of them begin a campaign of sadistic, increasingly sexual torment and bullying of their victim, Basini.

Robert Musil, Young Törless coverTörless has become a member of this group, but he’s always something of an outsider. He joins in with some of the homoerotic torture and sexual violence, but finds himself curiously aroused but simultaneously repelled by his reactions – and those of the other boys involved.

This is where the prediction of what arose in post-war Germany emerges. Two of the boys who persecute Basini anticipate the lust for power of the Nazis, and their contempt for those they consider lesser beings. One of them, Beineberg, says to Törless, when he’d shown half-hearted signs of concern about their cruel treatment of Basini:

People like Basini…signify nothing – they are empty, accidental forms. True human beings are only those who can penetrate into themselves.

A page or two later (there are some very long conversations in this narrative) he goes on:

The very fact that I find it hard to torture Basini – I mean to humiliate him, debase him, and cast him away from me – is good. It requires a sacrifice. It will have a purifying effect. I owe it to myself to learn daily, with him as my material, that merely being human means nothing – it’s a mockery, a mere external semblance.

Along with a whiff of Nietzshe’s ubermensch here, there’s also the vaguely oriental Buddhism which Beineberg learned from his father. His pose of strutting, heartless supremacy is validated by his spurious, self-justifying mysticism. So much for the master race.

Törless is sensitive and intelligent enough to see through this egomaniacal tosh. His quest for enlightenment takes him in the direction of metaphysics and science, and, in particular, mathematics (and its sister, philosophy). In a scene of bathetic comic brilliance he’s disillusioned by his lacklustre, intellectually limited maths teacher. Infinity and ‘imaginary numbers’ remain another unsolved mystery.

The novel has been translated in some editions as The Confusions of Young Törless; this sums up quite well its theme. The protagonist is a searcher, looking for some kind of cosmic solution to the problems of the soul and the world.

So far he’s not so different from most precocious, intelligent young men. What’s fascinating about this strange, unsettling novel is that he’s not quite smart or mature enough to recognise his own shortcomings. He tries reading Kant, and gives up. His ‘confusions’ torment him, he feels, more than his friends torment the hapless Basini. But he’s too callow and complacent to make the effort required to transcend them.

There’s something of the aesthete and decadent about him. He tends to wallow in his darkling state. Time and again our narrator, with a touch perhaps of irony, describes the existential void into which Törless gazes, like a post-Romantic poet on opium: he feels ‘the horror of emptiness’ on confronting ‘some insoluble enigma and some inexplicable kinship for which he could never quite produce any evidence.’

His uneasiness resides ultimately in the failure of language: ‘words meant nothing.’ He recalls marvelling as a child at a landscape and exclaiming to his father how beautiful it was, then being overcome with embarrassment at his emotional outburst:

It was the failure of language that caused him anguish, a half-awareness that the words were merely accidental, mere evasions, and never the feeling itself.

‘Anguish’ is a word that is often used of Törless in these musings. His confusions might begin to seem ‘tangibly comprehensible’, but he could never  entirely

resolve them into words and ideas. Between events and himself, indeed between his own feelings and some inmost self that craved understanding of them, there always remained a dividing-line, which receded before his desire, like a horizon, the closer he tried to come to it.

Young Törless is no embryonic TS Eliot. I don’t know if the translators deliberately alluded to ‘The Hollow Men’ in this passage. Whatever, our young decadent is clearly relishing his spiritual dilemma like a connoisseur. He dabbles in morality and ethics, but there’s always something of the dilettante about these dabblings.

I’m not sure how far Musil wanted us to side with his young intellectual aesthete. My own feeling is that he’s intrigued by him, shares much of his philosophical ‘anguish’, but also sees the pretentiousness.

I haven’t yet read what’s said to be Musil’s masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities; a fellow blogger recommended I start with Young Törless. I presume because it contains in embryo what I’ve read about it… whatever it is, that huge, unfinished expressionist-modernist novel. Törless struggles and ultimately fails to connect feelings and actions to his ultra-sharp intellect. The narrator hints that he succeeded later in life, when he’d outgrown these immature indulgences.

Meanwhile he wallows in the pleasure derived from dismissing values, moral and ethical constraints as irrelevant for someone as exquisitely sensitive as him.

Herman Bahr, writing about the literary-artistic scene in Vienna in 1891, declared the ‘bondage’ and ‘pain’ of reality had to be escaped, that ‘the supremacy of naturalism is over…its spell is broken’. He summed up classicism and its view of humanity as ‘reason and feeling’; romanticism was ‘passion and the senses’; out of these emerged modernism, which is nerves. Young Törless is a prototype of what Bahr called ‘nervous romanticism.’ Or is it nervous mysticism? When ‘nervousness’ becomes completely liberated, humans, especially artists, become ‘subordinate to the nerves, without regard for the rational and sensuous’, and then ‘the lost joy will return to art.’ Törless would surely endorse that strange view, which sounds a bit hysterical.

‘Nervioso’ in Spanish doesn’t really mean ‘nervous’ – it’s edgier than that. I presume it’s the same in German. Not so hysterical.

Herman Bahr, ‘The overcoming of naturalism’ HERE

Melissa at Bookbinder’s Daughter blog May 2019 HERE

Volker Schlöndorff directed a film of the novel in 1966.

Of dictionaries and cicadas

Lisa Hill’s recent post (at her blog ANZ Litlovers) on Pip Williams’ new novel The Dictionary of Lost Words was timely. A week or so back I watched the 2019 film ‘The Professor and the Madman’, directed by the Iranian-American Farhad Safinia, based on the 1998 book by Simon Winchester with the less strident title The Surgeon of Crowthorne – a sort of joint biography of James Murray, who in 1879 became the editor of the New English Dictionary – later known as the Oxford English Dictionary, and of W.C. Minor.

Minor had been an army surgeon during the American Civil War, after which his mental health deteriorated. Having moved to England, he shot and killed a man in Lambeth in 1872, was found not guilty at trial on the grounds of insanity, and was committed to what was called, in those less forgiving times, the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum at Crowthorne in Berkshire. Minor read the appeal by Murray’s team for contributions of quotations from the major works published in the English language that would illustrate the evolving meaning of words from their earliest usage. He became one of the most prolific of contributors to the project, and Murray went to visit him often from 1891.

The film has a powerful, committed performance as Minor from Sean Penn. Mel Gibson got to air his dodgy Scots accent again (yes, ‘Braveheart’ wasn’t his finest hour) in a strange bit of casting as Murray. As a film it was pretty poor, but gave a reasonably sympathetic account of the early struggles to get the OED project off the ground (Murray didn’t live to see the final volume of the first edition published in 1928).

Lisa’s post describes Pip Williams’ novel as a kind of counter-factual feminist vision of how the OED might have been compiled if it hadn’t been such an androcentric product of the late Victorian patriarchy. It sounds fascinating, and I commend Lisa’s post to you.

She has some interesting things to say about the OED’s entry for loaded words (in terms of gendered usage) like ‘service’, ‘bondmaid’ and ‘delivered’.

Cover of Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything

That’s the famous photo of Murray in his Scriptorium

This morning while looking for something to read next (after Donna Leon), I noticed on my shelf another Simon Winchester history of the OED, The Meaning of Everything, published by the OUP in 2003 as a sort of sequel to The Surgeon. I’d forgotten that I’d read it, and spent some happy time leafing through it.

There are some fascinating photo portraits of some of the key figures in the development of the OED. Right at the start (and on the cover in my picture) is Murray himself in his Scriptorium, where he began to pigeon-hole the millions of slips of paper sent in by contributors like Minor, on which were handwritten the citations illustrating usage of words. There are also images from earlier dictionaries of the English language, like Cawdrey’s (one of my earliest posts was about this, and other forerunners of Murray like Blount, Minsheu and Mulcaster: link HERE).

As I flipped through the pages I came across a delightful passage from K. M. Elisabeth Murray’s 1977 biography of her grandfather, Caught in the Web of Words, about a typical day’s bout of his dictionary-related correspondence (all written by hand, of course, with a second ‘fair copy’ as well). These included requests to the director of the botanical gardens at Kew for information about the first record of an exotic plant, and to various contemporary authors about the meanings of words they’d used in their novels or poems.

One of these was to Lord Tennyson, ‘to ask where he got the word balm-cricket, and what he meant by it’, in his poem ‘Dirge’. A footnote explains that this is another term for the common cicada, and is a mistaken translation from the German Baumgrille, meaning tree-cricket. It wasn’t Tennyson’s mistake originally – he’d borrowed it from an 18C author.

‘Dirge’ was first published 1830, revised 1842. With seven stanzas of six lines each, it has an unfortunate refrain, repeated twice in each stanza, at lines three and six: ‘Let them rave.’

It appears to address a person (a woman?) reposing in their grave, while the busy world raves on round them (Van Morrison was to use a similar image). It’s full of intrusive archaisms, like ‘Thee nor carketh care nor slander’. Carketh – even the inflection is archaic. From the Middle English via Old French and Latin (meaning ‘burden’); here’s the OED online (how James Murray would have loved computers and the internet: they would have shortened his work by decades) –

That which burdens the spirit, trouble; hence, troubled state of mind, distress, anxiety; anxious solicitude, labour, or toil. (In later use generally coupled with care.) archaic.

The poem’s troubled, stumbling rhythm is largely trochaic, I suppose to give a melancholy air; instead it makes it almost impossible to read aloud and make sense, hampered further by some weird imagery and awkward archaisms:

The frail bluebell peereth over

Rare broidery of the purple clover.

Let them rave.

‘Rare’ here seems to be OED online’s (rare) sense of ‘Of colour: thin, faint, pale’, or maybe ‘exceptional’ (as in the old ballad’s refrain about ‘rare Turpin, hero’).

Here’s the bit with the cicada:

The balm-cricket carols clear

In the green that folds thy grave.

Let them rave.

It’s hard to hear the raucous scratching screech of a nocturnal cicada as ‘carols clear’. As so often with early Tennyson, the imagery sounds impressive and mellifluous, but doesn’t stand much close scrutiny in terms of meaning. Still, a poem should not mean, but be, as someone famously said.

PS a ‘dirge’ – a song or poem of lament or mourning, suitable for a funeral – derives from the Latin Dirige, Domine, Deus meus, in conspectu tuo viam meam (“Direct my way in your sight, O Lord my God”), the first words of the first antiphon in the Matins of the Office for the Dead, created on basis of Psalms 5:8 (5:9 in Vulgate). (Wikipedia).

 

‘The evil in the air was corrupting everybody’: Gamel Woolsey, ‘Death’s Other Kingdom’

When I was studying Spanish at school back in the late 60s, my teacher, who then seemed to me an old man, but who was probably younger than I am now, used to beguile us all with his misty-eyed reminiscences of his youthful days in 30s Spain, which seemed to be spent bathing in icy mountain pools and eating delicious peasant food in country inns. Gamel Woolsey’s autobiographical account of her experiences of the outbreak of Civil War in Andalucía in 1936, and in particular the beginning of the attacks on Malaga, belongs to that same era, when the pastoral tranquillity of the country was shattered irrevocably.

My copy is in the Virago Travellers series

My copy is in the Virago Travellers series

Published in 1939, Death’s Other Kingdom is a lyrical and deeply personal record of her feelings and perceptions as the rugged but idyllic village life she shared in Churriana, just outside Malaga (now absorbed into its post-tourist-resort urban sprawl) with her husband, the Hispanist author Gerald Brenan, turned into a nightmare the morning she woke to the news of Malaga burning ‘under a pall of smoke’.

The opening chapter beautifully evokes that pre-war idyll:

It was the most beautiful day of the summer…The sky at dawn was cloudless and the ‘pink band’ of the tropics, the band of rosy light which ascends the sky from the horizon at twilight, rose to the zenith and faded into the growing light. Then the sun rose suddenly with a leap into the air: the long hot southern day had begun.

 It’s a world of placid serenity, when the Brenans did little more, in the summer heat, than ‘bask in the day like lizards, in the shade of the high white garden wall’ which surrounded their big old house with its walls ‘four feet thick’, and its huge garden, ‘gay with bright flowers, immaculate and cool in any weather.’

She describes the place with sensual, poetic fervor:

I always loved waking in Spain. The sun fell in stripes from the slatted shutters on the red and white diamonded tiles of the floor. Noises from the street below floated up; the pattering feet of the milk goats sounded like rain drops…

 More sounds rise up: the ‘melancholy call’ of the fish sellers ‘their hampers full of fresh fish just coming up from the sea on their lean donkeys’ — Sardinas and boqueronis – ‘the food of the poor, the cheapest of fishes.’ Then come the cries of the vendors of ‘grapes fresh and plump’, tomatoes and ‘pimientos gordos’, ‘melons, lettuces and plums, squashes, peaches and pumpkins were passing, a perfect harvest festival going by on donkeys.’

This is the dominant tone of the book: Woolsey’s profound sympathy for village life and the desperately poor rural inhabitants of these remote mountain and coastal pueblos. There are affectionately vivid portraits throughout the book of the Brenans’ domestic staff: Enrique, ‘a gentle, charming young man’, their passionate gardener, and his mother María the ‘severe’ and crotchety but ‘devoted’ cook-housekeeper and her daughter, a ‘melancholy widow’ called Pilar, whose brief experience of romance is cruelly and violently ended, leaving her in sad solitude again.

Woolsey evokes a now largely vanished rural Andalucia:

For a village in Spain is a unity; its inhabitants are like members of a clan, they have a close and indissoluble bond. ‘My village’ is constantly in the mouth of a Spanish countryman. It is more than ‘my country’.

 The villagers view with deep suspicion anyone from a different village, no matter how close; as for the nearby town of Malaga – it’s seen as the abode of evil people.

But when Malaga is set on fire and the air-raids begin, the peace is shattered. Lorries thunder by constantly:

The young men wave their pistols and throw up their clenched fists in a gesture of triumph.

 All is confusion. The ‘Revolution from the Right’ is countered by a ‘Revolution of the Left’. Rumours fly rapidly. Everyone is fearful, most especially of ‘El Tercio’ – the seasoned Foreign Legion ‘worthy of Lucifer’, and its most feared contingent, the Moors, the expectation of whose arrival ‘ran like a cold wave of horror through the countryside’. Patrols enter the house and the countryside looking for enemies. Arrests and imprisonments are commonplace, and summary executions and brutal reprisals from both sides terrify the people. Former friends become mistrustful enemies. Irreparable fissions form in the village’s life. The Brenans are protected from the worst atrocities by their foreignness – Gerald flies a Union Jack over the house and this acts like a lucky charm. But many of their neighbours and friends are less fortunate.

There are vivid descriptions of their visits to Malaga to see for themselves the terrible destruction wrought by the newly erupted Civil War. There are rueful touches of humour: they meet an Englishman in Malaga who regales them with tales of the night the houses around him were torched:

But I suppose it seems worse for British subjects to lose their luggage than lesser races their lives.

 

Most of the narrative relates with grim impartiality the catastrophic impact of the war on the people. A kind of madness grips the civilians, who indulge their ‘uglier instincts’ and take malicious pleasure in spreading stories of atrocities. It’s the ‘pornography of violence’ as she memorably puts it. ‘Hate is the other side of fear’, she suggests, ‘and it was horrible to see and feel this hate-fear rising around us like a menacing sea.’ The people are gripped by the ‘suspicion and bitterness’ that ‘thrive on fear’; ‘the distrust of Spaniards for other Spaniards is bottomless’.

The strangest section of the book is devoted to the Brenans’ providing refuge in their house to the aristocratic family from whom they’d bought it. Well-known supporters of the Falangists, they were in mortal danger if they stayed on in their own estate near the airport, so they accept the offer of a hiding place for their entire family and retinue. It’s an extraordinarily dangerous gesture of generosity, and would have cost the Brenans their lives, foreigners or not, if their guests had been found by the vengeful workers who searched for them and any other Franco supporters. Our sympathies are hardly engaged when Don Carlos, the head of the family, dances with glee on the Brenans’ rooftop as he watches Malaga burn in a fascist air-raid.

Gamel Woolsey (1895-1968) was an interesting character. Born Elizabeth Gammell (her mother’s maiden name; she later shortened it to Gamel and dropped her first name) Woolsey to a wealthy South Carolina plantation owning family, she was brought up with a sense of morality and virtue that are so apparent in this memoir. Her aunt was the author of the Katy books, Susan Coolidge, whose real name was Sarah Chauncey Woolsey.

She had an affair with a member of the literary Powys family, Llewelyn, whom she followed  to England in 1929, settling in Dorset to be near him. There she met Brenan (1894-1987), and left for Spain with him where they settled as man and wife. He had been a member of the Bloomsbury group, and had been romantically involved with Dora Carrington; Gamel was pursued by the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Leftist in politics, Brenan had served as one of the youngest British officers in WWI. His terrible experiences there explain some of his responses to the brutal behaviour of some of their Spanish neighbours when the Civil War broke out, and his determination to help the oppressed, whatever their politics or religion.

In Spain they were visited by a stream of eminent artists, including Virginia Woolf, the Partridges (Frances wrote the Introduction to my Virago edition of DOK), Hemingway and V.S. Pritchett.

The book’s title is taken from T.S. Eliot’s Dante-influenced poem ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925):

Those who have crossed

With direct eyes, to death’s other kingdom

Remember us – if at all – not as lost

Violent souls, but only

As the hollow men

The stuffed men…

 ‘Death’s other kingdom’ is one of three of death’s kingdoms in the poem, and it relates to that heavenly zone entered by those who have left behind a state of spiritual nothingness (in hell or purgatory) and entered into an enlightened state of knowledge where they are capable of seeing the inner truth. The hollow men are those who fail to reach such heights. Eliot was one of Gamel’s favourite poets (she was primarily a poet herself, though she published very little verse or prose in her lifetime), and the line’s significance for her memoir is apt: it could signify the higher truth to which she felt those who experienced war should aspire, rather than the hypocrisy, lies and deception that so many around her (the hollow men) wallowed in when hostilities broke out, who lost sight of their morals and values.