Young Toerless begins with a quote from Maeterlinck, who was an avowed influence on Musil, but one that he later appeared to discount. In The Man Without Qualities, there is a half-sneering reference to “Maeterlinck’s batik-wrapped metaphysics.” What Musil quotes is one of Maeterlinck’s typically mystical statements about the ineffability of the noumenal; i.e., that there is an objective, external indisputable world about which our words are unsatisfactory approximations:

As soon as we put something into words, we devalue it in a strange way…We delude ourselves that we have discovered a wonderful treasure trove, and when we return to the light of day we find that we have brought back only false stones and shards of glass; and yet the treasure goes on glimmering in the dark, unaltered.

Later, Musil seemed to discount the purely objective nature of the noumenal and weighed words and objects more equivocally. There were problems in mapping, but one did not have such high precedence over the other. Rather, it was the illusion of the noumenal that led people like Oswald Spengler down some dark paths.

Yet Toerless would appear to buy into it. The story is a fairly explicit tale of the torture and torment, sexual and otherwise, of one German boarding school boy by three others. The philosophy is nascent, but more on that later. Maeterlinck’s statement, though, doesn’t map too clearly onto any of the low-grade (by Musil’s standards, anyway) philosophical discourse, nor onto the eventual mental breakdowns of the victim (Basini) and Toerless, one of his torturers. It maps most clearly onto a process of autobiographical remembrance.

Musil explicitly denied the autobiographical content of the story. The boarding school background matched his very closely, and J.M. Coetzee claims that specific models for each character are known. I don’t know, but it’s not crucial that the facts or the characters have real-life equivalents. Dennis Potter said of The Singing Detective, “Just because the disease [psoriasis] is mine, and just because the childhood background is mine, doesn’t make it autobiographical.” His statement is unconvincing not because the work is imaginary, but because a certain level of experiential overlap, the question is no longer meaningful. Characters cannot run so free when imprisoned in an environment that is more remembered than imagined.

You can grant that the characters, even Toerless himself, are loose composites and still leave the content of the book as essentially autobiographical, and that is the key here. There is a scene very early on describing Toerless’s friendship with a young prince, which is broken after Toerless attacks his opinions with “the ridicule of the rationalist.” The parameters of the dispute are left completely undocumented, unlike the explicit Nietzschean meanderings of the main characters later. The tonal emphasis is on remembering and the presentation of a mental state of character in the act of reconstructing a past event by following the remnant emotions. Toerless can’t do it; his memory is approximate and the motives beyond his ability to comprehend. This is where the Maeterlinck quote is most appropriate, and where the book is most effective.