The Possibly Perilous Second Journey

Although I’ll tend toward the former, the following is proof of either the value or the danger of rereading. Before starting in again on the world of Young Törless, I remembered its brilliant presentation of schoolboy cruelty, and its tendency to draw in even gentler souls. But that memory comes from a time prior to viewing Michael Haneke’s absolutely terrifying (and what I’ll allege is his best) film, The White Ribbon. Set at approximately the same time and in an at least similar culture (Germany, as opposed to then-Austria-Hungary) as Musil’s tale, the story is not only a brutal account in itself, but takes on added weight when you realize that the everyday horrors being perpetrated in an unobtrusive village may have been part of longstanding assumptions and unspoken conventions that enabled the release of planned extinction programs and systematized sadism just a few years down the road. And I couldn’t help but compare the novella’s beautifully written presentation to the film’s incredible cinematography, which was like watching a moving, black-and-white exhibit by an ideal photographer. The way in which the story itself was acted out in visual perfection at first contributed to an uncanny temptation to fall into nostalgia– but then, as you figure out what’s happening, the realization that you’ve been tricked by false appearances makes the understanding of the plot even more unbearable. How often, you can’t help asking yourself, have you been conned into accepting an evil theory, a person, a situation as legitimate, even praiseworthy, because it just looked so damn good?

With these new images in my head, and with residual memory of what’s going to happen for my second engagement with Törless, I’m starting to feel more hideous, and to get that sensation sooner, than happened the first time around. So in this case, rereading has made the book’s impact much more intense. Strangely enough, I’m doubly eager to get through it now.

This zeal at the thought of repetition– minus the dread– has only happened two other times that I can recall. After reading Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch (my second favorite book, just barely falling behind Infinite Jest for the top spot) straight through, I immediately went back and began devouring it in the “hopscotch” order the author suggested. I guess it wasn’t a technical rereading then– but the way in which that second round unearthed countless secret doors verged on the spiritually revelatory– meaning, for me, that the only way I could explain how a book that good had been conceived and successfully executed was via divine intervention.

Unfortunately, my second reading of Ulysses didn’t result in even half that level of ecstasy. My first go-round ended in absolute love– a legally blind sort of love, as I really couldn’t tell you what had happened in those pages, only that there were points where the language really did beam you right into the middle of an early-20th-century pub. And then, a decade later, it was suggested to me that that book should be reread every ten years– advice I promptly followed. Although the amazement hung on for a while, and although I do remember writing early on in my notes, “I LOVE THIS BOOK!”, I soon couldn’t handle hanging out in the inside of an oversexed character’s head, and finally gave it up– without condemnation, only tiredness. Maybe I’ll try again in another decade– but only after revisiting Cortázar and David Foster Wallace.

Until then, I’ve got Young Törless, and a few more of Musil’s stories, to finish. I’m guessing it’ll be a good idea to insert plenty of new-to-mes in between this re-match and those others.

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