Nasty, Brutish, and Long

The Catholic School

by Edoardo Albinati, translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1,268 pp., $40.00
Students from a boys’ school with a priest, Rome, 1953
Herbert List/Magnum Photos
Students from a boys’ school with a priest, Rome, 1953

After almost half a century, I still dream that I am back at St. Peter’s, the Catholic boarding school in Wexford, Ireland, where I spent two years before I went to university. What is strange is how oddly comforting some of the images are. Even the dormitory, with its narrow cubicles, and the timetable, which began with morning mass and included daily rosary, with benediction before study during months that were deemed to be especially sacred, hold no terror. The diocesan priests who were our teachers seem warm, friendly presences, even though a couple of them, in reality, were great brutes. The most disturbing part of the dream is that in it I am me now. And I am ready, despite everything, to be embraced by the orderliness of life in that school, by the all-male company, by the possibility of intense friendships, by the many rules and regulations, by the thought that I can decide almost nothing for myself.

Soon after I left St. Peter’s, I found myself one day in the studio of the Irish painter Paul Funge, who had also been a student there. He handed me a book, saying that it was possibly the most accurate version of our experience at boarding school. It was The Confusions of Young Törless (1906) by Robert Musil.

Despite the fact that my dreams of St. Peter’s are benign, Musil’s unsettling account of all-male school life seemed accurate to me, down to small details such as a moment early in the book after Törless has left home for boarding school, when his relationship with his parents becomes strained and uneasy. Once he has recovered from missing them, he grows distant from them. His being away from home induces in him a kind of coldness that no new-found independence will assuage.

Young Törless deals most forcefully with violence and bullying. Like St. Peter’s, Musil’s academy is an old building with unused rooms and hidden spaces. It is to one of these that Törless and his two friends Beineberg and Reiting take their classmate Basini to whip him, sexually abuse him, and torture him. They do this ostensibly because they believe that he has been stealing. But their real motive, it seems, is that they do it because they can, and because they enjoy it. They take their time humiliating the boy, thinking of further, more rigorous punishments for him, taking him to that hidden, private space night after night.

Musil charts Törless’s engagement with this abuse, using subtle terms to invoke “the strange attraction that Basini exerted upon him.” It is clear that, while not the leader of the campaign against Basini, Törless is the one most affected by what he witnesses, and the one who…

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