Tonio Kröger and other stories – Thomas Mann

all my friends have been demons, hobgoblins, phantoms struck dumb by the profundity of their insight–in other words men of letters

A real artist is not one who has taken up art as his profession, but a man predestined and foredoomed to it; and such an artist can be picked out from a crowd by anyone with the slightest perspicacity. You can read in his face that he is a man apart, a man who does not belong.

No: ‘life’ stands in eternal contrast to intellect and art–but not as a vision of bloodstained greatness and savage beauty. We who are exceptions do not see life as something exceptional; on the contrary! normality, respectability, decency–these are our heart’s desire, this to us is life, life in its seductive banality! No one, my dear has a right to call himself an artist if his profoundest craving is for the refined, the eccentric and the satanic–if his heart knowns no longing for innocence, simplicity and living warmth, for a little friendship and self-surrender and familiarity and human happiness–if he is not secretly devoured…by this longing for the commonplace!

–“Tonio Kröger”

Tonio Kröger and other stories is a collection of six short stories written by Thomas Mann and translated by David Luke. As an aside before talking about the stories themselves, I have a soft-spot for this style of book, namely the Bantam Modern Classic paperback from c.1970 when this was published. The size, page-feel, and covers epitomize what I like about physical books and I have a smattering of them in my collection. Admittedly, they can be a little fragile, but I find something sympathetic about even that.

This collection includes the stories “Little Herr Friedemann,” “The Joker,” “The Road to the Churchyard,” “Gladius Dei,” “Tristan,” and “Tonio Kröger.”

The first two stories are described by the translator as immature works and it easy to see why. This is not to say the stories are bad, but they share a singular preoccupation and do not contain much in the way of subtlety of plot. Both stories fundamentally revolve around young men have created an ascetic life away from society, one on account of physical deformity, the other temperament, but whose worlds are shaken when they meet, fall for, and are rejected by pretty young women. This theme recurs, including in the eponymous story where a young man flees respectable society because the other kids laugh at him during their dance lessons, but those stories do not have the same linear resolution.

A second common theme that unites the stories in this collection is art and artistic sensibilities, particularly in men, versus society at large. Not every story is about artists, though. “Gladius Dei” is about a man who feels compelled by God to condemn the overtly sexual representation of Madonna. The main character is offended by the art that he sees as a perversion, and there is not representation of how the artist feels about it—we are only told that the painting is famous, and the dealer is interested in the print because it will make him money.

Art, as Mann portrays it, is as much a curse as a blessing, since it leaves the artist watching life rather than experiencing life. The artists in these stories never get the girl, so to speak, but are forced to watch in envy, experiencing emotions that are fundamentally different from everyone else. At best the men of artistic temperament (whether they produce art or not) are watchers of people and sad young men; at worst they are bitter wastrels with an over-developed sense of superiority. The most extreme example of this is probably Detlev Spinell in “Tristan,” who is an author who lives in a sanatorium because the company and the decor suits him. Though he is not himself sick there is something sickly about him, as opposed to the healthy men of society.

Mann’s stories and presentation of art simultaneously repulsed and enthralled me. Yet, this translation reminded me just how much I enjoyed Mann’s style when I read Doctor Faustus and reaffirmed my ranking of that book among my all-time favorites. As a final note, it still remains a novelty for me to read short story collections, but also a nice change of pace.

Currently reading: Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. I will finish this one…sometime.

Plebeian Gourmet

You are a gourmet, sir, a plebeian gourmet, a peasant with taste.

What I have said is not abuse: I am merely stating the formula, the quite simple psychological formula of your simple, aesthetically quite uninteresting personality.

So Detlev Spinell writes to Anton Klöterjahn, the husband of Gabriele Klöterjahn in Thomas Mann’s short story “Tristan.” The letter and its setup are farcical; the story takes place in a sanatorium where Frau Klöterjahn is recovering and where Spinell lives. When this letter is written, Herr Klöterjahn happens to be visiting, so envelope returns straightaway to the institution and provokes an immediate confrontation that does not suit Spinell’s strengths.

The story is ethereal and sad, even in its somewhat cliched presentation of an artistic spirit that gravitates to an older style of building now reserved for sick people. Unlike the other patients, Spinell doesn’t suffer from a particular illness or defect, but he likes the decor and the solitude, though not to write for publication since his only production are of letters. On the one hand this description of a wastrel litterateur struck too close to home, but, on the other, the presentation of separate spheres is, even accounting for the date, too much a caricature.

Nevertheless, this particular passage had me laughing aloud, all the while being fixated on the term “plebeian gourmet.” It is evocative, dismissive of the man’s origins and complimentary of his taste. In general one might look at “gourmet” as applying to food, although the letter makes clear that Spinell uses the term more broadly to mean taste in all things, and, particularly, in choosing his wife. Plebeian also evokes a range of meanings: lower class, healthy and robust, of a non-aristocratic family, uneducated. These are phrases that are equally applicable in Europe or America, but in the latter the racial politics of class structure are more pronounced than in the setting of the story.

What sent me down this path was thinking what such a phrase would imply in twenty-first century America. The lack of a traditionally-titled aristocracy per se feeds into an American vision where we are all plebeian, particularly because technology has unmasked a great deal of the mystique of individuals who might have otherwise qualified. Some people have more money than others, but their foibles are exposed for the world to see, too. Some of these same technological innovations have leveled the playing field in terms of platform for people who aspire to participation in the cultural discussion and opened access to the “gourmet,” whether of clothes, essays, books, food, drink, etc. [Taste in people is something else, and I’ll leave that out since both parties have agency.] Certainly not everyone has access to the gourmet, and others choose deprivation from for reasons from philosophical to practical. In other cases, individuals of one temperament condescend those of another, for picayune reasons. The point is that, for most, “plebeian” is a baseline and the “gourmet” is an aspiration. In other words, “plebeian gourmet” is an archaic description, but not an antiquated one.

There are plenty of issues I’ve ignored here, from exploitation of labor in developing countries, to rape of the environment and the temptations of junk food. Spinell certainly sees himself (and Frau Klöterjahn, hence the tension of the story) as being better than other people on the virtue of their artistic sensibilities. The same fissures exist in the average high school, but if one were to hurl “plebeian gourmet” at another, even if actually believed, would be an affectation.

Let me confess to you, sir, that I hate you…You are the stronger man. In our struggle I have only one thing to turn against you, the sublime avenging weapon of the weak: intellect and the power of words. Today I have used this weapon. For this letter–here too let me make an honest admission–is nothing but an act of revenge; and if it contains even a single phrase that is biting and brilliant and beautiful enough to strike home, to make you aware of an alien force, to shake your robust equanimity even for one moment, then I shall exult in that discomfiture.