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.

Conquered City – Victor Serge

Peter is the model and precursor of the Revolution. Remember this: “Constraint makes all things happen.” He founded industries, ministries, an army, a fleet, a capital, customs, by means of edicts and executions. He gave the order to cut off the beards, to dress European-style, to open this window on Europe in the Ingrian swamps. The earth was bare, but he said, “Here will rise a city.” He caned his courtiers, drank like a trooper, and ended his life full of suspicion, doubt, and anguish, smelling treason everywhere (and it was everywhere, like today), trusting no one but his grand inquisitor, thinking even of striking the Empress. And he was right. he left a country depopulated in places, bleeding and moaning under the effort, but St. Petersburg was built! And he is still the Great, the greatest, because he hounded the old Russian, even his own son, because he wrenched this ignorant, passive, bloated old country around toward the future the way you pull up a restive horse with bit and spurs. I hear an echo of his edicts in today’s decrees. All this can even be expressed in Marxist terms: the rise of the new classes.

Zvereva took this blow without batting an eye. She knew you had to swallow many affronts before being able to inflict them in turn.

I know that the gallows has a way of making quite suitable heroes out of rather insipid spawn.

When spring comes to a shattered and starving city full of sullen, terrified, and defeated people, young lovers still walk along the river, holding hands and kissing beneath green trees. Amid Conquered City‘s grueling narrative about the defense of St. Petersburg 1919-1920 that unfolds over the course of a year, this is a placid moment. These handful of pages are reminiscent of Orwell’s “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” which is a reflection on the resilience of nature in London, 1940, but unlike Orwell’s exhortation to enjoy the turning of the seasons, Serge plunges his city back into war. Even in this rare moment of human tenderness, bitterness and jealousy infect the scene. Winter comes again.

Victor Serge lived an interesting life–born in Belgium to Russian revolutionary exiles, he participated in revolutionary movements across Europe, including in St. Petersburg in 1919, and was frequently imprisoned for his activities. He also opposed the rise of Stalin and went again into exiles for that stance, eventually dying in Mexico where he received asylum. Originally published in French, Conquered City is a novelization of his time in St. Petersburg, defending the conquered city of the Czars against the counter-revolutionary White army.

Each chapter of Conquered City is a vignette of the siege, each one moving forward in time, sometimes just a few minutes, sometimes a few months. To the extent that there is an overarching plot to the novel, it is an ongoing effort on the part of the authorities on the one hand to encourage unfed and unrewarded workers to keep working and fighting and, on the other, their repeated sweeps of the city to uncover subversive or treasonous plots. Unlike accounts of the revolutionary movements in, for instance, Spain, where the despair is underpinned by determination, Serge shows the workers despondent and the exhortations of the leaders successful, but hollow. However, while this persistent concern is important in the depiction of the siege, the other arm of the narrative, the tracking down and eliminating opponents is the plot that actually keeps the story pushing forward.

At the outset of the story, there are individuals who do not necessarily support the revolution, including the Professor Lytaev, but there is no evidence of plots everywhere. Nevertheless the leadership is convinced that they exist; the lower-ranked comrades are less certain that there are outside conspirators, but they are going to scrutinize their colleagues for weaknesses. Perhaps they are traitors, but perhaps they have just left themselves vulnerable to be torn down for the gain of others. The narrative is relentless and the characters opportunistic and petty, and Serge demonstrates the stratification of resources—who gets to have clean undergarments, for instance—in a city where the palaces of the Czars have been divided up into ministerial offices.

I am light on both plot and characters because Conquered City, while offering some specifics, is more impressionistic, rather like The Case of Comrade Tulayev, which follows the unfolding of a Stalinist era purge. While Richard Greeman, the translator of this edition, describes Conquered City as part of a “cycle of revolution” and places Tulayev with a later “cycle of resistance,” the characterization is influenced by the topic rather than the message. Serge may be accurately portraying the vicious infighting in St. Petersburg in 1919, but the portrayal of a bittersweet victory seems tinged by the Stalinist era, perhaps because it was written while Serge wrote it while imprisoned in the Soviet Union in 1930/1.

In sum, Conquered City was an intellectually interesting novel that had its moments, but I did not find it as moving as The Case of Comrade Tulayev. It is certainly part of an extensive collection of revolutionary and oppressionistic literature that features prominently in twentieth century European literature. I have a number of these novels still on my reading list, including Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt, Gunter Gräss’ Tin Drum, and Klaus Mann’s Mephisto, and, having been pleasantly surprised by Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, I am not willing to entirely write these off. Yet, I am once again starting to glance about for other types of narratives.

Next up, I am currently reading a biography of the Ethiopian king Haile Selassie titled King of Kings and a collection of short stories by Thomas Mann.

Racial Superiority

Ethnic superiority is a funny thing. Not ha-ha funny, but rather a queer sort of temperament, world view and modus operandi. Many nations and, especially in places where the population is largely heterogeneous, extreme nationalism devolves into ethnic superiority.1 Perhaps this ethnic superiority is most infamous in the case of the German Third Reich, wherein there was a state sanctioned ethnic ideal to the exclusion of all others, and ultimately the Final Solution.

In retrospect, and even to those who saw the horrors first hand, there was no excuse for it and the ethnic superiority in this case (and, as should be noted, in the case of Japan during the same period), resulted in among the greatest evils that humans have ever inflicted upon each other. Yet when viewing Germans, the ethnic superiority is something associated with Hitler, something associated with the Nazi regime. This is misleading.

After reading the Dr. Faustus of Thomas Mann, <Twilight of the Idols and The Antichrist of Friedrich Nietzsche and most of Mein Kampf, plus a number of works on the German Empire created by Bismark through its end under Wilhelm II, I am struck by the overwhelming arrogance, and surety each of these works contains. While evident in the other works, Nietzsche is the most glaring example of this.

I am not going to analyze the philosophy, if for no other reason than I am tired and not properly suited to relate it back to any audience, however Nietzsche is convinced of his own superiority and that of the German Race. I do not imagine that Nietzsche would have liked the Nazis, let alone Hitler, but it would be interesting to think of what he would have said about him since their ideal ethnicity was one and the same, just as Wilhelm and Hitler shared the ideal of a powerful Germany, for which reason Hitler sent flowers to Wilhelm’s funeral.

By and large it is not that these men simply looked down upon other races or actively scorned them, but there is a seemingly natural underlying assumption that Germans were superior; this is not a moralistic judgment that many of the authors care to explain, it is simply so.

1 Not that ethnic superiority cannot create nationalism in heterogeneous areas and what is to follow could be said to be of this sort; my own view is that there is a symbiotic relationship between the two and I chose to start with nationalism because there is an unswerving loyalty that a nation is capable of creating even in ethnically diverse countries.