My first exposure to Thomas Mann was in an undergraduate humanities course where we studied Death in Venice. The reader we used included a number of obscurer works by Mann that I suspected had been tacked on as filler, one of which was the novella Tonio Kröger. I was not in the habit in those days of reading anything beyond my required course texts, given the demands that sleep and other extracurricular activities placed on my time. In the case of Mann I may have felt compelled to explore further because of his Nobel Prize, or perhaps out of the hope that by reading a few more of his shorter works I might be spared ever having to read any of his longer ones. Death in Venice itself I had found somewhat offputting, at least until our humanities professor had “unpacked” it for us, with such thoroughness and verve that it would later persist in my brain like a radioactive isotope. Tonio Kröger, on the other hand, which was actually a sort of prequel to Death in Venice but which I turned to grudgingly to fill time commuting to house-painting gigs during a dull summer, would travel unmediated straight to my twisted soul.
I can name any number of books that have influenced me as a writer, but Tonio Kröger belongs to a much smaller and more crucial set of works that I think of as having made it possible for me to imagine my own future as a writer. The pressing question for me in my youth, as no doubt for many aspiring writers, was not if I wanted to be a writer—I wanted nothing else—but whether I actually could be one. Most days I felt compelled to answer that question in the negative, which made the future seem a precipice I would shortly fall off of. But occasionally I was able to grab hold of a lifeline. Notes from Underground was one: if there was room in literature for someone as pathetic and depraved as Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, then there might be room enough for me. With Tonio Kröger, the matter was more subtle. In the novella’s eponymous poet-hero—a “bourgeois manqué,” a friend calls him, someone who yearns for but feels forever excluded from “the bliss of the commonplace,” of the normal and the everyday—I saw the possibility of my own redemption, of every humiliation and failure I had suffered until then being transformed into the necessary Bildung-blocks of my apprenticeship as a writer.
Tonio Kröger follows very much in the line of that classic subset of the Bildung tradition, the Künstlerroman, the portrait of the artist. But it plays out as a kind of psychodrama, one in which the opening and closing scenes pivot around a lengthy peroration at half-time in which Kröger explains to his friend Lisaveta how a poet has to be dead to life in order to write well about it. Though Mann was a mere twenty-five when he wrote this story, Kröger comes across as the sort of battle-scarred mid-career writer I have since come to know well among my own colleagues, jaded and debauched and weighted with Weltschmerz. Not to mention self-importance: there are many lines in the novella that I might have been entirely won over by as an undergrad that now make me smirk. “If only I could be freed from the curse of insight and the creative torment,” Kröger thinks at one point. What redeems Kröger, however, and what made me see in him such a kindred soul those many years ago, is the real emotion behind the artistic detachment and hauteur, the real sense of loss. It is hard now to feel as connected to that sense of loss as I did in my youth, when the pain of my own self-loathing was so much more precious and raw, and hence hard to recapture the thrill of connection and hope that Kröger aroused in me then. But at the time it was like being gobsmacked. Here was was someone like me, give or take a few minor variances; here was someone who longed, and failed, to be ordinary. To be normal.
“Had I forgotten you?” Kröger the successful writer asks, thinking of the golden-haired boy whose friendship he had coveted as a youth, of the young woman whose love he had sought and lost. “No, never! I never forgot you, Hans, nor you, sweet fair-haired Inge! It was for you I wrote my works, and when I heard applause I secretly looked round the room to see if you had joined in it.”
If these sentiments sound a bit romantic and condescending to me now, that was not the case when I first read them nearly three decades ago, when they seemed to carry the force of revelation. I had found a paradigm for my life in which all that had condemned me had been turned to credentials—every jock who had ever picked on me; every popular girl who hadn’t given me the time of day. In Tonio Kröger I saw that what I thought had doubly excluded me from literature’s higher calling—that is, not only that I had tried so hard to be normal, but that I had made such a botch of it—was actually the sine qua non of the writer’s formation.
Nino Ricci © Paul-Antoine Taillefer