A Portrait of Two Artists as Unloved Men

Earlier this year, I had one of my periodic bouts of RSI, and as a result, there are several gaps in my reviews for 2011.  Now, as we’re coming up to the end of the year, I thought it would be nice to go back and revisit a few of the shorter pieces and give them the publicity they deserve, which is why today I’m reviewing a couple of German classics, both concerned with writers and unrequited love…

*****

I read Tonio Kröger on my Kindle a good while back now, but when I saw a cheap edition featuring this story and another of Thomas Mann’s novellas, Mario und der Zauberer, I couldn’t resist.  At the start of Tonio Kröger, our eponymous hero is a young boy growing up in a north-German town, the product of a marriage between a local businessman and a southern-European beauty.  Different from the locals in many ways (not least of which is his bi-cultural name), he falls in love with two examples of the Aryan folk around him: the popular Hans Hansen and the beautiful Inge Holm, neither of whom really feel the same way about him.

We fast forward a couple of decades, and now Kröger is a successful writer living in Munich.  In an attempt to relax, and get over some writing issues, he decides to take a trip to Denmark (taking in his old hometown on the way), ending up at a quiet coastal resort.  One day, after several weeks of tranquillity, a party of guests arrives, shattering the peace and quiet Kröger craves – and among them are two very familiar blond figures…
The story will ring a whole group of bells with anyone who has ever read Death in Venice, and there are many similarities with the more famous novella (although this one has a slightly less depressing ending!).  As is often the case in his work, Mann is exploring here the difficulties of being an artist, at the same time drawing deeply on his personal history to paint a picture of a Bohemian from a middle-class family.  It can be a little patronising when Kröger looks down on the attempts of working men to create their own little works of art, and his plea to keep literature away from those ‘normal’, happy folk who don’t need it is a little bizarre…

Despite this though, Tonio Kröger is a wonderful piece of writing.  You feel as if you are actually there with our unusually-named friend, walking around the old walls of Lübeck in the rain with Hans Hansen, crossing the sea to Denmark on a stormy night, sitting on the beach watching the grey-tipped waves roll in from a grey horizon…  It’s one of those stories which will be a constant companion in the years to come, a perfect book to curl up with in winter, when all you want is warmth, a cup of tea and a well-written story.  Happily, I now have my paper copy for that very purpose – reading it on my Kindle just isn’t the same…

*****
…which is not to say that my little electronic friend is not useful in its own right.  After all, my first reading of Tonio Kröger was in digital form, and were it not for free e-copies of classics, it’s doubtful that I would have got into the author of the next of today’s stories.

Earlier this year, I downloaded several of Theodor Storm’s short stories and novellas and had a wonderful few days losing myself in his storytelling world.  The best (and most famous) of these is Immensee (Lake of Bees), an evocative, and almost painful, tale of missed opportunity.  The story, divided up into about eight short sections, is contained within a frame narrative: an old, stern-looking man walks home and goes to his study, where he sits alone in the twilight.  When the fading light hits a portrait hanging on the wall, he mutters the name ‘Elisabeth’ – and memories come flooding back…

The real story then begins, and the reader is taken through the childhood of young Reinhard and his younger neighbour, Elisabeth.  The two children spend all their free time together, and it is clear from the start that theirs is a love waiting to happen.  Reinhard later leaves to study in the city, and Elisabeth is left behind to wait for his return.  Sadly though, a lot can happen in a couple of years – the next time the young couple meet, by the Immensee, Elisabeth is a married woman…

Ouch.  It’s painful just writing about it 😦  Not a lot happens in Immensee, but what does happen is unveiled in such wonderful language, such precise, elegant prose, that it stays with the reader long after the story is over.  Parallels abound in the story, from the two encounters Reinhard has with gypsy musicians, to the white lily floating in the lake, a beautiful flower which, on closer approach, is unattainable – just like Elisabeth herself.  On the last day the pair are to spend together, Reinhard points at the mountains and says:

“Elisabeth… hinter jenen blauen Bergen liegt unsere Jugend.  Wo ist sie geblieben?”

       “Elisabeth … behind those blue mountains lies our youth.  Where did it go?”

Shortly afterwards, the story ends, and we return to our old man sitting alone in his study, the darkness engulfing him as the black waters of the Immensee once did.

Excuse me while I get myself a tissue…

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10 thoughts on “A Portrait of Two Artists as Unloved Men

  1. (sniff) Immensee was quite the devastating story. I've read Tonio Kröger in a collection of Mann's stories but forgot what it's all about! I've only ever read some of Mann's novellas and short stories (most of his long novels are still on my wish list). My favorite story of his is “Disorder and Early Sorrow”.

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  2. I got that very same Tonio Kröger but haven't read it yet. I'm sure it is very good.
    Immensee is a wonderful novella. I really liked it a great deal.
    I had something very similar but it came from too much hand writing. Typing doesn't affect me that much. It's too bad, I prefer hand writing.

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  3. Rise – Yes, definitely a three-hanky novella, that one 😉 I haven't read that Mann story, but I'm sure I will at some point – just a matter of working out which collections to buy.

    Gary – Storm is a great writer, one who concentrated on short stories and novellas. Luckily, I can access most of them for my Kindle (not sure there are any translations available that way though…).

    Caroline – I always have a little pain, so I have to be careful with my typing. Hand-writing is no good though; I struggle to write much more than a few lines on paper any more 😦

    Guy – Repetitive Strain Injury (unfortunately, no laughing matter…). I occasionally have periods where I'm unable to type due to pains in my hand, arm and joints 😦

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  4. Since I wasn't a fan of Death in Venice, I'm not going to rush on the first one.

    I've never heard of the second writer and it appeals to me, so thanks. I'll try to find a French translation.

    Gosh, you were serious about RSI the other day? I thought it was a humourus way to call laziness…Sorry.

    Emma

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