Thursday, October 26, 2006

Tonio Kroger

These days, I am reading a collection of short stories by Thomas Mann that includes his classic novella, Death in Venice. I liked Death in Venice but I liked another story, Tonio Kroger, even more. Kroger, in the words of his painter friend Lisaveta Ivanovna, is a "bourgeois manque". There is an interesting piece of dialogue between the two which reveals Mann's views on the tragic position of an artist in bourgeois society, or rather, more appropriately, the tragic position of an artist with bourgeois sensibilities. Kroger, the artist, longs to be commonplace. He craves the simplicity that an unexamined life bestows. In a letter to Lisaveta, he writes:

"I stand between two worlds. I am at home in neither and this makes things a little difficult for me. You artists call me bourgeois, and the bourgeois feel they ought to arrest me ..."

He likens the bourgeois way of living to a "love for the human and the living and the ordinary". He is caught between the charms of narrating others' experiences as a writer on the one hand, and the tragically vicarious living that such a profession entails, on the other.

There is another, magical passage which takes place during Kroger's stopover at Aalsgaard. He is staying at a seaside hotel and on the day described, there is a party in the evening. At the party, he comes across Hans Hansen and Ingeborg Holm arriving hand in hand. Kroger had loved them both at one time. Hans was his schoolmate and Inge the daughter of a local doctor. Looking at Inge dance at the ball and recollecting his humiliation at being unable to dance quadrille, Kroger thinks to himself:

"Did you laugh at me on that occasion, when I danced the moulinet and made such a miserable fool of myself? And would you still laugh today, even now when I have become, in my own way, a famous man? Yes, you would - and you would be a thousand times right to do so, and even if I, single-handed, had composed the Nine Symphonies and written The World as Will and Idea and painted The Last Judgment - you would still be right to laugh, eternally right...

Mark the line: "even if I, single-handed, had composed the Nine Symphonies and written The World as Will and Idea and painted The Last Judgment - you would still be right to laugh, eternally right." Kroger laments that the two people he has deeply loved, Hans and Inge, were given a chance, the space to have 'that'- that love. Mann introduces an undercurrent of envy via this passage. How can Kroger not be envious when it is the lack of that happiness that he tries to cover up with his fascination for language? It's a lower love clearly, his regard for the literary life; hence the jealousy.

What Mann seems to be saying is that despite its charms and enticements, language cannot replace that sentiment, one which involves the human element. Kroger is all literary, but he looks upon it as a shortcoming, a malady in the blood that he has inherited from his flamboyant mother. He wishes to dispel a sense of being left out, to be accepted into bourgeois society. As people make merry at the ball, laughing, dancing, Kroger feels left out of the loop of back-slapping and "mundane" everyday stuff. He has closed himself from the first step that transforms a personal interaction into love.

Kroger's love for things bookish may have given him reason to somehow overlook this love as a smaller sentiment, which it clearly isn't. Kroger's tragedy is that he realizes this but feels condemned to lead the artist's life. He is at the receiving end of a flagstaff whose pride owners, in spite of their rough, unlettered ways, Hans and Inge are.

It's like being told surreptitiously, insidiously - that the edifice on which he had studiously built his life is so weak it laughs at him for the seriousness and privacy in which he has caged his loneliness.

In the pic, Thomas Mann.

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