I’m late to the #1954club, just sneaking onto the pitch before the final whistle. The title of my next read – Ismail Kadare’s Broken April – tells you all you need to know. Though I’m curious to see if there’s a novel along the lines of Restored in May, because that’s what I’m hoping for in relation to the plumbing and associated water damage issues that have dogged real life during the past month. Enough … onwards …
“This I too have been”, said Thomas Mann in relation to the protagonist of his final unfinished novel, Felix Krull. In what respect? In the sense of being a fraud, a conman. Interesting that the word “Hochstapler” is missing from the title of Denver Lindley’s 1955 translation. Got to wonder why. Would a word that makes the novel so much more interesting to me have turned mid-1950s readership away? I doubt it. I’ll refer you to Cólm Toíbin’s The Magician to discover the fraud(s) that Thomas Mann was guilty of. I can say they are nothing like those of Felix Krull.
Who loses everything, including a home on the idyllic banks of the River Rhine, following the suicide of his bankrupt vintner father. A move to Frankfurt am Main sees him help his mother set up a guest-house before he moves to Paris to work as a lift attendant in a high class hotel. On the way he commits his first theft as he goes through French customs. It is this opportunistic appropriation of valuable jewellery that enables him to take advantage of further opportunities that present themselves. For Krull is not a hardened criminal, he’s just not the man to look a gift horse in the mouth. And so, if not exactly by foul means, but certainly not by moral ones, within 400 pages, he moves from being denied all access to fine society, to travelling the world, even obtaining an audience with the King of Portugal, masquerading as the Marquis de Venosta ….. with the real Marquis’s blessing!
Thomas Mann was obviously in playful mood when writing this. But he was also taking a pot shot at the giant of German literature, Goethe, mimicking the high-blown style of Goethe’s autobiography, Poetry and Truth. This makes Krull’s confessions rather wordy, the elevated nature of the language in stark contrast to the dubiousness, and in places raunchiness, of the action. Pacing is, thereby, somewhat sedate, rendered more so through typical Mann-like digressions into all manner of things. (Philosophy, evolution, for example.) But these, I’ll admit, reflect the innate curiosity of his young anti-hero, who proves himself a natural and silver-tongued chameleon. There is tension in wondering when his cover will be blown. The weak points being the letters he must send to the Marquis’s aristocratic parents. Indeed all indications are that details in the exuberant first letter to “his parents” don’t quite gel with them.
When will they catch on? Certainly not in this volume which ends with Krull about to make another conquest in Lisbon, before setting sail for South America. Unfortunately Thomas Mann who passed away in 1955 was unable to complete Krull’s 12-month voyage around the world.