Mario and The Magician – Thomas Mann / Leporella – Stefan Zweig (Translated repectively by H T Lowe Porter and Anthea Bell)

Only 5 sleeps to German Literature Month, and I’m warming up with a couple of German short stories. Although “warm up” might not be the right term. They both gave me shivers.

With Il Duce firmly ensconced in Italy, and the Weimar Republic looking increasingly vulnerable, the looming threat of fascism was firmly in Thomas Mann’s mind. So he sends a family on holiday to the fictional seaside resort, Torre di Venere, Italy. It might turn out to be the holiday of a lifetime, but for all the wrong reasons. They are not welcomed by their fellow guests, who complain about the children making too much noise. (A tawdry excuse, in reality class snobbery is at play.) However, they are asked to leave. The second hotel is much more pleasant, but they are uncomfortable with the nationalism that is on display at every turn. Even the beach was live with patriotic children – a phenomenon as unnatural as it was depressing. As foreigners they also outstay their welcome by remaining for a short while post-season. The Italians want to reclaim their space for themselves.

Before leaving the family attend a performance by a magician and hypnotist named Cipolla. His show starts innocuously enough with card tricks and the like. But by degrees the show becomes more sinister as he turns to hypnotism and mind control, and he becomes more authoritarian by the minute. Cynics and dissenters are not permitted, and Mario is one such. Cipolla spots him in the audience, and a battle of wills begins. There will be only one survivor.

The analogy is clear: freedom of thought and fascism cannot coexist.

Stefan Zweig’s Leporella does not have political undertones, but there are similarities. The story is full of psychological cruelty with a death needed for resolution to be reached.

At the age of 39, the spinster Crescentia Anna Aloisia Finkenhuber, as lowly a woman as her name is long, moves from the village of her birth to Vienna to become a house servant. She does not land in a happy household, the master being a little too familiar with the servants. One day he gives Crescentia an unthinking pat on the backside …

Well, these days all hell would break loose. Consequences in Zweig are radically different. Crescentia, who is shown to be unattractive and unintelligent, becomes as devoted as a dog to her master. When the mistress goes to a sanitorium for a while, the master uses his freedom to bed a string of girls. Crescentia makes his life easy, preparing the bed, going so far as procuring girls for him. One of these nicknames her Leporella.

When the mistress returns and marital discord erupts once more, Leporella’s master leaves the house muttering “This has got to end”. Leporella takes these words literally. The outcome is not as she expects. “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us” sang Sparks, and pitching a baron against a house servant is a pretty uneven battle. Though you may think that Leporella deserves her fate. She is that unlikeable, Zweig having spent the whole story layering unflattering aspects on with a trowel. And yet, the master of the heartstrings still makes readers groan with the tragedy of the final sentence.

In summary, these stories are powerful additions to the catalogue of great 1929 German literature which includes Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel, Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (cf readalong posts 1, 2, 3 and 4) and Erich Kästner’s Emil and The Detectives.

The 1929 club is hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in A Book.