Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A Small Masterpiece

Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early YearsConfessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man 
(The Early Years)
by Thomas Mann

"How inventive life is!  Lending substance to airy nothings, it brings our childhood dreams to pass.  Had not I in boyhood tasted in imagination those delights of incognito I fully savoured now, as I continued to go about my menial occupations for a while, keeping my new estate as secret as my princedom had once been?  Then it had been a merry and delightful game, now it had become a reality" (p 253)

I recently reread Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (The Early Years), Thomas Mann's last novel and a comic masterpiece. Felix Krull's confessions are filled with humorous episodes worthy of the Mann's story-telling mastery. Mann based the novel on an expanded version of a story he had written in 1911 and he managed to finish, and publish part one of the Confessions of Felix Krull, but due to his death in 1955 the saga of the morally flexible and irresistible conman, Felix, remained unfinished. In spite of that it is still one of the best novels I have read dealing with the question of identity.  It is that and much more.

Early in the story Felix learns to deal with circumstances by changing his character as needed and he continues to shift identities becoming whomever he needs to be in all the ensuing predicaments that he encounters. The expression of a latent admiration for a human being who can metamorphose himself into multiple identities reminds me of The Confidence Man by Herman Melville. That earlier novel is in a way a precursor to the modernity of Mann's unfinished opus. Felix Krull seems to view the world like a chessboard on which he can take pleasure in manipulating the pieces at will and cultivate his ambition and his knowledge of the ways of the world by spending whole days peering into shop windows.

There are three moments in the Confessions that exemplify the merging of identity and destiny of young Felix Krull. Early in the story Felix encounters an actor, Muller -Rose, whose extravagant operetta performance makes an indelible impression on him. The contrast between his stage character and his backstage repulsive self is a vision that impresses the young boy. The second moment occurs in Paris when Felix attends the circus. The performance of the acrobats and the high wire equilibrist Andromache were mesmerizing to Felix. "Andromache! Her vision, painful and uplifting at once, lingered in my mind long after her act was over and others had replaced it." (p 194)
The third moment occurs after Felix has settled into his identity as Venosta and is established in Lisbon. There is a bullfight which combines the flamboyance of the toreador costumes with the ravishing sensation of the duel to the death with the bull. Felix describes his impressions:
"the atmosphere that lay over all, at once oppressive and solemnly joyous, a unique mingling of jest, blood, and dedication, primitive holiday-making combined with the profound ceremonial of death." (p 375)
Each of these moments capture the sensation of Eros and Thanatos, pleasure and death, and form a counterpart to the often light-hearted way that Felix led his life as a confidence man.

He fools Venosta's parents with a lengthy letter that mimics the style of the man whose identity he has assumed and goes on to impress his contacts in Lisbon.  Yet, he maintains a calm demeanor throughout his escapades filled with confidence in his ability. The reader eventually succumbs to his charm in spite of an episodic life in different identities that was full of nervous suspense. It seems that Mann still had more story-telling magic left at the end of his life after World War II and decades after his great beginnings with Buddenbrooks and Death in Venice. The only regret is that Mann was unable to finish the novel; yet, the "early years" of Felix Krull still amounts to a small masterpiece.

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Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary on this book James.

I always have a little bit of a psychological barrier to reading these incomplete works. I always wonder how the author might have changes ideas as he or she worked further through the story.

With that metamorphosing identity is always a fascinating topic. In addition to the works that you mention I Think about F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

James said...


Thanks for your comment. The unfinished nature does not diminish the power of the novel as published. The narrator's ability to change his identity is fascinating in part because he is so comfortable in doing so.

Lory said...

I've been wanting to read some German books in translation, and it sounds like this might be a great choice. Your description makes me think of Robertson Davies's World of Wonders and I suspect it might be an influence. I've never read any Mann so it would be good try.

James said...


If you have never read Thomas Mann you are in for a treat with this novel. If you like it you may want to try some of his earlier short works like Tonio Kroger, Mario and the Magician, and the masterpiece, Death in Venice.
If you like family sagas (comparable to Galsworthy) you may want to read his first major novel, Buddenbrooks. Like most of his work it is also masterpiece and it was a best seller that made his name as an author.