Confessions 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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