Thomas Mann and Frank Kafka are two of the great 20th century writers in German. I draw some comparisons, below.
Kafka: the lift and the downward drift
Kafka had a knack of opening his longer works – I am thinking of his novels and The Metamorphosis – with arresting sentences that point to the whole development of the ensuing story, like an omen.
It was late evening when K arrived. The village lay in deep snow. The castle hill was invisible; it was enveloped in fog and darkness; from the great castle not even the faintest light shone through.
Somebody must have told lies about Josef K, for although he had done nothing wrong, he was arrested one morning.
As Gregor Samsa woke one morning from disturbing dreams, he found himself transformed into a monstrous insect.
As the sixteen-year-old Karl Rossmann, sent to America by his poor parents because a maid had seduced him and had had a child by him, was sailing into New York Harbour on board the gradually slowing ship, he caught sight again of the Statue of the Goddess of Liberty, which appeared to be lit up by a burst of sunshine. Clutching her sword, her arm towered above him….
(All the translations are my own.)
“Now read on!”
Kafka’s prose is very precise; and I would not wish any sentence or clause to be taken away.
The last named novel concerns a very young man and his career in exile in the USA. On his way, he suffers further insults and further losses – precarious friendships are broken, repeatedly, as he lands in difficulties and is obliged to keep moving on. He works for a short time as a hotel lift boy, at the bottom of the staff hierarchy, happy in his relationship with two women on the hotel staff. He ends up being reprimanded by his superiors, over an act of kindness to an acquaintance, and he is dismissed. Things cannot get worse — but indeed they do. (However, this verdict depends on how one construes the ending, or endings, that have come down to us.) (See my blog post of September 2013.)
As I have said before, Kafka succeeds in creating pathos, in the context of a credible, albeit nightmarish, world of his own devising.
Mann: the lift and the uplift
The last novel of Thomas Mann was called Die Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull – The Confessions of the Confidence Trickster Felix Krull. I have just re-read it.
Note that the novel is unfinished; only the First Part exists; Thomas Mann died before he could continue it.
Felix Krull is affected by the collapse of his father’s business and his father’s suicide; and he has to make his own way in the world. This he does – via Frankfurt am Main, Paris and Lisbon.
Felix is a pícaro – the novel is picaresque and comic. The hero makes the most of the opportunities offered him; and he goes from strength to strength. In Paris, he commences work as a hotel lift boy. He is promoted to waiter. He is befriended by several hotel guests; and (to cut a long story short) he exchanges places with an aristocrat (at the latter’s request), assuming his identity, and starts out on the nobleman’s planned world tour in his place, so that the aristocrat can remain in Paris with his girlfriend. So, Felix goes up in the world, whether he deserves to or not. And he makes the most of it.
Many of Felix’s adventures have to do with sexual relationships – all short term, as he keeps moving on (onwards and upwards). He is befriended by a Lisbon family, and he chooses to linger in the city, lost in admiration, as he is, for both mother and daughter. Which one (if either) will he seduce, or be seduced by?
To my mind, one of the jokes of the book is the surname of the father/husband, which is “Kuckuck”, i.e. “cuckoo”. Will Felix cuckold him?
Thomas Mann’s irony, and his allusions to (and parodies of) previous writers, can be found, if you look for them. His prose is sophisticated. Kafka’s, by contrast, remains, at root, plain. Mann’s style, moreover, is difficult: his prose is characterised by very long sentences, with subordinate clauses, a very wide vocabulary, numerous adjectives; and it has a rather old-fashioned air. Mann works hard to create local colour, especially in the Lisbon scenes, and he succeeds. But I still prefer Kafka’s prose; and it is easier to translate.
Finally, I’ll quote the opening sentence of the Confessions, in a free translation, in order to compare it with Kafka’s (above). (One should make allowances for the first person nature of the narrative and the self-congratulatory nature of the narrator himself.)
As I take up my pen, at my leisure and in privacy, while still healthy, though tired, very tired (so that I can proceed only in short stages and with frequent rests in between) – as I prepare, then, to commit my confessions, in my distinctively clear and felicitous handwriting, to the paper that waits patiently for me, I have fleeting doubts as to whether I am really equal to the mental effort required, given my patchy education and training.
And so the novel goes on, in this vein.
To compensate somewhat for my criticism, I’ll quote the ending. Here it is (very freely translated):
“Holé! Heho! Ahé!” she cried, in great jubilation. A whirlwind of primitive forces transported me into a state of rapture. And, amid my ardent caresses, I could see her truly regal bosom rise, to greater heights, with greater passion, than at today’s bull fight.
I’ll leave it to you, gentle reader, to guess which lady ends up in the protagonist’s arms (unless, of course, you already know).