English Section

Tonio Kröger with Rainer Maria Rilke

This short novel is wonderful. It has some points in common, but only a few, with Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Both cultivate solitude, accepted as a sacred duty or as a curse, the difficulty of being like Thomas Mann Tonio Kröger 2normal people who live their lives to the fullest, and the distrust of false literature (in Mann’s case, the ironic scene where the officer reads his sentimental verses in a gathering of respectable people, Rilke’s warnings about “what they call literature”). Mann and Rilke were born in the same year (1875). Mann’s short story and the letters to F.X. Kappus were written at about the same time; they were both around twenty-eight years old. One is always surprised when one remembers that the Letters to a Young Poet were written…, well, by a young poet. Kröger does not keep his childhood inside him, he grows up quickly, travels, becomes an adult, flees eccentricity, seeks human warmth, and reconciliation with society. It is perhaps to an extent the story of prose vs. poetry. But he remains concerned, like Rilke, to know himself, without ever losing the feeling of being excluded. Mann would later devote his work to exploring thoroughly “the sickly nobility of literature.” Same contrast in their attitude to the First World War, desired in exaltation by Rilke as by many others who wanted to fight the Empire, described by Mann in two strokes of the pen in all its barbarity in the last pages of The Magic Mountain, where to the “thunderbolt” that resounds throughout Europe when Germany declares war on Russia a month after the Sarajevo assassination (the same day that Kafka wrote in his diary: “August 2, 1914: Germany has declared war on Russia. Went swimming in the afternoon.”), Hans Castorp runs out of the sanatorium where he had been staying for seven years and rushes to the front where he will be eaten alive.

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