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Love in Society: Thomas Mann's Early Stories

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 April 2017

Wolfgang Lederer
Affiliation:
University of California Medical School in San Francisco
Wolfgang Lederer
Affiliation:
Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, University of California
Egon Schwarz
Affiliation:
Professor Emeritus of German and the Rosa May Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at Washington University
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Summary

The kind reader, looking back over the early stories of Thomas Mann — those light, delicious, bittersweet concoctions — may well be struck by the recognition that they are also a veritable freak show of crippled bodies and lives. And the thought may arise that their author must have been an unhappy young man indeed. Nor need we guess as to this, for he has told us himself: those years were a time of “numbness, emptiness, ice,” and also, he adds, of intellect and art, but that did not compensate for the lack of human warmth. The future looked bleak — recall Tonio Kröger's “for some there just is no right way.” But be assured: his luck is about to change.

Not, of course, all at once or right away.

Thus the little study “Gerächt” (Avenged, 1899), written when Mann was twenty-four, still emanates that same bitterness. Its twenty-year-old narrator, claiming to be tired of sexual excesses, is cultivating a “pure,” meaning a purely intellectual, friendship with an older Russian woman of “unambiguous and resolute ugliness.” This in itself should exclude all sensuality, but even so an “evil excitement” at times troubles the atmosphere. To clarify matters once and for all, the narrator bluntly explains to her that he appreciates the compatibility of their spirits but feels an abhorrence for her body. She accepts his declaration with apparent calm but returns his frankness by revealing that she had once had a sexual affair. He suddenly finds himself aroused by the thought that “this woman let someone make love to her. Her body has been embraced by a man,” and he suggests that they, too, should have intercourse. She rejects his advances and departs, “a mocking smile on her ugly lips.” The narrator, stupefied, taps his forehead and goes to bed.

Thomas Mann repeatedly protested that all his writings were based on his own life. “About me I am writing, about me” (GW 10, 22; Mann's emphasis), but we may question how much of this story is truly “lived.” Was there in fact a time of “debauchery” in the life of young Thomas when he was about twenty years old? His autobiographies do speak of a “late and violent outbreak of sexuality” at that age (GW 11, 111), but he is never specific as to its nature.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2004

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