Academic journal article German Quarterly

Teaching "Tonio Kröger" in 2010: Loss, Repetition, and Art

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Teaching "Tonio Kröger" in 2010: Loss, Repetition, and Art

Article excerpt

"Hee, hee, hee," the small, wizened German professor laughed. "Who else thought it was really Hans and Inge? I don't understand it. Even good students of German make this mistake." I too had believed it was the original Hans and Inge who arrived at the Danish resort to revive a j aded Tonio Kroger. A coward, I pressed my lips firmly together and let my fellow student take the heat. The same professor had some weeks earlier laughed at me for a naïve observation, and at nineteen, I didn't relish making myself a target a second time.

But in fact I loved this course on Thomas Mann. I took it in English when my German was not yet good enough to speed through Mann's principal works in a single semester. I thus knew Mann through H. T. Lowe-Porter's translation before I knew him in his own German words. When asked about my favorite author in the following decade, I'd reflexively answer, "Thomas Mann" - and not without a little intellectual arrogance. Later on I wondered why I had swallowed Mann hook, line, and sinker, hadn't been more critical, hadn't, like fellow feminists of my generation, considered whether this pompous German male writer had anything to say to a Midwestern teenage girl in late twentieth-century America. Indeed, why hadn't I, like rebellious students of my generation, questioned whether I had to defer to the authority of greatness? In the mid 1990s, although my romance with Thomas Mann was over, I myself began teaching "Tonio Kroger " in English in a course designed to introduce German majors and curious Anglophone students to thirteen of the greatest hits of German letters. I had repeated occasions to cringe at my early love for Thomas Mann and recall my disenchantment.

"Tonio Kröger" embarrassed me. After a decade of literary criticism devoted to overcoming binaries, Mann's use of antithesis struck me as facile and unsubtle; Tonio's self-pity, his moaning over his mixed heritage seemed silly and solipsistic in an era of multiculturalism and multi-ethnic classes of students. But I dutifully historicized and explained and then felt compromised when I noticed that students were entering Mann's game of oppositions and repetitions. I had trouble presenting the young Mann's belief that the opposition between art and life was the most important modern problem, even if I understood the historical moment and the biographical circumstances that made it such for him and that inform this text. It was thus a source of relief when one semester a student irreverently referred to Tonio as a "drama queen," enabling us to talk about the protagonist's self-absorption and the pretention of the text. Usually I simply found myself longing for the following week when we'd be discussing Kafka, whose work invariably teaches like a dream. Forme, Kafka is a safe bet for teaching; Mann, perhaps because I'd once been so fond, a hard sell.

Time passes, things change. I've now taught "Tonio Kröger " in this course at least ten times. In the process, I've come to look forward to picking it up again, largely on account of the return of Hans and Inge in Denmark, now in David Luke's words rather than in Lowe-Porter's, now lodged between the dark blue cover with Noyes's "Venetian Gondola" that has replaced the once ubiquitous teal, brown, green, and yellow cover of my undergraduate days.1 My anticipation of that silent walk before the empty backdrop of the sea awakens anew each time I read this text with students.

The narrator dramatizes the moment: "Then suddenly it happened: Hans Hansen and Ingeborg Holm walked through the dining room." I don't laugh at the students who fail to notice that Hans is still wearing his reefer jacket and sailor's cap and thus can't be the real Hans of Tonio's childhood. I tell them that I took the sentence literally when I first read it at their age and ask them why one does. After all, the narrator says it's Hans and Inge; readers tend to rely on narrators and one has not learned to distrust this one. …

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