Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Judgment of Felix: Mythologizing History in Thomas Mann's Bekenntnisse Des Hochstaplers Felix Krull

Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Judgment of Felix: Mythologizing History in Thomas Mann's Bekenntnisse Des Hochstaplers Felix Krull

Article excerpt

Felix Krull, the hero of Thomas Mann's unfinished final novel, is many things: he is beautiful, seductive, intelligent, witty, loquacious, and skilled. He is also vain, narcissistic, hedonistic, manipulative, and deceitful. In Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull, Felix, as an older, wiser man, tells the story of his life from the confines of a prison cell. He recalls his development as a criminal and confidence trickster. Although the title presents the stoiy as a "confession," ostensibly a disclosure of truth after a lifetime of lies, Felix is also a self-confessedly unreliable narrator. He resembles a magician at the end of his career, offering to take the audience behind the scenes to see the sleight of hand used in the performance. Intradiegetically, Felix toys with apparent revelation while, in fact, continuing to conceal the more salient facts. And there is a deeper project at work on an extradiegetic level that has to date remained unnoticed. It is, moreover, one that elevates the novel from a final comedy to a narrative of substantial historical significance. This can be seen when we explore the multiple, complex allusions to myth as well as the literaiy references to Goethe in the work, and consider them in the particular historical and cultural context in which Mann was writing.

Mann began Felix Arw/Zbcforc the First World War, between 1910 and 1913, and then returned to it after the Second World War, continuing work in 1951 and leaving it unfinished in 1954. The writing process alone spanned a vast historical period. The final, still unfinished, version hints at the ways in which Mann was grappling not only with a personal stoiy of one man's failed development (an ironic kind of Bildungsroman), but also with the deformations of modern German histoiy. It is the way in which Mann uses the Paris myth, which was exploited by the Nazis, that provides the key to this interpretation-a deployment that has to date been largely overlooked. Intertwined with this use of the Paris myth are Mann's references to the Oedipus complex and the mother figures so beloved within the Nazi mother cult.

Mann called the novel "die Karikatur der großen Autobiographie und im Styl selbst eine Parodie auf Dichtung und Wahrheit, aber positiv endlich doch in seiner verzerrten Lyrik," and it is in Mann's engagement with Goethe that the first key to the enigma of Felix Krull lies (Briefe 258). Much has been written about Mann's tribute to Goethe in Felix Krull: Egon Schwarz suggests that Mann's imitation of Goethe's autobiography is most palpable in the echo of its "pompous tones" (257). Thomas Sprecher offers an extensive study of the parallels between Felix Krull and Dichtung und Wahrheit in terms of narrative style, theme, and plot (1); and Hans Wysling observes the strong resonance of Goethe's Faust II in the parody of "Walpurgisnacht" in the final episode of Felix Krull, while touching upon, but not fully elucidating, the significance of the Greek myth of Helena ("Semper idem," Aufsätze).

Many critics have commented on the evident mythological aspects of Felix Krull. Donald Nelson proposes that "the Hermes-motif [...] is the most distinctly identifiable mythic aspect of Felix Krull" a thesis adopted and preserved by the majority of critics since (2). Wysling, on the other hand, summarizes these discussions of mythology in Felix Krull by suggesting: "[d]er Parallelen sind unzählige. Alle treffen halb zu, halb nicht" ("Semper idem" 296). In a different camp altogether, Ernest Schonfield constructs the thesis that "[pjart of the object [...] is to rescue Felix Krull from readings which place too much emphasis on the mythological aspect of the novel" (4). Karl Kerényi, a scholar of Greek mythology and a friend of Mann's, suggests that the real mystery of Mann's works is located in far subtler allusions to myth than those which are immediately noticeable. In a foreword to the published correspondence between Mann and himself, Kerényi writes: "Dem schalkhaften Wunsch des großen hermetischen Meisters entspricht es, wenn ich es anderen überlasse, auf die Quellenjagd in meinen Schriften auszugehen und all das zu finden, was von dort in jene hohe erzählende Kunst überging (15). …

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