Thomas Mann: Tonio Kröger (1903)

Tonio Kröger

Tonio Kröger is considered one of Thomas Mann’s masterpieces, but only a few elements spoke to me, most of it infuriated me.  The writing is stellar, as usual, and the way he described Lübeck – the narrow alleys and gabled roofs – made me want to travel there, but the idea of the artist as tortured soul and ultimately superior was hard to stomach.

Tonio Kröger is the son of a German Consul and a Southern woman. He’s got his looks, – dark eyes and dark hair – and the name from her. From an early age on, Tonio feels he’s different, an outsider. Not only because his mother’s from the South, but because he loves books and art and feels like an artist. He first feels an intense love for blond and blue-eyed Hans and later for the blond, blue-eyed Inge. They seem to live in another sphere, a happier one, more immersed in life and what society expects from them.

Tonio wants to become a writer and finally, in his twenties, leaves Lübeck for Munich where he lives a life of debauchery, which disgusts him eventually. A long central chapter shows us Tonio discussing his views of art and life with the painter Lisaweta Iwanowna. Tonio is in his thirties now. Prematurely aged and sobered. Shortly afterwards, he departs for his hometown Lübeck. He visits his family home, which has been sold after the death of his father. One part of the stately home houses a public library. Tonio walks through the once familiar rooms. There’s nothing here for him anymore. He leaves for Denmark. At the hotel in Denmark he meets Hans and Inge again. They are married. He watches them without making himself seen. He’s less an outsider now than a spectator, still, he feels keenly that he’s different and decides to return home which isn’t Lübeck anymore.

A last letter to Lisaweta tells us he’s made peace with himself and will return to Munich for good.

The descriptions and the structure of the novella are wonderful. The way Mann captures the feeling of being an outsider is something one can easily relate to. But I didn’t like the ideas contained in the book. Tonio suffers a lot and he would like to be an ordinary person, like Hans and Inge. He would like to be blond and blue-eyed because those people have an easier, happier life. He’s tortured because he’s no conformist, but an artist. This is so dated and clichéd, it’s painful. Plus the association of blue eyes, blond hair with health and strength made me shudder. There’s also a lot of arrogance in this depiction of an artist. Yes, Tonio does suffer – or says so – , but he very obviously feels superior too.

I don’t think you have to be a tortured soul to be a great artists. Feeling like an outsider and being a non-conformist, most probably comes with it, but it doesn’t mean you have to suffer. And it most certainly doesn’t mean you are superior. I can’t accept the idea of an artist (or anyone else) as a superior person  or as “chosen”. That’s pure hubris. Tonio Kröger is filled to the brim with hubris. The suffering Tonio professes felt more like a pose than real pain.

Has anyone read Tonio Kröger? How do you feel about it?

63 thoughts on “Thomas Mann: Tonio Kröger (1903)

  1. To be fair, I think in those days you needed to distance yourself perhaps more from the ‘bourgeoisie’ to be an artist (it was still regarded as unseemly, certainly in parts of Germany). Yes, it is very self-absorbed and self-indulgent – but I hear modern artists/writers sounding very similar to that at times…

    • Yes, true, I hear some speak like that but I have no patience for this kind of thinking.
      It’s a dated text but what struck me even more is that Mann was not a bohemian. I find him a very bourgeois author. Keeping up appearances was important for him. I’m just mentioning this because Tonio Kröger is said to be highly autobiographical.

        • Sadly that’s often true.
          I think the blond-blue-eyed thing got to me the most. It reminded me that he – unlike Heinrich Mann – had some dubious political ideas when he was younger. He also supported WWI, while his brother was against it. But maybe I’m reading too much into this. I like the way he writes about artists in Dr Faustus much better.

      • Caroline, could you please explain a little more about what makes you find Mann to be “a very bourgeois author”? I think I know what you mean, but the bourgeois/anti-bourgeois talk comes up so much more often from Europeans and South Americans that this North American isn’t always quite sure what to make of it as a descriptor!

        • I’m not surprised. It’s a very European concept, I guess.
          In Mann’s case it has to do with two things. He came from a wealthy family and made a lot of money with his writing. So, I think the life of ease is bourgeois. (I have an assumption, I could be wrong but for me he’s not a writer who would have gone on writing if he hadn’t been successful.) While it’s not his fault he was born wealthy, his choices are his own. He led a conventional life – hiding his homosexuality, marrying, having many children. He’s just so not bohemian. I think repressing his unconventional sides was bourgeois and I’m not surprised poor Klaus acted it all out.

        • Didn’t Mann write of von Ashenbach (in Death in Venice), or maybe it was Tonio Kroger, that he was “too bourgeois for the bohemians, and too bohemian for the bourgeois”. I’ve always assumed Mann was writing about himself here; but then I’ve always found Mann far too bourgeois personally.

          I remember liking Tonio Kroger a lot, but it was a long time ago I read it; perhaps I would think differently now.

          • Yes, I think he says that in Tonio Kröger but it’s a recurring theme and he is portraying himself. I too find him too bourgeois to really love his books but I admire his writing.
            I have afeeling I would have loved this as a teenager.

  2. Thanks for an intriguing review. I confess to having read *no* Mann yet but I understand what you’re saying here – however wonderful the writing, you have to connect with the characters somehow!

  3. Caroline: I have a number of Thomas Mann titles in my library (knowing I SHOULD read them) but I have yet to get to them. A few years ago, I read a LRB article about Thomas and Heinrich Mann. I’d heard of Thomas and his books repeatedly but Heinrich seems to be this afterthought or overshadowed by his brother. I read the excellent article and came to the conclusion that if I’d met them, I would have like Heinrich–who came across as one of those people wounded by life. Anyway that’s what made me track down the two novels I’ve read so far. Can’t say I would have liked Thomas. And, of course, while “liking” how an author sounds has very little to do with how you’ll find their books, I had this idea that Heinrich’s books would have more–what can I say–doubt to them, no absolute conclusions as he explored the vagaries of human nature.

  4. Hi, Caroline. I seem to be always in the situation of commenting from a default position of not having read the exact text you’re concerned with, but having read something from the same author. As long as you don’t object to that, I’ll comment, and I hope that maybe I’ll be lucky enough soon to have read something you’re actually writing about. So far, I’ve read “Death in Venice,” “The Magic Mountain,” and “Doctor Faustus.” My basic reaction to Thomas Mann so far is that he is a bit turgid and too complicated for my level of understanding: at least, I always feel stupid when I read him. But he does seemingly have a real fascination with disease and perversity as metaphors for the artistic life, even when he’s simultaneously lauding artists to the skies. In “The Magic Mountain,” there was the same “blond = health” thing at first, and tuberculosis was a romantic disease, and in “Death in Venice,” instead of people being taken for what they are and their appearances being “it is what it is,” the young man whom the male narrator is in love with (Tadzio) has blue teeth that symbolize sexual perversity and death, with both being seen as beautiful. It’s not that I regard it as sexually perverse to be gay, which in this day and age is a backward attitude, but that Mann clearly does, despite the number of times in his work that gay relationships are prevalent. About Doctor Faustus, I can’t remember very much, which is weird, because I read it for a class, and should have more impressed upon my memory. I think I might like to investigate Heinrich Mann, just to see how he’s different.

    • I enjoy your comments and they always contribute to the discussion, even when you haven’t read a particular book. So, please, don’t worry.
      I haven’t read The Magic Mountain but the other books you mention. I loved Doctor Faustus but my memory isn’t too fresh. I read it for my A-Levels.
      I never found him turgid, rather dry in a cerebral way. Very knowledgeable and a bit showy. But his German is so beautiful. He words things so well. Amazing sentences. It’s a great pleasure to read.
      But there’s not a lot of warmth. I noticed this especially since I’m reading Joseph Roth now. Mann can be extremely witty and funny though. One of my favourites is Felix Krull. Such a hoot.
      I need to read Heinrich Mann.

      • You know, part of my difficulty with appreciating Thomas Mann’s prose may in fact be my translation; you say that his German is beautiful, but I have no German, and so am dependent upon a reflection, an interpretation, which is what a translation is. So often, when a writer has a world-class reputation, the translator is so overcome with awe by the subject that he or she attempts to elevate the style beyond even its own elevation, with the result of the turgidity I mention. Still, T. Mann does make me feel half-witted; I’ll have to read Tonio Kroger and see what I think of that particular text. Thanks for your review.

        • I’ve never looked at a translation of his books but if he comes across as turgid something might have gone a bit wrong.
          I’d love to hear your thoughts on Tonio Kröger. It’s a quick read. Seventy-five pages or so.
          I wouldn’t want to translate Thomas Mann.

  5. I’m so glad you read this, Caroline. It’s decades since I did and thus, the Tonio Kröger references in Uwe Tellkamp’s Tower were a bit lost on me. But now I understand. Christian, arguably, the main character in The Tower, identifies himself with TK. He wants to become a writer, and is very detached from his contemporaries, and, yes, he suffers for it. Set in 1983-1988, perhaps The Tower demonstrates that these ideas aren’t so outmoded at all?

    Neither am I offended at the blond=health idea. It was an idea at that time – it’s where it ended up that makes it so offensive now. No, no, far more shocking to me is the linkage Munich=debauchery. Mann does that in Buddenbrooks too. Yet he ended up living there himself! There must be some interesting autobiographical details to be flushed out by these associations ….

    • I’m sure it would be worth to dig deeper. The fact that he describes the love for a boy is also very telling but it doesn’t seem as if anyone read anything into it at the time.
      I’m glad I could shed some light on Tellkamp’s novel. I think the feeling of not being connected or an outsider is accurate but I hated that it made him feel superior although he pretends he woul want to be different.
      I always have a problem whit generalisations like those about blond people. It’s interesting that he associates Munich with debauchery.

  6. Yeah, this is a silly book. Lots of bad or conventional ideas in it. I take it as a kind of parody or extension of Buddenbrooks – what if Hanno had lived, and had been a writer rather than a musician. He would have been unbearable, apparently.

    I did enjoy the library scene a lot, a bit of Hoffmann-like dreaming that floats into the story from somewhere.

    The Hesse novel I am writing about has some similar problems, but at least there the misunderstood genius is 16, so much is forgiven; all is forgiven. Poor kid. If Tonio Kröger had just stuck with the teenager, it would be easy to forgive him, too, however much he makes me wince.

    • Thanks for tis comment, Tom. I’ve read so much about Tonio Kröger and no analysis ever mentioned anything of what I saw. I’m glad you felt the same.
      I think he was too young when he wrote this to want it to be a parody. Most biographers agree – he wrote about himself in this story.
      Yes, the libray scene is great. THe whole return to Lübeck scene is. That’s why I liked the sructure of the novella. It’s diverse – a bit disjointed but that makes it interesting.
      I started a Hesse biography and the young Hesse must have been insufferable – but he was much more of a rebel than Thomas Mann. I’m looking forward to your post.

    • Those biographers are right! And the parts of Buddenbrooks about Hanno are also about himself. I am not using “parody” in the sense of mocking, but more technically. Rearranging, commenting upon. What if I (T. Mann) had told the story this way rather than that way.

  7. Thanks for a very interesting and balanced review. I’ve yet to read either of the Manns, but based on your commentary and others’ comments, I wonder if I might fare better with Heinrich. TM’s Felix Krall sounds good though – would it make a decent one to try as an introduction?

    • Thanks, Jacqui. Felix Krull is late Mann and unfinished, still, yes, I find it would be a good introduction. I really loved Death in Venice at the time but maybe re-reading it I wouldn’t? I’m not sure.
      Felix Krull is lighter, more playful.

  8. I haven’t read it, but it seems to me that there is something in the idea of the ‘suffering artist’ – so many of them did and do, and research shows that creative people seem more predisposed to mental illness and psychological problems. Is Mann alluding to Nietsche’s ubermensch when he writes about the artist being ‘superior’? It sounds as if he might be. And that ghastly ‘Ayran myth’ was so prevalent back then. As distasteful as it is today, it did influence people’s thinking. I wonder if Mann sought to undermine it by writing about it?

    • No he didn’t want to undermine it in this book. Later, yes, not here.
      Something Nietzschean might go on too. The thing is Tonio doesn’t suffer – he pretends he does. You know how some people com plain about bad things just to be able to talk about how great they are? “So and so is soooo jealous. Is it my fault I’m so clever/rich/talented/beautiful” – Sometimes the perosn might really be sad abou the other one’s jealousy but often it’s a way to brag and hide it.

          • I read it and I loved it! I thought all the stuff about the North and South, and blond and dark, was highly symbolic, and the Schopenhauer-inspired ranting about being an artist was deeply ironic and sardonic. I think Tonio is so tormented because he’s consumed by homoerotic desire for Hans and boys/men like him, but I liked him and his waspish tongue. As you say, the writing is gorgeous. The translation by David Luke (Vintage) is really good. I’ll write a post about what I thought. 🙂

            • How interesting that you read it in such a different way. I was surprised to find this homoerotic element in an early story but I didn’t think that was what tormented Tonio.
              I feel it was being an outsider. The writing is gorgeous, isn’t it? The best part for me is when he returns to Lübeck. Imagine what house they had that only part of it is turned into a public library. And how uncanny to see your old rooms transformed that way. I really looking forward to read your review.

  9. I like how you are really digging and wrestling with the ideas in this book Caroline.

    The entire racially tinged superiority thing is of course, worthy of your shudder.

    The entire idea that to be a great artist one must suffer has indeed become a cliche. I think that great artists come from different sources. I believe that suffering can be part of the equation and that some artists who were great would not have been so without having suffered. But this is not always the case, and probably not the case for most great artists.

    The artist being a superior person is something that I also get when I read Hermann Hesse. Mann and Hess were friends and communicated a lot.

    • I didn’t feel that so much when I read Hesse but it’s been a while.
      I think that many probably wouldn’t have created anything if they hadn’t suffered but many might have been even more productive/creative without.
      It was an interesting novella though and can still engage discussions.

  10. Wonderful review, Caroline. I would like to read that conversation between Tonio and Lisaweta. I think I would love to read this book, though I am not sure I would agree with some what Mann says, as you have described. I have read just one book by Mann – ‘Death in Venice’ – and I didn’t really appreciate it as much as I should have, when I read it. I read some of the passages in that book recently and I found them very beautiful. Mann’s writing is definitely stellar, as you have put it. It is sad though that he celebrates the blonde hair-blue eyed thing as superior. He must have been a product of his times during his early days, but still it doesn’t read so well now. On what Violet calls the Aryan myth, one of my friends named her son ‘Aryan’. He is stuck with that for the rest of his life. I don’t know what he will think of it, when he grows up.

    • There’s a lot to like here even though you would probabaly not appreciate all of it. He writes beautifully. I would be interested to hear what you think of this. It’s short.
      I’m not so sure he sees blonde and blue-eyed as superior. He thinks they are healthier, stronger, but in a way also shallower. Still – it’s very biased as if hair/eye/skin color would determine anything per se. THe way you are preceived may change and that changes you. I just have such problems with such generalisations.
      I suppose the name Aryan has other connotations in India but it’s not a fortunate choice.

  11. Oh my, I read this back when I was about 18 and probably didn’t really understand a word of it! I’m not sure if you’ve read Susan Sontag’s brilliant book, Illness as Metaphor, but she talks a lot about the way tuberculosis is used in the early 20th century as a ‘positive’ illness, one that marks the sufferer out as extra-sensitive and creative. I find that interesting, as illness of any kind becomes increasingly stigmatised in our society, and strength privileged above all else, no matter what form it takes. (I would also much rather read Susan Sontag than Thomas Mann, but that’s just a question of personal taste!). It might make an interesting counterpoint to this book.

    • In this book Mann only writes about pain and suffering not really about illness. I used to like Susan Sontag’s writing too.
      I know what you mean about illess being stigmatised but there also a line of thinking that idealizes suffering. Both is odd to me.
      But the culture of shame surrounding both physical and psychological illness is very debilitating. To the individual and the culture as a whole.

  12. Tonio Kröger wasn’t high on my list of Mann(s) to read–wasn’t even on the list at all!–but I’ll keep your concerns in mind as I ever so slowly whittle down that list. Am at about the 3/4 mark of The Magic Mountain and am loving it for all the intellectual candy even if Musil’s The Man Without Qualities is more my kind of German language intellectual candy if we ever have to choose between the big name Austrian and German brands. P.S. I don’t know any German alas, but I’ve been quite pleased with John E. Woods’ English translations of Doctor Faustus and The Magic Mountain.

    • I’m glad to hear you like THe Magic Mountain. I started it but knew I had no chnace of finishing this month but it’s high ony my list of must-read books.
      I suppose I know what you mean about Musil being more your type intellectual candy. Austrian literature is quite different from German literature – at least a lot of it is.
      I’m looking forward to your review. I guess a lot of what he wrote about in Tonio Kröger was used later again, further developed.
      It would be interesting to read it and compare the ideas with those in The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus. Mann always also writes in a tradition, takes up ideas of precursor’s.

      • I take some of that Mann/Musil comparison back, Caroline, at least for one book! The Magic Mountain just kept getting better and better, and it really floored me by the end. I was sorry I just couldn’t keep reading it forever, in fact. What a wonderful novel, worthy of all its hype for sure, and I sure wouldn’t want to have to choose between that and The Man Without Qualities if only one of them could survive into the future. Please pardon my raving, I’ll have to go read a boring book or two now to come back down to earth from out of the ether.

        • I’m very glad you liked it so much. For you and for me because I’m preytt sure once I’ll tackle it, I’ll feel the same. I’ve read a few excerpts over the past months and they were all excellent.
          Maybe Tonio Kröger would be a great choice to get you back down. 🙂

  13. It’s been decades since I read Death in Venice, but I remember it being depressing, but well-written. I did not know Tonio Kroger was set in Lübeck. Coincidentally, I was in the city this past summer and am planning on doing a blog post on it.
    Not sure if I’ll be reading this one.

  14. I’ve just reread Death in Venice which I enjoyed again. Still he can be bombastic sometimes.
    Sorry you didn’t like this one. I think I’d have the same reservations. The blond vs black hair would have made me cringe. I think that artists view the world differently but different doesn’t mean superior.
    Great review.

    • Thanks, Emma. Yes, it’s cringe-worthy. I’m agre with you – sure you have to see the world in a different way to create but that doesn’t mean you have to feel superior.
      I remember liking Death in Venice a lot. It has bombastic elements, as you say.

  15. How interesting–considering what came after the period he wrote about and the idea of blonde hair and blue eyes being the ideal. Now that I think of it, I am not sure I have read anything by Thomas Mann save a short story perhaps. This does sound awfully cliched, but it is considered one of his masterpieces? Maybe less for the story than the writing?

    • I think his ideas around art and artists are a bit dated but nonetheless considered important. I think if you read it you’d be able to realte to nonetheless. I could but not when he went off into theory.
      THe descriptions are amazingly well done. So the writing is a reason.

  16. I didn’t get the same negative impression from Tonio Kröger, and I was surprised at your criticism — it was almost as though we didn’t read the same book — I didn’t see the hubris you describe, and I just wonder what about this work you resented.

      • No, I read the original about ten years ago, though my German vocab is bad. Here’s my 2008 review from Goodreads, in which you’ll note there is a factual error about Tonio’s mother:

        This short novel, written in 1901, is the story of a writer’s struggle for meaning and fulfillment in life and art. His artistic pursuits alienate him from the perceived joys of ordinary life. The people he admires the most are socialites who have no interest in art. He is drawn to their physical beauty (as defined by the northern German culture of the late 1800s) and awed by their social confidence. Though he has committed himself to the creative life, and knows his works will be recognized, he doubts the ultimate value or relevance of these accomplishments and regrets being excluded the bourgois mainstream scene.

        This book is also about social ostracism and racism. The hero, Tonio, grows up as a member of a privileged urban family. But he cannot fit in, because of his creative bent, and his foreign ancestry: his mother is an immmigrant from India.

        We do not know whether he is an artist trying to be a normal buerger, or a buerger longing to be an artist.

        The novel is autobiographical. Thomas Mann’s mother came from a German-Portugese-Creole family. Before learning this, I had always assumed that Mann was a “full-blooded” German. This is of course regrettable racial stereotyping on my part.

        Reading this short 70-page book in the original German, it took me two months. It was above my proficiency level. At some points, I forgot and thought I was still reading Goethe’s “Werther’s Sorrows”, because that book was also about a misfit artist and that book took a long time to read also.

        Good English translations for “Tonio Kroeger” must be available, however, because this is considered one of Thomas Mann’s finest works.

        • I see. Our reactions were quite different but I still stand by my assessment.
          I’m pretty sure, Mann thought of himself as superior too. And his idea of the artist as superior, tortured soul is a bit dated.
          German is my native language, so, it’s possible I read it differently because of that.
          You’re right, it has been translated.

  17. Thank you for the interesting analysis and remarks! I just read Tonio Kroger, like always when it comes to Mann I enjoyed the writing very much. In general, Mann is shifting in his books between the line of being a Bourgeois, to criticizing the Bourgeois lifestyle and morals from a romantic point of view. In Tonio Kroger though, I feel like I missed something, in chapter 4 he talks about how the artist should be disconnected from the emotion in order to create “good art”. Basically, the whole dialogue there sounded pretty Bourgeois to me, which does not fit Tonio character. What do you think?

    • I know what you mean. I agree. I’d say it is Mann’s own view and he is, in many ways, very bourgeois. A brilliant writer, no doubt but l
      not as artistic or bohemian as he maybe would have liked to be. Tonio has many traits of Mann himself.

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