Thomas Mann’s (6 June 1875 – 12 August 1955) early stories are set in late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Europe, primarily in Germany and Italy. The protagonists are artists, disillusioned romantics with an ironic view of the cost of their art, which is an isolation from others. They are often burghers turned artist, often physically deformed, further isolating them from life around them and traditional courtship. To avoid the pain and disappointment of love, these protagonists retreat to art and nature, but in midlife, usually when they reach thirty years of age, they are suddenly overwhelmed by passion, usually for an unworthy and superficial beloved. Simultaneously, the disillusioned romantic usually comes face to face with his own superfluity, as does Mann’s dilettante, in the story “Der Bajazzo” (“The Dilettante”), when he recognizes himself as “a perfectly useless human being.” Though the sense of superfluity is quite often triggered by unrequited love, the object of the love, the beloved, is treated only superficially.
Such is the case, for example, with Amra in “Luischen” (“Little Lizzy”), who obliviously orchestrates her husband’s destruction and stares vacantly at him while he dies of grief over her mistreatment of him. Mann says of Amra that she is not “sensitive enough to betray herself because of a guilty conscience.” The disillusionment, in fact, has little to do with the beloved. Rather, the disillusionment is a device to trigger the protagonist’s introspection, his moment of awareness brought on by the experience. The moment of awareness for Amra’s husband, Christian Jacoby, kills him. Other protagonists live on, lacking the will even to kill themselves, such as the narrator in Mann’s story “Enttäuschung” (“Disillusionment”), who says of his disillusionment that it has left him “alone, unhappy, and a little queer.”
Mann’s protagonists yearn for experience, for connection with the day-to-day living of those around them, and for a synthesis between body and spirit, discipline and impulse, reason and passion, involvement and withdrawal, action and inaction. They are fascinated by grief, death, and disease. In Mann’s story “Der Kleiderschrank” (“The Wardrobe”), for example, the dying man is drawn to the boardinghouse of a woman who has a “repulsive eruption, a sort of fungus growth, on her brow.” Again, in Mann’s story “Tobias Mindernickel,” Tobias is fascinated by a child’s bleeding injury and by his dog Esau’s injury. He is so fascinated by Esau’s injury that, after it has healed, he tries to reinjure the dog and, in the process, kills it.
Two works typical of Mann’s early short fiction are “Der kleine Herr Friedemann” (“Little Herr Friedemann”) and Tonio Kröger. In these works, Mann develops the Symbolist theme of the artist’s solitude, the theme of the burgher turned artist, and the themes involved in the battles between body and mind, passion and intellect, action and inaction.
Little Herr Friedemann
In “Little Herr Friedemann,” the title story from Mann’s 1898 collection of stories, Mann explores the themes of obsession with beauty and disillusionment with romanticism. Johannes Friedemann, a hunchback because he was dropped by his drunken nurse when he was an infant, seeks a life of fulfillment through art and nature. This pursuit is encouraged by his ailing mother, who, after fourteen years of a lingering illness, dies, leaving Friedemann with his three unmarried sisters. Like other protagonists in Mann’s short fiction, Friedemann “cherishes” his grief over his mother’s death and moves further into his solitary existence. To the extent that he thinks of his own death, he envisions it like his mother’s death, a “mild twilight radiance gently declining into dark.” At the age of thirty, after constructing a rigorously disciplined life, Friedemann becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman, Frau Gerda von Rinnlingen. Battling between passion and reason, between action and inaction, Friedemann finally summons his courage to go to Frau Rinnlingen and confess his love. He hopes that she will feel pity for him. She instead dismisses him with a “short, scornful laugh” as she clutches his arm and flings him sideways to the ground. The rejection leaves Friedemann “stunned and unmanned” and shuddering. In this moment of awareness, he directs his anger against himself. He is filled with “a thirst to destroy himself, to tear himself to pieces, to blot himself utterly out.” He drags himself to the river and, with a faint splash, drowns himself. The final image is a “faint sound of laughter” in the distance. Friedemann is among Mann’s disillusioned romantics who do not survive their moment of awareness.
Friedemann, often considered a prototype of Gustave von Aschenbach in the novella Death in Venice, illuminates the struggle between passion and intellect, a leitmotif linking the various stories in the first volume together. It is the disillusioned romanticism embodied in Friedemann that moves Mann, in his second volume of stories, Tristan, toward what critics have called a “new artistic intellectualism.”
In the novella Tonio Kröger, Mann again develops the burgher-artist theme, evident in the title name itself. The name “Tonio,” for Mann, symbolizes the artistic heritage of Italy, and “Kröger” symbolizes the disciplined intellectualism of his German father. The protagonist, Tonio Kröger, is a sort of synthesis of the artist and intellectual. An outsider in his youth, Tonio later considers isolating himself from society, but he rejects the impulse, thus allowing himself to find a sort of consolation.
The novella begins as Tonio waits for his childhood friend Hans Hansen, so that they can go for a walk, something Hans has almost forgotten while Tonio has “looked forward to it with almost incessant joy.” Though Tonio does not want to be like Hans, he loves Hans, not only because he is handsome but also because he is “in every respect his [Tonio’s] own opposite and foil.” Tonio is brooding, sensitive, and introspective, while Hans is lively, insensitive, and superficial.
Hans and Tonio are separated, years pass, and when Tonio is sixteen years old, his passion for Hans turns to Ingeborg Holm, who makes his heart throb with ecstasy. Tonio, like Friedemann in “Little Herr Friedemann,” is aware that his beloved is “remote and estranged,” but still he prefers her company to that of Magdalena Vermehren, who understands him and laughs or is serious in the right places. Tonio, realizing the implications of his unrequited love for Hans and later for Inge, speaks of being flung to and fro forever “between two crass extremes: between icy intellect and scorching sense.”
In contrast to Hans and Inge is Lisabeta Ivanova, Tonio’s close and candid artistfriend of approximately his own age. Though she offers Tonio consolation during his turmoil, she also calls him bourgeois, because he is drawn to the superficial Hans and Inge and because he wants to be ordinary. Lisabeta and Tonio explore in dialogue the implications of the artist’s existence. Lisabeta, unlike Tonio, is reconciled to her role as an artist.
After thirteen years, Hans returns, and Tonio comes upon him with Inge; Hans and Inge, two of a type, get along well together. Nevertheless, when Tonio, Hans, Magdalena, and Inge all end up at a dance, Tonio tries to make Inge jealous by dancing with Magdalena. Like many of Mann’s disillusioned romantics, Tonio hopes that his beloved will suddenly return the passion that he feels for her. Inge, however, is incapable of feeling passion for Tonio. She is, in fact, oblivious to his anguish and remains at the dance with Hans. Dejectedly, Tonio returns to his room.
The novella ends with a letter that Tonio writes to Lisabeta from his room at Aalsgard. In the letter, Tonio concludes that he can be happy with the unrequited love of his ideal beauty. He says to Lisabeta of his unrequited love that it is “good and fruitful.” He relishes the “longing” in it and the “gentle envy.” He concludes that, through the love, he experiences a “touch of contempt and no little innocent bliss.” Unlike the unrequited love of Johannes Friedemann that leads to Friedemann’s selfloathing and death, the unrequited love of Tonio Kröger somehow consoles and sustains him.
A significant change in Mann’s later short fiction appears in his treatment of aging. In the earlier works, the protagonists tend to be thirty-year-old disillusioned romantics, characters drawn to youth as much as beauty. The culminating point of this fascination with youth is in the story “Das Wunderkind” (“The Infant Prodigy”), in which the protagonist is eight, looks nine, and is given out for seven. The child, dressed in white silk, has dark circles around his eyes and is already bored, isolated, and somewhat cynical. Nevertheless, the audience is spellbound by the prodigy’s youth.
In Mann’s later works, the protagonists develop a fear of aging. For example, Gustave von Aschenbach in the novella Death in Venice and Frau Rosalie von Tümmler in the novella The Black Swan, upon reaching their early fifties, fall passionately in love as they are dying, Aschenbach of cholera and Tümmler of cancer. As in Mann’s early works, the beloved ones are young. In the later works, however, the protagonists dread their own aging, eventually creating young-old death masks for themselves, masks that, ironically, turn out to be their death masks. In addition to exploring the fear of aging, Mann begins to explore new ideas, such as the effects of evil on passive people, as in Mario and the Magician, and the implications of mythologies, as in The Transposed Heads.
Death in Venice
Death in Venice has received high critical acclaim; it is often called Mann’s finest novella and one of the finest novellas of Western literature. Mann explores several themes in the novella: the conflict between discipline and impulse, the fear of aging, the draw to beauty that destroys, the death wish, the draw to homoerotic love, and the battle between passion and reason.
Death in Venice is set in the early twentieth century in Munich, Germany, and Venice. The central character, Gustave von Aschenbach, is a well-known German author in his early fifties. At the beginning of the novella, Aschenbach, suffering from insomnia, takes a walk near his home in Munich. On the walk, he encounters a man near the burying ground. The man, who later appears in Venice, awakes in Aschenbach an irresistible longing to travel. This longing eventually puts him on board a ship bound for Venice, where he encounters a repulsive “young-old man,” masquerading as one of the youths and trying to keep pace with them. The man, “pitiably drunk,” approaches Aschenbach, and as the young-old man drools and stutters nonsense, the upper plate of his false teeth falls loose. Clearly disgusted by the young-old man, Aschenbach escapes. This encounter foreshadows Aschenbach’s later battle against his own aging.
In Venice, Aschenbach becomes obsessed with the beautiful Tadzio, a Polish youth about fourteen years old. Mixed with Aschenbach’s passion for Tadzio’s beauty is a conscious fascination with Tadzio’s mortality. For example, as Aschenbach watches Tadzio play, he realizes that it is not Tadzio he sees, “but Hyacinthus, doomed to die because two gods were rivals for his love.” When Aschenbach recognizes Tadzio’s ill health, he thinks that Tadzio will “most likely not live to grow old.” This idea gives Aschenbach pleasure, but Aschenbach refuses to analyze his response. Later, upon the same realization, “compassion” struggles with “reckless exultation” in Aschenbach’s heart. Though Aschenbach chooses not to explore this exultation, clearly one part of his joy lies in what critics have called “the seduction of the individual by disease and death” and the other part in Tadzio’s avoidance of the aging that disgusts and frightens Aschenbach. Aschenbach feels exultation not because Tadzio will die but because Tadzio will not live to grow old.
As Venice becomes plague-ridden with Asiatic cholera, Aschenbach himself begins to look haggard. He is plagued by the odor of carbolic acid from the man from the burying ground, an odor that Aschenbach suspects others may not detect. He is repulsed by the pervasive stench of germicide and by the “odour of the sickened city.” At this point, in his own battle against the physical effects of his declining health and his aging, Aschenbach dyes his hair black and “freshens up” his skin, making himself into a ghoulish “young-old man.”
Aschenbach, nearing his end, has a terrifying dream about the “bestial degradation of his fall.” In the dream, he realizes that he has lost the battle between passion and reason. Tadzio has smiled at Aschenbach and has, in that small gesture, left Aschenbach feeling “quite unmanned.” Aschenbach, still made up into a youngold man, dies in Venice of the cholera. Aschenbach’s death reinforces Mann’s theme that in the battle between spirit and body, there are no winners. In death, Aschenbach satisfies his need to be free of the yearning that is opposed to his art, the “lure, for the unorganized, the immeasurable, the eternal—in short, for nothingness.”
Finally, in Death in Venice, Mann explores again, as he does in “Little Herr Friedemann,” the theme of the artist being drawn to “beauty that breaks the heart.” Even while Aschenbach recognizes the superficiality of the physical attraction, even of his beloved, as he comes to the subtle realization that the lover is “nearer the divine than the beloved,” he finds that beauty compelling. He concludes, as does Tonio Kröger, that “in almost every artist is inborn a wanton and treacherous proneness to side with the beauty that breaks the heart, to single out aristocratic pretensions and pay them homage.” It is this homage to beauty that makes Aschenbach incapable of action and holds him in Venice to meet his death.
Mario and the Magician
A novella in a different vein is Mario and the Magician, published between World War I and World War II. It is generally considered an attack on fascism. The story begins with a German family visiting Italy and experiencing a series of minor humiliations. The family later becomes part of the audience of an evil hypnotist, Cipolla, who humiliates the members of his passive audience, one at a time, until one of them, Mario, shoots him, an act that leaves the audience liberated.
Early in the novella, Mann introduces the theme of peace. He says, “We all know how the world at once seeks peace and puts her to flight—rushing upon her in the fond idea that they two will wed, and where she is, there it can be at home.” Peace, however, is treated ironically, in that the desire for peace keeps the passive audience from acting, even as they become the humpbacked magician’s victims. Mann’s narrator soon begins to realize that in “yielding to another person’s will—there may lie too small a space for the idea of freedom to squeeze into.” In contrast to Johannes Friedemann, who is destroyed when he acts, the audience in Mario and the Magician is saved only through action.
Among Mann’s last short fiction, first published between 1940 and 1955, are The Transposed Heads and The Black Swan. Significant in these last major works of short fiction are two characteristics of Mann’s work. The first is one of adapting mythology in new contexts, as he does in the novella The Transposed Heads, an adaptation of a Hindu legend about seeking harmony between the inner and outer self. The second characteristic is one represented in the novella The Black Swan, in which Mann’s earlier theme of the conflict between youth and age, life and death, occurs.
The Transposed Heads
In The Transposed Heads, Mann creates his most abstract and mythic characters. Shridaman, a merchant and the son of a merchant, represents spirit and intellect, while Nanda, a smith and a cowherd, represents body and intuition. The girl represents beauty. Though Mann called this work “a metaphysical farce,” it offers an integral vision of a new humanity. It is in this tale that Mann includes his clearest synthesis of the unity between “Shridaman” and “Nanda”:
This world is not so made that spirit is fated to love only spirit, and beauty only beauty. Indeed the very contrast between the two points out, with a clarity at once intellectual and beautiful, that the world’s goal is union between spirit and beauty, a bliss no longer divided, but whole and consummate.
Following this vision, Mann returns to the farce, concluding, “This tale . . . is but an illustration of the failures and false starts attending the effort to reach the goal.”
The Black Swan
In The Black Swan, Mann retells the story of Gustave von Aschenbach of Death in Venice but with a new twist. The novella, set in Düsseldorf in the 1920’s, tells the story of Frau Rosalie von Tümmler, a fifty-year-old widow, who is caught up in passion for her son Eduard’s youthful tutor, Ken Keaton, an American expatriate. Once again, the lover is closer to the divine than the beloved. Ken Keaton is variously described by critics as insipid, mediocre, and commonplace, an amiable nonentity. Like Aschenbach, Rosalie, as she becomes increasingly obsessed with her beloved, dyes her hair and applies cosmetics to conceal her age. Like Aschenbach, she does active battle against physical aging.
Rosalie von Tümmler’s daughter Anna, born with a clubfoot, paints abstract art and tries to purge all feeling from her work. It is she, recognizing her mother’s unhealthy passion, who urges her mother to establish a more socially acceptable relationship with Keaton. Still, Rosalie ignores her daughter’s advice.
In an ironic twist, Mann has Rosalie develop cancer of the womb before she can go to Keaton’s room to consummate their relationship. The cause of the cancer is, again ironically, the agitation that she experiences during menopause, her passion for Keaton thus leading to her own death in a matter of weeks. A further irony is evident in that the rejuvenation that Rosalie feels in her passion for Keaton is, in fact, a symptom of her physical decay.
Unlike Aschenbach, however, Rosalie regains her dignity during the final weeks of her life. She yearns for the aristocratic black swans, a death symbol. The German title, Die Betrogene, means “the deceived,” and Rosalie von Tümmler is indeed deceived, by both her passion and her body, which has sent her messages of a new vitality even while she was mortally ill. Still, unlike Aschenbach, whose passion remains unresolved, Rosalie dies a “gentle death, regretted by all who knew her.”
Throughout Mann’s lengthy writing career, from 1894 to 1955, the bulk of critical opinion of his work was consistently favorable. It has remained so after his death. Nevertheless, significant changes occur between his early and late short fiction. To some extent, Mann’s protagonists do achieve, if not a synthesis of polarities, at least a complex worldview in which they find consolation. The shift in worldview is particularly evident in Mann’s treatment of the conflicts between self-destruction and survival, between passion and discipline, and between action and inaction.
First, in the conflict between self-destruction and survival, Mann’s early protagonists cannot survive their disillusionment. Johannes Friedemann in “Little Herr Friedemann” is filled with self-loathing and drowns himself. Christian Jacoby in “Little Lizzy” becomes suddenly aware of his wife’s infidelity and dies instantly from shock and grief. With Mann’s development of Tonio Kröger in Tonio Kröger, however, the disillusioned romantic finds a new, though not fully gratifying, illusion that can permit him to survive. Some critics have referred to this new worldview as Mann’s artistic intellectualism. This artistic intellectualism is based on a sort of ironic realization that perhaps the wanting is superior to the having, an idea that acknowledges both the passion and the intellect. Mann explores another sort of synthesis of the conflict between self-destruction and survival in Frau Rosalie von Tümmler in The Black Swan. Though Frau Tümmler’s passion triggers the cancer that kills her, she clearly comes to terms with her self-destructive passion. Her death is not a suicide but rather a “gentle” death, the sort envisioned by Johannes Friedemann before his disillusionment.
Second, in the conflict between passion and discipline, Mann’s early protagonists are undone by their passion. Johannes Friedemann and Christian Jacoby illustrate Mann’s early theme that in conflicts between passion and discipline, body and intellect, there are no winners. Though Tonio Kröger provides a respite from the conflict, as he learns to live with unrequited love, Mann explores this conflict in a new light with Gustave von Aschenbach in Death in Venice. Aschenbach does not act on his passion, except insofar as he does not leave the plague-ridden Venice, an inaction that, in fact, becomes a self-destructive action. Unlike Johannes Friedemann and Christian Jacoby, however, Aschenbach does not confess his love to his beloved; to that extent, he displays discipline. Nevertheless, the inaction caused by his passion leads as clearly to his destruction as if he had taken his own life, and though he dies with his self-loathing at what he calls his “bestial degradation,” he has not destroyed his reputation as a novelist. Mann does a final exploration of the battle between passion and discipline in the character of Rosalie von Tümmler. Frau Tümmler, fully prepared to act on her passion despite her daughter’s advice, collapses on her way to meet her beloved and consummate their passion. To that point, Frau Tümmler has lost her battle between passion and discipline, but through the remainder of her mortal illness, she has a second chance to retrieve her dignity, and she does so with grace.
Finally, in the conflict between action and inaction, Mann’s protagonists become increasingly complex. In the early stories, characters who act, especially on their passion, destroy themselves. For example, when Johannes Friedemann in “Little Herr Friedemann” acts on his passion for Frau Rinnlingen, the action leads to his death. When Christian Jacoby in “Little Lizzy” acts on his wife’s wishes and against his better judgment, he faces a moment of awareness that destroys him. Later, Mann’s Tonio Kröger in Tonio Kröger opts for inaction with his beloved Inge. That inaction saves him. Mann’s treatment of Gustave von Aschenbach in Death in Venice is among Mann’s most complex explorations of the conflict between action and inaction. Had Aschenbach not acted on the yearning to travel, triggered by the stranger at the burying ground in Munich, he might not have been in Venice during the cholera epidemic. Aschenbach’s failure to act by leaving Venice when he had the opportunity, however, results in his death of cholera. Mann introduces another new complexity into the conflict between action and inaction in Mario in Mario and the Magician. The audience sits by passively while the magician victimizes them, one after another. When Mario acts, killing the magician, his action liberates the audience. In Mann’s final exploration of the conflict between action and inaction, Rosalie von Tümmler, in her decision to act on her passion, loses her option for further action on her passion, but in her final weeks of illness, she acts again, this time to reclaim her dignity. Her final action leads to her self-respect and to a gentle death.
Part of the resolution of conflicts in Mann’s later short fiction undoubtedly comes from his use of his own experience in the creation of his protagonists. In fact, in 1936, when Stories of Three Decades was published, Mann, then officially in exile, referred to the collection as “an autobiography in the guise of a fable.” In Mann’s work during his years of exile, he moved increasingly toward exploring syntheses of the conflicts in his earlier protagonists. As a result, his later protagonists, as they expand their worldviews, begin to synthesize humanism, culture, and philosophy, and through these protagonists, one sees, always, Mann’s ironic observations of the world.
Play: Fiorenza, pb. 1906.
Novels: Buddenbrooks: Verfall einer Familie, 1901 (English translation, 1924); Tonio Kröger, 1903 (novella; English translation, 1914); Tristan, 1903 (novella; English translation, 1925); Königliche Hoheit, 1909 (Royal Highness, 1916); Der Tod in Venedig, 1912 (novella; Death in Venice, 1925); Herr und Hund, 1919 (novella; Bashan and I, 1923; also known as A Man and His Dog, 1930); Der Zauberberg, 1924 (The Magic Mountain, 1927); Unordnung und frühes Leid, 1926 (novella; Disorder and Early Sorrow, 1929); Mario und der Zauberer, 1930 (novella; Mario and the Magician, 1930); Die Geschichten Jaakobs, 1933 (Joseph and His Brothers, 1934; also as The Tales of Jacob, 1934); Joseph und seine Brüder, 1933-1943 (collective title for previous 4 novels; Joseph and His Brothers, 1948); Der junge Joseph, 1934 (The Young Joseph, 1935); Joseph in Ägypten, 1936 (Joseph in Egypt, 1938); Lotte in Weimar, 1939 (The Beloved Returns, 1940); Die vertauschten Köpfe: Eine indische Legend, 1940 (novella; The Transposed Heads: A Legend of India, 1941); Joseph, der Ernährer, 1943 (Joseph the Provider, 1944); Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde, 1947 (Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend, 1948); Der Erwählte, 1951 (The Holy Sinner, 1951); Die Betrogene, 1953 (novella; The Black Swan, 1954); Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull: Der Memoiren erster Teil, 1954 (Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early Years, 1955).
Miscellaneous: Gesammelte Werke, 1956 (12 volumes; includes critical writings in volumes 10-11); GesammelteWerke, 1960-1974 (13 volumes; includes critical writings in volumes 9-11); Werkausgabe, 1980-1986 (20 volumes; includes 3 volumes of critical writings). nonfiction: “Friedrich und die grosse Koalition,” 1915 (“Frederick and the Great Coalition,” 1929); Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen, 1918 (Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, 1983); Rede und Antwort, 1922; Bemühungen, 1925; Die Forderung des Tages, 1930; Lebensabriss, 1930 (A Sketch of My Life, 1960); Three Essays, 1932; Past Masters and Other Papers, 1933; Leiden und Grösse der Meister, 1935; Freud, Goethe, Wagner, 1937; Achtung, Europa!, 1938; Dieser Friede, 1938 (This Peace, 1938); Vom künftigen Sieg der Demokratie, 1938 (The Coming of Victory of Democracy, 1938); Deutsche Hörer!, 1942 (Listen, Germany!, 1943); Order of the Day: Political Essays and Speeches of Two Decades, 1942; Adel des Geistes: Sechzehn Versuche zum Problem der Humanität, 1945 (Essays of Three Decades, 1947); Neue Studien, 1948; Die Entstehung des “Doktor Faustus”: Roman eines Romans, 1949 (The Story of a Novel: The Genesis of “Doctor Faustus,” 1961); Altes und Neues: Kleine Prosa aus fünf Jahrzehnten, 1953; Versuch über Schiller, 1955; Nachlese: Prosa, 1951- 1955, 1956; Last Essays, 1958; Briefe, 1961-1965 (3 volumes; partial translation Letters of Thomas Mann, 1889-1955, 1970); Addresses Delivered at the Library of Congress, 1963; Wagner und unsere Zeit, 1963 (Pro and ContraWagner, 1985); Reden und Aufsätze, 1965 (2 volumes); Essays, 1977-1978 (3 volumes); Tagebücher, 1977-1986 (6 volumes; partial translation Diaries 1918-1939, 1982); Goethes Laufbahn als Schriftsteller: Zwölf Essays und Reden zu Goethe, 1982; Frage und Antwort: Interviews mit Thomas Mann 1909-1955, 1983; Thomas Mann’s “Goethe and Tolstoy”: Notes and Sources, 1984.
Poetry: “Gesang vom Kindchen,” 1919.
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Winston, Richard. Thomas Mann: The Making of an Artist, 1875-1911. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.