Analysis of Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull

The works of Thomas Mann (1875– 1955), a distinguished literary figure of the 20th century, epitomize the modern writer. The German author towered above the times in which he lived and has continued to be universally acclaimed, with readers today no less fascinated by his world and work, which characterize the best of creative thought. Mann’s last composition, the magnum opus novel Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, and his earlier Buddenbrooks (1901) represent his best-known accomplishments. In 1929 the 54-year old Thomas Mann—who became one of the quintessential novelists of the modern period— was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.

The writing of Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: Memories, Part One—a masterpiece novel about an elegant and intriguing con artist—took Mann a lifetime to complete. He had begun the work in 1910, publishing fragments in 1911 and 1919. In 1922 these pages appeared in hardbound book entitled Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull: Buch der Kindheit (Confessions of Felix Krull Conf dence Man: The Early Years). Not until 1936, under the succinct title Felix Krull, would an English translation of the 1922 version appear in Stories of Three Decades, an edition of Mann’s selected short fiction written from 1897 to 1929.

Thomas Mann, June 20, 1945 / Library of Congress

Mann had intended to continue the Krull adventures, but various events interrupted him from further developing the still-fragmentary short work. Only some 40 years later—from 1951 to 1954—did Mann resume work on Krull, and he did so without any sign of stylistic interruption. After reading the final, still typewritten manuscript of the 1954 Felix Krull translation, his publisher, Alfred Knopf, sent his lifelong author-friend the following previously unknown radiogram (dated March 25, 1955): “The old master still puts the young ones to shame. Krull absolutely magnifi ent ditto [Denver] Lindley translation. Congratulations[.] Love Alfred.”

Mann once remarked: “The conception [of Krull] has in it the germ of truly great humor; and I wrote the exciting fragment Felix Krull with such zest that I was not surprised to have many excellent judges pronounce it the best and happiest thing I had done. In a sense it may be the most personal; at least it expresses my personal attitude towards the traditional, which is both sympathetic and detached and which conditions my mission as an artist. Indeed, the inward laws which are the basis of that ’Bildungsroman’ The Magic Mountain are the same in kind.”

Felix Krull represents a work of social realism; yet on the whole its model was the genre of the picaresque novel, and many parallels relating to, for example, style, structure, and the main character’s values are evident. Even Felix Krull’s outlook on life demonstrates similarities with the picaresque novel. Furthermore, Felix follows the principle of self-regard and personal benefit, not integrity or compunction, and, in turn, lacks any concern or hesitation about cheating anyone if, by taking advantage of lucrative situations, he can accrue material gains. Though ruthless, Felix seems incapable of violent measures. In this regard, at the end of the novel Mann articulates what appears to represent the basis of Felix’s value system. A particular incident necessitates that the protagonist authenticate the originality of a certain object, to which he responds: “Whether this procedure was artistic or fraudulent, I was not called upon to say, but I decided at once that, cheating or no, it was something I could do.”

Mann’s novel is related in the form of reminiscences in the first person by its main protagonist, Felix Krull. The entire work, with its action taking place in Germany, Paris, and Lisbon in the pre–World War I days, expresses a sense of playfulness and lightness of tone. In doing this, the author allows his main character’s confessions to surpass any vile criminality that normally would be associated with deceptive exploits. Such characteristics link Felix with many other picaresque characters of European fiction, such as Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus, Defoe’s Moll Flanders or Fielding’s Tom Jones. Nevertheless, unlike the nobleman in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, for example, the main character in Felix Krull is a lonely, poorly educated, irresistibly charismatic, romantic, and imaginative individual who also epitomizes the characteristics of a grand larcenist, embezzler, and con man.

Of course, Felix savors his outstandingly successful career as a high-class swindler (Hochstapler) for whom appearances are supreme and essence nothing. As the novel advances, Mann recounts Felix’s development from near-impoverishment to a position of aristocratic privilege through his innate ability as a passionate confi – dence trickster. Of note, Felix’s first name signifies “the happy one,” whereas his surname, Krull, suggests krumm (crook, or dishonest), resulting in “a happy villain.”

That Krull fully understands his spiritually oriented marriage with society and life, which is made possible only by his constant trickery and deceptive actions, becomes evident on almost every page of the work. But possibly his role-playing is best articulated in his comment: “. . . I could have found, had I desired it, abundant opportunity for conversation and companionship with a variety of individuals. . . . This . . . was by no means by intention; I either avoided such contacts entirely or took care that they never became intimate, for in early youth an inner voice had warned me that close association, friendship, and companionship were not to be my lot, but that I should be inescapably compelled to follow my strange path alone, dependent entirely upon myself, rigorously self-sufficient.” Because Felix Krull has developed his own unique means of acquiring freedom from life’s demands, he is undisturbed by the fact that his life actually is in confl ict with society.

Felix’s fascination with the impressions that an actor could create began early in his life, and as a young lad he had already begun to act out various deceptions, rapidly becoming an expert in impersonation. For a period, Felix was satisfied with his life, but when the family champagne business failed, his contentment altered, especially because the failure caused his father to commit suicide. Since Felix required a means to financially sustain himself, family members suggested that he obtain an apprenticeship in a Paris hotel. However, Felix’s obligation of military conscription forbade his departure. Under these conditions, Mann paints a brilliantly colored word picture of Felix’s thoughts, which momentarily depicts him as feeling limited in what he may do.

Initially, he responds to the present situation by assuming the role of an outside observer of life, but, like his picaresque predecessors, Krull rapidly garners self-control, believing himself capable of resolving any dilemma encountered positively. As he exclaims in the novel, “What an advantage it is to possess an easy and polished style of address, the gift of good form which that kind fairy thoughtfully laid in my cradle and which is so very necessary for the whole way of life I have adopted!” Realizing that travel to Paris requires that he either complete the military obligations or become excused, soon he acts out a fantastically convincing scene as an epileptic at the army inspection center that results in his exemption from military service. Then, after first stealing a woman’s jewel case, the importance of which he only later discovers, he proceeds on his way to Paris.

In Paris a hotel director hires him as an elevator operator, but first changes his name to Armand. In this lighthearted Parisian environment of merriment and immoderation, Mann details Felix’s countless exploits, which reveal, above all, the swindler’s personal charm and beauty. The setting also illustrates the degree to which ladies find him attractive, and his uniquely astounding escapades and romantic conquests are possibly the most humorous of the entire novel. One such affair occurs with a rich hotel guest who happens to be the same woman whose jewels Felix had pocketed earlier. As that amorous encounter continues, Felix (or Armand, as he is known at the hotel) obtains numerous additional valuables from this same infatuated woman. Indeed, she insists that Felix accept her gifts, becoming robustly excited and animated when she learns that it was he who had stolen her other set of jewels. In such ways, the novel reveals that Felix does more than take advantage of others; he gratifies them as well, although these positive outcomes probably occur accidentally.

After selling his newly obtained riches, Felix acquires independence and begins to lead a double life: During the day he is Armand the hotel employee, while in the evening he is Felix Krull, man about town, a highly gifted and self-promoting confidence trickster. At one point a certain Marquis de Venosta uncovers Felix’s double life, but the protagonist is quick to contrive how best to respond, immediately establishing a close friendship with the marquis and even becomes his trusted confidante. This friendship proves most advantageous for Felix, since the marquis’s parents had intended for their son to travel around the world. However, with the approval of his aristocratic partner in deception, who loathes the idea of a world journey and delights in the idea of hoodwinking his parents, Felix agrees to impersonate the marquis, soon embarking on the world adventure.

Interestingly, Felix’s explanation that material gain does not represent his primary motivation to undertake the adventure offers the reader much to ponder: “It was the change and renewal of my worn-out self, the fact that I had been able to put off the old Adam and slip on a new, that gave me such a sense of fulfillment and happiness.”

Lisbon is the first stop on his journey, and here he meets interesting, wealthy intellectuals who hail from the highest circles of Europe’s late aristocracy. Fascinated with them as well as with the variety of cultures and customs he confronts, Felix soon carries off his finest deception to date, executing remarkable acts of trickery that easily con his new acquaintances. His fabulously imaginative tales gain him much reward and considerably renewed confidence, aside from additional opportunities to engage in what he deems superlative amorous affairs.

However, Felix’s final escapades—and the many intense, at times convoluted, deliberations that now occur—often focus on astonishingly complex matters, such as the “different forms and representations of life” or the Moorish, Gothic, and Italian elements, including the Hindu infl uence, of “architectural styles of castles and monasteries.” Furthermore, extremely abstruse issues related to philosophy, mythology, romanticism, and religion, among other areas, also fill these discussions.

These debates almost seem like a competition at which one individual eventually triumphs over the other; in actuality, such a viewpoint represents the very reason that Felix participates in these verbal challenges, which he treats like a vigorous game. Yet these unduly but still spirited deliberations at times also seem to be intentionally challenging. Regardless of what constitutes the truth, one factor is certain: Their semantic dispute clearly initiates consideration about astoundingly complex issues that, at times, seem incomprehensible.

However, the very nature of this unusual situation seems to profoundly animate and entice Felix, who looks upon these supposedly problematical issues with a fervent and immediate desire to enact the best role he has ever played. In fact, his unexpected responses suggest he has achieved the epitome of his role as a comic criminal and arch deceiver. The confidence man Felix Krull understands only too well that to win the consensus and benevolence of others, one must express what the opponent wants to hear—or, as the situation may be, to enact the role his challenger desires of him. Nevertheless, it is here where the novel concludes, leaving the reader to contemplate the meaning of these puzzling and seemingly ambiguous matters.

Mann crafts his brilliantly funny and master comedy Felix Krull in a manner that allows it to continually provoke hilarity and arouse uproarious amusement. Indeed, amusement is found on nearly every page of Felix Krull. While the originality of Mann’s humor, serenity, and buoyancy heighten the reader’s positive experience, its author’s best literary strength is found in a gift for parody and irony. Upon publication in America, Confessions of Felix Krull Confidence Man: The Early Years was passionately received by American readers.

Thomas Mann, 1946 by Yousuf Karsh

Analysis of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks

Analysis of Thomas Mann’s Stories

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