Mann is an island

Little Herr Friedemann

Does she love me? Could she love me? Am I fool to think that I might ever have had the chance...? Uncertainty plagues the lead characters in Mann's short stories, condemned as they are by their physical deformities (Little Herr Friedemann) or by their undesirability among the very people they court (The Blood of the Walsungs). It dogs them and promotes them, turning their inner lives into a roller-coaster of emotions of which the outside world rarely, if ever, has any knowledge.

As is clear from this collection, the world of Thomas Mann is cold and lonely. Relationships between individuals are really distant orbits around each other in otherwise empty space. Where contact is apparently made, it turns out to be unreciprocated, twisted, or otherwise missing the mark (Tobias Mindernickel or The Blood of the Walsungs). Large crowds, on the other hand, offer a safe if banal alternative to painful solitude or the hopelessness of trying to interact with one other human being (The Dilettante and The Infant Prodigy). Crowds have their own lack of meaning, or perhaps lost meaning, but characters can sit in a crowd either with no delusions or utterly delusional; this is at least preferable to the constant neurotic questioning of the couple.

Such tensions and misery can leave Mann's work relentless, were it not for his sympathetic portrayal of the apparently extreme individuals who occupy the borders of society. This people over-analyse their condition obsessively, and pick apart minutiae before tweezering through the remains. But it's this that drives the individuals, and that makes us understand them and even empathise with them. Anyone can recognize the outrage of the main character in The Way to the Churchyard or Gladius Dei: recognize it, pity it, and feel it in their bones. A Weary Hour is the portrait of the artist as a nail-biting lunatic, but we could all be that crazy composer, and many of us would consider the trade worthwhile. Catch a glimpse of your worst faults in these individuals, and you cannot help but love them for it.