Tonio Kröger and Other Stories
by Thomas Mann, translated by David Luke
Bantam, 256 pp., $1.25 (paper)
Anyone who offers a fresh translation of a prose work—poetry is another matter—is in duty bound to justify his undertaking by explaining why he thinks that earlier versions are unsatisfactory, a task which can only be congenial to the malicious. Dr. Luke has felt, quite rightly, obliged to cite some of the errors made by Mrs. Lowe-Porter, and anybody who knows German will agree with him that many of these are serious. But he does so with obvious reluctance and concludes by paying her a just tribute.
Her task, as the exclusive translator of [Mann’s] entire work, was, of course, Herculean, and her mistakes were probably as much due to understandable haste as to an inadequate knowledge of German. Her achievement deserves credit for its sheer volume, and it would be churlish to deny that her renderings are often by no means infelicitous. My own method in retranslating these six stories was to avoid consulting the existing versions of them until I had at least decided on my first draft for a given sentence or paragraph. The corresponding passage in Mrs. Lowe-Porter would then occasionally suggest second thoughts.
Dr. Luke had already demonstrated his extraordinary gifts as a translator in his versions of three Novellen by Adalbert Stifter, an author who is probably more difficult to “english” than Thomas Mann. Of his latest offering, I can only say that I cannot imagine anybody thinking the job must be done a third time. His brilliant Introduction, too, puts a reviewer in an awkward spot: what on earth is he to say about these six stories which Dr. Luke has not already said better?
Five of them are variations on the same theme, the incompatibility of “Life,” that is to say, unreflective vitality, innocence, happiness, a “normal” existence, with alienating self-consciousness. The sixth, “Gladius Dei,” deals with the difference between healthy and decadent art.
In all of them, the chief character feels himself, with a mixture of pride and shame, to be an Outsider. In “The Joker” and “Tristan,” he is a contemptible dilettante who imagines that a refined sensibility gives him the right to think of himself as “artistic,” though he never gets down to fabricating a satisfactory art object. Before “Tonio Kröger” ends, however, its hero has justified his claim by producing good work. In the farcical and cruel “The Road to the Churchyard,” he is simply a drunken failure, in “Little Herr Friedemann,” the first written of the stories, a cripple.
This story does not, in my opinion, quite come off. Mann seems to be using the feeling of isolation felt by a cripple as a symbol for that felt by an artist. But cripples and artists both exist in the world and their reasons for feeling isolated are quite different. The cripple’s physical deformity is a visible fact, patent to all. He knows this, and is therefore absolutely certain that he can never hope to win the love of a young, beautiful, and “normal …