Friday, 15 July 2016

Book Review: Royal Highness by Thomas Mann review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

In our times monarchies are all but in fashion. Much rather they are under criticism from many sides because hereditary heads of state seem a costly anachronism at odds with democratic values. Of course, the Kings and Queens that most of us have in mind are the absolute, often unjust or even cruel ones from fairy-tales and history books. In today’s reality, however, their never being elected by their people hardly matters given that in a modern parliamentary monarchy they no longer rule in fact. Instead, they are mostly limited to formalities and representation as shows the little known novel Royal Highness by Thomas Mann. Since the new Grand Duke is fragile and neurasthenic, his younger brother Prince Klaus Heinrich is called upon to take over all public performances. He accepts his duty, but it’s tiring and makes him feel empty. Then a wealthy American and his daughter settle down in the small, almost bankrupt country.

Thomas Mann was born Paul Thomas Mann in Lübeck, Germany, in June 1875. A poor student in high school, he already saw himself as a writer and published first works in a school magazine that he co-edited. In 1894 he left school without graduating and made his literary debut with a novella titled Gefallen, but only two years later he could dedicate himself to writing full-time – thanks to a monthly allowance from his late father’s trust. After several novellas, he brought out his fist novel Buddenbrooks (1901) that established his fame and earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929. Among his most notable works written between these two milestones of his career are the novels Royal Highness (Königliche Hoheit: 1909) and The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg: 1924) along with the novellas Tonio Kröger (1903), Tristan (1903), Death in Venice (Der Tod in Venedig: 1911), and Mario and the Magician (Mario und der Zauberer: 1930). Although his open critique of Nazi ideology forced Thomas Mann to leave Germany in 1933 immigrating first to Switzerland, then to the USA (1938) and eventually back to Switzerland (1952), he continued to write and publish prolifically. Apart from several essays he produced the novel tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers (Joseph und seine Brüder: 1933-1943), Lotte in Weimar (1939), Doctor Faustus (Doktor Faustus: 1947), The Holy Sinner (Der Erwählte: 1951), and unfinished Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early Years (Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull: 1954). Thomas Mann died in Zurich, Switzerland, in August 1955.

When Klaus Heinrich is born to the Grand Duke and his wife, he isn’t yet a Royal Highness because as their second son he isn’t the hereditary prince of the small German grand duchy. The joy over his birth is dampened by a physical defect: the left hand of the baby is underdeveloped (shorter and smaller than his right hand). To keep up appearances the deformed hand is hidden from view from the very first day. For the rest, the boy receives all care and education befitting his station, i.e. together with his younger sister Ditlinde he grows up cut off the real world in the rundown grand ducal residence in the capital. Already as a boy he often regrets that in his presence everybody takes care to behave correctly so he never gets a chance to know the true lives or thoughts of people. Even his teachers and noble mates at the boarding school put up expressly for the teenage boy to mix with peers never forget to treat him as the grand ducal highness that he is. Only the young assistant teacher Raoul Überbein takes some liberties with the prince and for relieving his isolation gains his friendship. Klaus Heinrich comes of age, formally joins his ranks in the army and attends university. While he is on a study trip around Europe, the Grand Duke dies leaving the throne to his eldest son called Albrecht II from then on. But Albrecht is fragile and hates showing himself to the public, so after a few years he asks Klaus Heinrich to take over this part of his duties. Promoted to Royal Highness, Klaus Heinrich attends all kinds of public events that ever more often leave him feeling exhausted and empty. Then Imma, daughter of immensely rich Samuel Spoelmann recently emigrated from America, arrives and challenges him questioning his role in life…

The novel Royal Highness portrays the coming-of-age of a prince who has been brought up to do his duty showing himself to the people, but never found a truly satisfying (i.e. meaningful) occupation until the impoverished little grand duchy is on the verge of ruin and he plunges into private studies to understand the desperate situation. Many characters in the novel are clearly modelled after well-known personalities of the author’s time, notably German Emperor William II who had a crippled arm like Klaus Heinrich (though a much less “happy” childhood), Empress Sisi of Austria-Hungary who lived for her beauty like Klaus Heinrich’s mother, and J. P. Morgan who lent his country a huge amount of money to save her from bankruptcy as does Mr. Spoelmann even though for other motives. The South American, more precisely Bolivian and partly indigenous grandmother of Imma Spoelmann reflects Thomas Mann’s own origins: his mother was half-Brazilian. The novel also contains typical elements of the fairy-tale and not just the wedding at the end that makes the words “and they lived happily ever after” come to mind. Language and style are typical of Thomas Mann, i.e. sentences are long with many clauses that require some attention and might not be to everybody’s taste. In addition, he often repeats characterising habits or quirks of a person, especially of Klaus Heinrich and Imma, word for word. And of course, more or less subtle irony imbues the whole novel.

Reading Royal Highness by Thomas Mann has been a pleasure although knowing Buddenbrooks, Death in Venice and some of his short works I was a bit disappointed. It definitely isn’t the best or deepest novel from the pen of this en-NOBEL-ed writer, especially because the plot takes a rather unrealistic turn which partly accounts for its fairy-tale touch. Despite all, it was worthwhile the time. It’s not just a slightly bizarre love story. It also deals with the meaning of life, with inherited roles and with economically challenging times. Thus another recommended read!

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  1. I have tried the first volume of Joseph and His Brothers and The Magic Mountain. I couldn't get on. What would you recommend I start with to get to know this author?

    1. Both The Magic Mountain and Joseph and His Brothers are works of epic dimensions and so is Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann's novel that I liked best and found least difficult to read for being a family saga. However, for a start a shorter work might be the better choice. Death in Venice and Tonio Kröger are marvellous... both are "Künstlernovellen" with an undeniably autobiographical touch and typically Thomas Mann in style as well as language. Personally, I prefer Tonio Kröger.

  2. As a starter work, I, too, would recommend Tonio Kröger in the original German language. If you need a translation, I would recommend David Luke's. I, Dr. David Gallaghe, work as a Professional Translator and have translated Buddenbrooks into English and am hoping to publish this Critical Edition with Notes with Anthem Press in 2025.I would definitely recommend that!


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