Choosing what to read after a 5-star experience is always difficult. What can possibly follow without being a disappointment? Inevitably I pick a favourite/established author – preferably a dead one – so that the risk of readerly disappointment is minimised, harsh judgements from the keyboard tempered and the chance of a wounded literary ego eradicated. It was in these circumstances, i.e following on from the superlative What A Carve Up! that I came to Royal Highness.
I don’t know if I can claim Thomas Mann as a favourite author of mine. I certainly recognise the masterpieces that are Buddenbrooks and Death In Venice. Others will cry “So too are The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus or Joseph and His Brothers.” It’s here that my mixed feelings towards Mann begin to surface. I waded through The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus while at university. I suspect the musicality of Doctor Faustus to my tone-deaf ears was simply incomprehensible. And The Magic Mountain was ruined for me by a jokster of a lecturer (I won’t name him) who once set the following translation exercise. “Nice and easy this week” he said. “Only one sentence” , forgetting to mention that at 3.5 pages (I think), it was possibly the longest sentence ever written in German (it certainly felt that way) … and it came from The Magic Mountain. So that was a masterpiece ruined forever but, now that I have a beautiful Folio Society edition, I may mount another attempt on its northern face. The length of Joseph and His Brothers simply terrifies me.
Royal Highness was chosen as the first group read on The World Literature Forum. I joined in because, published in 1909, it’s an early work and, therefore, I hoped, not as susceptible to the long intellectual asides (be it music (Doctor Faustus) or tuberculosis (The Magic Mountain) that spoil Mann’s later works. What I can say is that the asides are there but they are controlled, not overly long and add to rather than detract from the story as a whole.
The novel is a study of duty vs freedom, tradition vs modernism and as such, it echoes the thematic concerns of Buddenbrooks. Rather than dealing with the merchant classes, however, it is a study of royalty and its relevance in the modern world. Prince Klaus Heinrich is the younger and most dutiful son of the Grand Duke. His elder brother, Albrecht, inherits the duchy but, due to his nervous disposition and poor health, abdicates in all but name, to his younger brother. Klaus Heinrich, then takes up his calling:
There was no workaday element about his life and nothing was quite real: it consisted wholly of a succession of exceptional moments. Whereever he went it was feastday, the people glorified themselves in the person of their sovereign, the humdrum of existence became transfigured by an element of poetry.
How relevant is all this pomp and circumstance to the “snotty street urchins turned into mannerly little boys and girls in Sunday suits” , “the dim citizen in his frock-coat and top-hat”, the duchy that is almost bankrupt, without means to raise revenue apart from selling off its decrepit castles to rich American businessmen. The country, symbolised by a red rose bush with a foul perfume, is stagnating.
Klaus Heinrich too suffers.
How tiring life was, how strenuous! At times it seemed to him as though he were constantly compelled to keep up something with enormous expenditure of energy which normally could not be kept up, save under the most favourable circumstances, and which taxed his elasticity to the utmost. At other times his calling seemed to him sad and barren, although normally he loved it and gladly went towards his representtional duties.
The constriction of duty is externalised by a physical deformity, a withered left hand, which in order to keep up appearances, he must keep out of sight at all times.
I have quoted from the chapter “A Lofty Calling” which is located at the midpoint of the novel. Enter the rich American businessman, Herr Spoelmann and his daughter, Imma. The name, Spoelmann (the rinser) giving a clue to developments they are about to trigger in Klaus Heinrich’s outlook. New world, new thoughts, new outlooks. I won’t give the whole game away but the rose bush is eventually transplanted to sunnier ground and its perfume transforms accordingly …. and a family rift developed between Thomas and his republican brother Heinrich!
The text is rich with Thomas – I cannot resist calling them – Mannerisms The surnames of his characters often indicate the role they play in the story. I’ve already mentioned the Spoelmanns – the rinsers. The duchal family are the Grimmburgs – the fierce castles. The government administrator is – von Buehl zu Buehl – the man who smoothes the way, negotiting the duchal family from hill to hill. Klaus Heinrich’s tutor is the intellectually superior Ueberbein. Mann is also the master of the leitmotif . Taken from music, this is a refrain that is repeated whenever the characters appear. So, for example, Klaus Heinrich always hides his left hand behind his back and Imma Spoelmann continually purses her lips and turns her head from side to side.
Add in the rich symbolisms and the continuing relevance of the issues in our modern day world and you have the makings of literary merit. And yet, I found it dull and that was not down to the curse of the previous 5-star read. The pace is monotonous – an omniscient 3rd-person narrative for 75% of the book. While the observations are precise, the effect was a distancing of this reader from the fairy tale. So, while I shed a tear, it wasn’t joy at the happy ending, it was the relief of turning the final page.