Felix Krull

Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull; The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (Book I published in 1922, Books I-III in 1954)

This picaresque novel was written in three phases: 1910-1911, 1912-1913 and 1950-1954. By the middle of 1911, most of Book One was complete. At this point the novel was interrupted by the writing of Death in Venice from July 1911-July 1912. After completing Death in Venice, Mann returned to Felix Krull, writing Book Two up to and including the army medical inspection scene (Musterungsszene) and the first draft of the Rozsa episode (Book Two, Chapter 6). Mann then abandoned the novel again in the summer of 1913 to begin work on The Magic Mountain. Mann resumed work on the novel almost four decades later in December 1950. In the summer of 1950, whilst staying at the Hotel Dolder in Zurich, aged 75, he had fallen in love with a young hotel waiter called Franz Westermeier. Then, in November 1950, he read Gore Vidal's homosexual Bildungsroman The City and the Pillar (1948). These experiences encouraged Mann to resume work on Felix Krull. The novel as it stands is incomplete, and is subtitled ‘The Memoirs, Part One’. Mann envisaged a second volume describing Felix Krull’s adventures in South America. Felix Krull attracts, and is attracted, to both sexes, and the novel describes his lighthearted erotic adventures.

John Carey's guide to the fifty most enjoyable books of the 20th century includes only two German novels. Felix Krull is one (see reading list below); the other is Die Blechtrommel; The Tin Drum by Günter Grass.

Book One describes Felix Krull’s youth in the Rhineland, including his début as a musical prodigy and his early sexual experiences. Book One ends with his father's bankruptcy and death.

Book Two recounts Felix Krull’s adventures in Frankfurt am Main. He fakes epilepsy in order to avoid conscription. Then he travels to Paris where he finds work as a lift boy in the Saint James and Albany Hotel in Rue Saint-Honoré. There he has an erotic encounter with a middle-aged writer, Diane Houpflé.

In Book Three Felix Krull works as a waiter in the hotel, where various guests including Lord Kilmarnock and Miss Eleanor Twentyman fall in love with him. Then he agrees to impersonate the Marquis de Venosta. On a train bound for Lisbon, Felix Krull meets Professor Kuckuck, a palaeontologist. Once in Lisbon, Felix Krull seduces Kuckuck’s daughter Zouzou, and Kuckuck’s wife Maria Pia.

In Felix Krull Thomas Mann explores the idea that the function of art is to provide performative frameworks for social interaction and individual development. Individual and group identities are always constructed and asserted through aesthetic modalities. Identities are staged by aesthetic means, and so art is integral to personal development and to all processes of social interaction (on this point see Ernest Schonfield, reading list below).

Felix Krull is a Lebenskünstler (expert at the art of living); he excels in life precisely because he is aware of the aesthetic codes which underpin social interaction. This enables him to move vertically up and down the social hierarchy, like a true pícaro. Felix Krull is particularly fascinated by aesthetic forms which have a mass appeal, such as bottles of sparkling wine, Parisian style, luxury hotels, fine restaurants, sentimental romance, circuses and bullfights.

Felix Krull shines in his role as a hotel waiter, which he describes as a 'Liebesdienst' (kindness). The word has ironic connotations: a 'Liebesdiener(in)' is a prostitute and 'Liebesdienerei' means 'sycophancy'.

Felix Krull also feels that he is a natural aristocrat and he welcomes the chance to impersonate the Marquis de Venosta, but his conception of aristocracy is comprised of elegant surfaces and conspicuous consumption. As an aristocrat he dedicates himself to tourism. He lacks moral integrity, and yet like a true artist he devotes himself utterly to his performances, which bring delight to those who experience them. Krull’s performances are not entirely fraudulent: they are based on a set of mutually agreed conventions and the audience is required to suspend their disbelief.

Further Reading

Michael Beddow, ‘Fiction and Meaning in Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull’, Journal of European Studies 10 (1980), 77-92

John Carey, Pure Pleasure: A Guide to the Twentieth Century's Most Enjoyable Books (London: Faber and Faber, 2000), pp. 105-07

Eric Downing, Artificial I's: The Self as Artwork in Ovid, Kierkegaard, and Thomas Mann (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1993)

Bernhard Malkmus, The German Pícaro and Modernity. Between Underdog and Shape-shifter (New York: Continuum 2011)

James Northcote-Bade, ‘Der Tod in Venedig and Felix Krull: The Effect of the Interruption in the Composition of Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull caused by Der Tod in Venedig, Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift 52 (1978), 271-78

William Sayers, ‘Distortions of the Hero: Felix Krull and Cú Chulainn’, Oxford German Studies 47:2 (2018), 201-10

Ernest Schonfield, Art and its Uses in Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull (London: Maney/MHRA/IGRS, 2008)

George Steiner, ‘Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull’, in Steiner, Language and Silence (London: Faber, 1967), pp. 297-308

J. P. Stern, ‘Living in the Metaphor of Fiction’, Comparative Criticism 1 (1979), 3-16

J. P. Stern, The Dear Purchase: A Theme in German Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Further Reading in German

Jens Rieckmann, ‘“In deinem Atem bildet sich mein Wort.” Thomas Mann, Franz Westermeier und die Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull’, Thomas Mann Jahrbuch 10 (1997), 149-65

Hans Wysling, Narzißmus und illusionäre Existenzform. Zu den ‘Bekenntnissen des Hochstaplers Felix Krull’ (Bern and Munich: Francke, 1982)