Tristan (1903)

This short story, set in a sanatorium, features a love triangle in which Mann exaggerates his opposition between Bürger (burgher; bourgeois; citizen) and Künstler (artist) to the most ludicrous extreme, until both Bürger and Künstler seem equally unappealing. The narration is detached and dismissive about both of them.

Detlev Spinell, the artist, is foreign (from Lemberg in modern-day Poland), effeminate and lacks facial hair. A snob, he is misanthropic and anti-social, except when the sight of something beautiful causes him to fall into ecstasies. He is only staying in the sanatorium because he likes the decor. His manners are affected; he has written one short book full of lingering descriptions of elegant interiors; he writes a great many letters but he hardly receives any. Spinell claims that he is ‘working’ but the narrator calls this a ‘dubious activity’ (‘zweifelhafte Tätigkeit’).

Spinell’s love rival Anton Klöterjahn is a healthy brute of a man, who likes to grope chambermaids and who is pretentious too in his own way: he dresses in the English style, wears an English style beard with sideburns, and admires all things English.

The two men are rivals for the affections of Klöterjahn’s wife Gabriele Klöterjahn, née Eckhof, who has been admitted to the sanatorium because she has an infected windpipe, combined with post-natal exhaustion: she has recently given birth to a baby boy who shares his father’s name and his rude health. Gabriele is utterly exhausted and she has been forbidden to play the piano for health reasons. At least her lungs have not yet been infected. Spinell attaches himself to Gabriele and in Chapter 8, whilst the other patients are all out on a sleigh ride, he persuades Gabriele to play the ‘Liebestod’ (Love-Death) from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. This piano recital can be seen as a form of spiritual adultery. Gabriele’s performance is devastating, and it gives them both a feeling of ‘limitless satisfaction’ (‘maßlose Befriedigung’). Immediately afterwards, Gabriele’s condition worsens and she is handed over to the care of Dr Müller, who is responsible for the hopeless cases. Müller calls her husband back to the sanatorium to be with his dying wife. Anton Klöterjahn returns to the sanatorium and Spinell writes an insulting letter to him, which he has delivered by post: this is ridiculous since they are both staying in the same building. In the letter, Spinell calls his rival a lowly peasant and implies that whilst Klöterjahn has enjoyed Gabriele’s body (she has sacrificed her remaining strength to bear him a son), he, Spinell, has enjoyed her soul: he has raised her to the point where she can experience ‘the deadly kiss of beauty’. Klöterjahn rushes to Spinell’s room and calls him a spiteful coward who has intrigued behind his back; Klöterjahn also insists repeatedly that his ‘heart is in the right place’. The confrontation between the two rivals is interrupted by the news that Gabriele has lost a huge amount of blood; she is at death’s door. The novella ends when Spinell, walking in the garden, encounters Anton Klöterjahn junior in his pram. Spinell flees, pursued by the exultant laughter of the baby.

Further Reading

Mark M. Anderson, ‘Mann’s early novellas’, in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann, ed. by Ritchie Robertson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 84-94

Andrew Barker, ‘“Bloß aus Lemberg gebürtig”: Detlev Spinell, the Austrian Jewish Aesthete in Thomas Mann’s Tristan’, Modern Language Review 102:2 (2007), 440-50

Frank W. Young, Montage and Motive in Thomas Mann's 'Tristan' (Bonn: Bouvier, 1975)