Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 284
The novel is a picaresque adventure tale that follows the life of Felix Krull, a German man, who, after his father’s champagne business fails, moves to Paris and begins a double life. With the name Armand, he works in a hotel and becomes a jewel thief as well as the lover of the wealthy, masochistic Madame Houpflé; at night, Felix enjoys Parisian society. His involvement with the Marquis de Venosta leads to impersonating him while traveling so that the young aristocrat can stay in Paris with his mistress. In Portugal, the disguised Felix takes advantage of an introduction from Professor Kuckuck and, in his absence, seduces the learned man’s wife and daughter.
Felix is presented as having a lifelong fascination with masks and artifice, and as a young boy, he contemplates becoming an actor. Realizing that real-life pretense is more lucrative and entertaining, he applies his talent for impersonation wherever and whenever it most suits him. A kind of modern-day Casanova with something of Candide’s innocence, he navigates society largely through his sexual charm. That Felix succeeds in his amorous conquests, goes unpunished for his illegal activities, and does not receive his comeuppance is consistent with Thomas Mann’s adaptation of the picaresque genre. And just when it seems that learning about human nature from the scientist Kuckuck (whose name strongly suggests "cuckold") might spark his rehabilitation, instead, Felix abuses their relationship by making love to the women in his family. Although it would be a stretch to paint Felix as an existential anti-hero, from Mann’s celebration of his escape from justice, the reader can infer the author’s critical view of the society that produced such an amoral man.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1017
*Lisbon. Portugal’s capital city was to be only a brief stop on a world tour that Felix undertakes using an identity he has traded with an aristocratic Parisian friend. Because of a chance encounter on the Paris-to-Lisbon train with a distinguished paleontologist, his visit is extended for many weeks so that he can exploit his new identity in attempting to seduce the man’s wife and daughter.
Lisbon is one of many southern European destinations found in Thomas Mann’s fiction; the most celebrated occurs in Death in Venice (1912), but a more compelling literary source for the notion of a sojourn in a southern region is the Italian journey of the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), whose life and work permeated the consciousness of writers like Mann. For both authors, southern Europe represents not merely a gentler climate but also the warmth and grace of classical and Mediterranean cultures as well as a relaxation of the cultural and sexual inhibitions of home.
Lisbon is the one locale in The Confessions of Felix Krull evoked with any great degree of topographic detail; its hills and streets, people and dwellings—and a bull ring still in use today—are colorfully described. However, Mann had little interest in visual detail for its own sake. In his last year he observed, “The world of the eyes is not my world.” The vividness of Krull’s description of Lisbon is Mann’s masterful interpretation of his character’s evolving experience. Though the beauty and grandeur of the city predictably fail to have an effect on Felix’s character, at last his love of luxury and sensuous pleasure is in harmony with the physical environment.
If Mann had lived to continue his tale of Felix Krull, the episode in Lisbon would likely have been a point of transition to even more exotic escapades in South America, but the novel’s abrupt conclusion, with a scene in a garden followed by a hilarious seduction, makes the city itself seem to be a true consummation of Felix’s desire.
*Paris. Felix arrives in the capital of France virtually penniless and leaves it a year later as an aristocrat, albeit a fake one; he is transformed in the City of Light, but not by it. Although he takes in the circus and the opera, and enjoys other modest pleasures that he can afford as a low-paid hotel worker, he gives little attention to the city’s famous monuments and other cultural riches, instead preferring to assume the role of a flâneur—a detached and idle denizen of the city’s boulevards and cafés. The most vivid excursion Felix offers his readers is a furtive mission to “rue de l’Echelle au Ciel”—Ladder to Heaven Street—to fence some jewelry he has pilfered only days earlier on his train journey to Paris. When he alludes to the “spaciousness and splendour” of Parisian scenes, his thoughts only serve to remind him of his disgraced late father exclaiming “Magnifique!” and “almost fainting at the memory” of his happy student days in the French capital.
The mainspring of life in Paris for Felix is his work in the Hotel Saint James and Albany, a first-class hotel in which he is first an elevator boy and later a waiter. The varied spaces of the hotel are brilliantly rendered in both their physical and social dimensions, and Felix is as much at home in the dreary workers quarters as in the fashionable dining room. In the busy hotel, unlike the bustling but anonymous streets of Paris, every motion and interaction must be negotiated with staff, bosses, and guests. Felix, who imagines himself as a spiritual and physical descendent of the god Hermes, moves gracefully into and out of astonishing relationships with men and women both young and old. The most poignant of these brief encounters is with Lord Strathbogie, who invites Felix to accompany him to his ancestral home near Aberdeen, Scotland, to be his valet and, ultimately, his heir. The character of Strathbogie is thought to be a partial self-portrait by Mann, as is the figure of Felix himself. From this perspective, one can see the geographical symbolism of the episode: the author’s youthful surrogate is destined for sun-drenched Southern climes, not the cold mists of the North.
*Frankfurt. German center of commerce and wealth. With the virtual collapse of the Krull family following the elder Krull’s suicide, Felix and his mother are forced to move to Frankfurt, a “great, cold-hearted city.” While his mother contrives to start a boardinghouse, Felix undertakes his self-education in the ways of the urban metropolis, but he must be content with pressing his face “against the magnificent gates of a pleasure garden.”
If Confessions of Felix Krull is a late, satirical form of the novel of personal development, or Bildungsroman, it is no longer nature or culture that is the classroom, but rather the modern industrial city with its alienation and class distinctions, which Felix absorbs and then transcends. In his enchantment at the city’s material treasures and his “eagerest desire to learn,” Felix is a harbinger of urban, consumerist culture.
Krull home. Located in a town slightly to the west of Mainz, on the Rhine River in western Germany, the Krull home stands on a slope “happily exposed to the summer sun.” To the young Felix, the family’s bourgeois home stuffed with knick-knacks is a virtual Eden of sensuous pleasures; this is a condition that extends to the town, where as a youngster he engages in an act of theft of candy from an unattended delicatessen.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, when this novel is, roughly, set, travel is mostly by boat, carriage, or railway car; the automobile does not appear in the novel. Felix’s cherished first memory of an excursion is from age eight, when the family travels to Wiesbaden to attend the theater. There he sees and is enraptured by an operetta set in Paris, thus prefiguring his later experiences in the French capital.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 247
Alter, Robert. Rogue’s Progress: Studies in the Picaresque Novel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964. One of the better-known works on the picaresque novel, the book discusses changes in the genre as it moved across generations and national borders. The book treats several novels considered picaresque, including Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man.
Hatfield, Henry. From the Magic Mountain: Mann’s Later Masterpieces. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1979. A critical look at the novels of Thomas Mann based, in part, on Mann’s correspondence. The work addresses Mann’s increasing political awareness, his use of myth and comedy, and how he was viewed by his contemporaries.
Lewis, R. W. B. The Picaresque Saint. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1959. A critical survey of the picaresque genre with a primary concentration on other novelists but many references to Mann; Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man is judged to be one of his masterpieces and the “logical hero” of the age.
Mann, Erika. The Last Year of Thomas Mann. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1958. A firsthand account by Mann’s daughter of the inception and construction of Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man. Written in memoir form, the work gives an intimate portrait of the author.
Torrance, Robert M. The Comic Hero. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978. Traces the origin of the comic hero from his mythological antecedents through the modern novel. Contains an extended discussion of Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man as representative of the picaresque.
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