Monday, 7 September 2009

ROYAL HIGHNESS by Thomas Mann

This was his second novel. It presents a microcosm as a symptomatic of larger currents, as in THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN. But the narrative seems less universally relevant and less well formed as a narrative in itself.

Sometime in the early 20th century, before world wars change the face of the world, a southern German principality lurches into moribundity as its finances totter and its decaying monarchy clings on to the ceremonial prerogatives and duties of hereditary rulers. Young Prince Klaus Heinrich takes the reins of power, and his life becomes a sterile, meaningless round of state visits and mugging for the crowds.

Then, Spoelman, an American millionaire of German origin buys one of his family's palaces and moves in. New wealth, and the power it commands are contrasted with Klaus' sovereignty, which has little of wealth or power left, but clings to pomp and ceremony for their own sake. Klaus is drawn to the liberal, enigmatic Imma, Spoelman's daughter. In embracing the new ideas and influences that she brings to his insular way, he may find a way to be reborn.

There are good points: an often sharply funny satire of decaying monarchy. An unforgettable portrait of a cold, loveless royal childhood. Interesting contrasts between old and new ways. Klaus' tutor Uberbein is especially interesting, as a type both for THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN's Naphtha and for the proto-Nazi tendencies explored further in DOKTOR FAUSTUS.

But the last third of the novel suffers from a near-fatal deflation. Klaus' family, his people, his family and even the object of his affection are all in accord with his romantic ambitions; all he has to do is read a few economics text books and show a genuine willingness to learn and care for his people and the deal is done with no loss and little anguish along the way. It just doesn't have dramatic resonance, and this also dulls the symbolic impact the story was meant to have.

6 comments:

Space Bar said...

Ashamed to say the only Mann I've read is The Holy Sinner. Passed by Magic Mountain a dozen times a year in college, always intending to borrow it but never doing it.

JP said...

The Magic Mountain is brilliant. Here are my thoughts on it: http://aaahfooey.blogspot.com/2008/07/thomas-mann-may-have-been-self.html

Space Bar said...

thanks. (and will look out for this hachette book now - saw a review in the hindu).

JP said...

Aw, it's been reviewed!

Beth said...

I wonder if that last third is meant to be a mild mockery of a modern, westernized approach to life. If so, the humor gets lost. You're right, deflation is the perfect word to describe the effect.

JP said...

That might well be, because Mann generally couches everything in multiple layers of irony.