“Some books are to be tasted, some to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested” was Sir Francis Bacon’s approach to reading. Thomas Mann’s last book, published in 1954 and with an excellent translation into English by Denver Lindley, is one of those works of literature to be chewed and re-chewed at your leisure.
I don’t mean that it’s indigestible.It’s the only book that a student of literature such as myself has read six times. Not only is Mann’s sentence construction immaculate, welding grammar into a work of art, but the story is also light-hearted and thoroughly optimistic, making it a particular pleasure for a young, educated audience. It’s hard to believe that the author was 80 when he was working on it, at which point “death”, in the words of a biographer, “took the quill out of his hands.”
The Confessions tells the story of a 19-year-old school drop-out in the late 19th century, and his ascension to the very highest ranks of society.
His father commits suicide when his champagne-producing firm goes bankrupt, leaving the young man entirely to his own devices.
In a glorious feat of acting, Felix fools the army into declaring him unsuitable for military service.Now he is free to travel to Paris, where he accepts the post of an elevator boy in one of the very finest hotels. With no education and no particular talents, thanks only to his personal charm and good looks, young Felix, whose name in Latin means “the lucky one”, climbs the social hierarchy of pre-World War I Europe. How does he manage this? Needless to say, by impressing influential ladies, and embarking on erotic adventures with them.
If you have a weakness for the manners and quirks, for the elegance and opulence of Old Europe, this is the book for you.
Its humour makes it much less an effort at “digestion” in Bacon’s sense, than an entertaining and delightful read.
I’m glad that Thomas Mann’s last novel should be full of such sublime humour, since he also composed the epic The Magic Mountain, and such a deeply serious, even tragic work as Doctor Faustus.
This book affected my outlook on life as profoundly as no other has.
So I recommend it to anyone with a literary interest, to anyone who enjoys reflecting on behaviour and social conventions, and, indeed, to anyone who considers himself an optimist at heart.