Review: Little Herr Friedemann and Other Stories by Thomas Mann

Little Herr Friedemann and Other Stories is a compact selection of short stories taken from Thomas Mann’s larger collection, Stories of a Lifetime. In elegant prose, Mann explores such timeless themes as: individuals forced into the extremes of their existence, isolation and the artist’s tentative position in the harsh world, and examines the leitmotif of the realization of one’s true nature.

In stories such as Disillusionment, The Infant Prodigy, and A Weary Hour, Thomas Mann seamlessly fuses the personal, the philosophical and the political, showing that these are interlinked. This collection of stories, in particular, explores history from the inside, showing how political and ideological structures interact with individual consciousness. Sometimes he can be regarded as detached (even narcissistic), but this entirely misses the point. In fact his style consists of an ambivalent play between intellectual detachment and urgent emotional attachment. His protagonists fear and despise intimacy, and yet they long for it. Perhaps Mann’s understanding that his own desires are fundamentally contradictory lends his work an incredible emotional subtlety. His ironic narrative style is perfectly suited to expressing emotional – even sexual – ambivalence.

Particularly in Little Herr Friedemann, there are reasons to conjecture that his pondering and examinations themselves are making ample use of literary structures and techniques of camouflage which serve to conceal the topic of sexual repression and homosexuality.

In a well-known statement, Thomas Mann seems to have developed these techniques in his “breakthrough story” in a way that somewhat satisfied his needs for the first time:

Since Little Herr Friedemann I am suddenly able to find those discrete forms and masks which enable me to present my experiences to the public without being ashamed, so to speak, or causing a scandal.

Discrete forms and masks. Today, with regard to gender studies, these words invoke the notion of masquerade while at the same time clearly differing from it. Whereas with Little Herr Friedemann, the mask seems refers to an internal core that has to be protected, gender as a masquerade is understood as an imitation without an original – namely, the assumption that there is something behind or beneath that should be related to the mask as being is related to seeming, as essence related to appearance or as the kernel to the shell, is refuted.

Reading these stories, and coming from someone who once identified, perhaps incorrectly, as a homosexual, it was easy to see that Mann’s camouflaging evokes quasi detachable characteristics of femininity and masculinity as signs, as it were, so that the disguise can fulfill its function of covering up the homosexual desire. The author’s predicament to veil and to signal the socially inadmissible desire requires a keen perception and identification of the discrete forms of gender performance in order to make them a means for montage. As the strategy of camouflage works with dislocating and displacing the gender specifics, it implicitly assumes that gender identity is a construction, a fabrication, and, at the same time, camouflage is operating on redesigning the gender order as a whole.

Not only the position of the stigmatized protagonist – behind which the despised homosexual hides – but also the entire symbolic order, ostracizing, for example, according to class, race and gender, is put to the test in these stories, particularly in Little Herr Friedemann. Thus the need to camouflage results in drawing up an alternative order that should also redefine the position of woman in the gender system. It is precisely this subversive potential inherent in Mann‘s narrative use of masquerade that I drew attention to.

One of the signals in the story is the deformity of its narrator-protagonist, Friedemann, his hump, and its ironization. The use of physical abnormalities as a metaphor for sexual deviation is nothing new. Homosexuality, for one, is an aberration that is believed to be unalterable, one by necessity and existing since birth. This is suggested by the fact that the wet-nurse caused it: “It was the fault of the wet-nurse.” Inebriated, she dropped the little boy and that brought about his deformity. The placement of this apodictic formulation right at the beginning of the story as well as the correlation of the concept of “guilt,” derived from high tragedy, with the dregs of the service staff already betrays, however, an ironic perspective, in which the given causality of Friedemann’s predicament is exposed as a fairy tale. By contrast, the hunchbackedness turns into a social metaphor for homosexuality.

Moreover, the circumstance that little Friedemann grows up fatherless in a household, which is exclusively populated by women and in which he remains until the year of his 30th birthday (which is also the year of his death), constitutes an “effemination,” which belongs as a cliché in the catalogue of stigmata for identifying the homosexual. Additionally, Friedemann comes alarmingly close to femininity by virtue of name similarities with his sisters, two of whom are called Friederike and Henriette. The derivation of the female names from the male ones, namely, Friedrich and Heinrich, is another signal.

Consequently, Gerda, “boyish,” sickly and childless, is his precise, mathematically constructed female counterpart. With a name that is derived from the masculine “Gerd” and being “quite devoid of feminine charm,” she counteracts the heteronormativity of the gender order in the same way that he does. Being attracted to her he suffers from a visitation by the man within her. She is construed as emancipated, a “phallic woman,” and akin to him by way of her sickliness. “Was she not a woman and he a man?” Thomas Mann writes. Friedemann asks himself when provoked by Gerda’s penetrating and humiliating look that forces him to look down like a woman. Friedemann who, in a mixture of asceticism and epicurism, made himself believe to have made his peace with the dominant gender order by renouncing amour is subjected to a breakdown of his carefully built up male identity. “Was she not a woman and he a man?” – this question becomes the prime signal for the reader and strengthens his presumption, that the seemingly fixed positions in the gender system and the institutions correlated with them are being all set into motion within the text.

The figure of the eccentric, the cripple, is a mask for the excluded “other,” who is ostracized on the basis of his sexual orientation. Furthermore, the behavioral patterns of resignation and melancholy, roaring fury and self-destructive aggression that are typical for this kind of stigmatized individual are all being developed in the plot of Little Herr Friedemann. From that follows that Gerda appears as a femme fatale only at first glance. Also, she does not represent sexuality as such or, exclusively, the unreachable masculine lover. She is constructed as counterpart to and mirror of Friedemann and she suffers from the heterosexual gender order in the same way as he does. She, however, is able to turn her fury to the outside and to take revenge on the opposite gender. The opposite can be said of the protagonist.

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