“Every great philosophy so far has been..the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir” - Nietzsche
Felix Krull is the type of protagonist with enough will power and fortitude to train his pupils to dilate on command.
This is our protagonist. Possessing the “will to power” that will make his optic nerves comply to his whim and desire; he is also an Adonis, endowed with unprecedented good looks. The combination of self control and GQ model looks is the perfect cocktail; the world is his oyster.
“There you lie,” I thought to myself (though of course at the time I could not give such apt expression to my thoughts), “there you lie in the subterranean twilight, and within you the bubbling golden sap is clearing and maturing, the sap that will enliven so many hearts and awaken a brighter gleam in so many eyes! Now you look plain and unpromising, but one day you will rise to the upper world magnificently adorned, to take your place at feasts, at weddings, to send your corks popping to the ceiling of private dining-rooms and evoke intoxication, irresponsibility and the desire in the hearts of men.”
Not quite as succinct as Copperfield’s “I was born,” but a similar sentiment.
Despite a modest upbringing Krull had a prescient feeling that he was destined for something great. His father owned a champagne firm that produced the counterpoint to good champagne. His father willfully chose to produce a mediocre product, a fault his son would never be guilty of.
Krull embodies Nietzsche’s archetypal hero. Nietzsche defined will to power as “the main driving force in humans - achievement, ambition, and the striving to reach the highest possible position in life.”(1) This is Krull in a nutshell.
As we hear of his formative years there is one memory that stands out. After watching a play with his father, completely enraptured and brought to an otherworldly state of joy, Felix has the opportunity to meet the famous actor. After the make-up has been partially removed, the actor is nothing more than a mere mortal. The sweat runs down the man in rivulets and the actor’s naked body is covered in a mosaic of suppurating pustules.
“Our capacity for disgust, let me observe, is in proportion to our desires; that is, in proportion to the intensity of our attachment to the things of this world…this grease-smeared and pimply individual is the charmer at whom the twilight crowd was just now gazing so soulfully! This repulsive worm is the reality of the glorious butterfly in whom those deluded spectators believed they were beholding the realization of all their own secret dreams of beauty, grace, and perfection.”
This insight is integral into our protagonist’s sense of order. Life is a farce, riches and wealth are merely a facade hiding one pimply back from another. As Shakespeare wrote:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
Felix morphs from one character into the next with such fluidity the transformation is flawless. When he’s afraid of getting drafted, he purchases a book on nervous disorders and during his physical exam has a psychotic breakdown that leads to a nervous epileptic seizure. He is a true method actor, pouring himself heart and soul into each role, with the pleasure of knowing that only he knows his own reality.
And after a healthy stage of maturation, complete with an episode of both prostitution and pimping, he makes his way to Paris to begin his career as a hotel elevator operator.
I think the similarities of Felix Krull and Maupassant’s George Duroy, the antihero of Bel Ami are quite striking.
Both enter Paris practically insolvent, with only a few livres to their names. Neither are afraid of a little prostitution to balance the books. But Duroy has a sinister air about him, he knows he is good looking and wields his charms like a predatory weapon. He circles and stalks the unattractive wealthy women around the gardens knowing he can make a little extra cash; and the reader has the impression that the enterprise he is taking is morally reprehensible. While Felix believes he has been bestowed with an overabundance of beauty and it is therefore his gift to humanity, whether to be platonically viewed and appreciated or otherwise.
There is an underlying discussion on morality here. Maupassant, along with his contemporaries like Emile Zola, believed that Paris was in crisis. They viewed the endemic prostitution to be the pustules of a society festering with moral decay. They looked at the crumbling aristocracy being chipped away by the upward mobility of the middle class, or being extravagantly thrown away at the feet of the Parisian Grand Dames and they wrote literary clarion calls to a society turning it’s back on morality.
I described Duroy as the Jason Bourne of literary social climbing. He’s always one step ahead of his next conquest. Duroy breaks one heart after another, often intentionally and with perceptible malice. He is cruel and oppressive; using and abusing the women around him; stopping at nothing until he has filled his coffers and momentarily suppressed his avaricious need for wealth and power.
But For Felix Krull, the morality has almost entirely been taken out of the equation. He is kind and generous, he is honest even when it’s in his best interest to be otherwise. For all intents and purposes he is a “good” guy. And yet thrown into the mix are liaisons with both men and women and with each blush and glance, he covers the embarrassment of his acolytes with gentleness and discretion. After all, it’s not their fault that they fall in love…is it?
Krull steals, but even this is almost gallant, after all the gem case practically wills itself into his suitcase. So theft seems ok in the right setting.
“This was an occurrence rather than an action, and it happened quite secretly; the case simply smuggled itself in, so to speak, as a by-product of the good humor that my friendly relations with the authorities of this country had produced in me.”
He ends up operating the elevator car for the woman whose jewels have made him a small fortune. They exchange glances and before long it is after hours and he is knocking on her door, answering a booty call that was expressed in words and glances.
This possessor of gems and loose morals turns out to be a famous writer married to an old and unfaithful toilet manufacturer. It is the era of indoor plumbing and he is making a vast fortune out of quietly and subtly removing people’s excrement. Given the facts, does two plus two still equal four? If your husband is gross and unfaithful doesn’t that negate black and white morality? And so we do not judge Krull for answering the booty call.
The writer has a strange fascination with young(ish) men and uses debasing language to set the mood. Krull, ever the nonjudgemental type suggests a different game. Like for example…what if instead of verbally debasing her etc. he mentioned that he was the thief that stole her gems? And of course, the writer finds this delectable. She demands that they turn out the lights and then he rob the rest of her possessions. I find this situation a little far fetched. But the take away is that when it comes to stealing and thievery, the wealthy and elite of their own volition will cast their jewels before the feet of the beautiful elevator operator.
Thomas Mann is opening up a dialogue on morality. Morality is not comprised of black and white “thou shall nots” but rather more grey area and situational spontaneity derived from a doctrine of “types.” If you’re the type that like to commit infidelities with elevator boys and then allow them to steal all your valuable possessions then that is your moral view. How can one judge the moral type of another?
Nietzsche argues that: “Morality in Europe today is herd animal morality, in other words…merely one type of human morality beside which, before which, and after which many other types, above all higher moralities, are, or ought to be possible.” (2)
Of course Zola and Maupassant would consider this anathema. As would Plato. But this debate between moral relativism and moral absolutism is perhaps as old as time itself. The Greek philosopher Protagoras believed that “man was the measure of all things,’ which was picked up by Spinoza and developed into the belief that nothing was inherently good or evil. By the time Nietzsche grabs the baton it’s more than a two thousand year old debate.
But let’s get back to Felix Krull. By now he has a small fortune, enough to comfortably live on for a decade. He has a small apartment in a quiet Parisian neighborhood, not far from the hotel, but he still lives in the garret among all the other elevator boys. He still works for pittance, eats food slightly better than that served in prison (of which he tells us he can attest to) and lives a covert double life. On his days off, he strolls to his apartment and with a quick costume change he transforms himself from the working class bell hop to the luxuriating upper crust. He then makes his way to a cafe and sits leisurely sipping coffee and observing the ebb and flow of the social milieu around him.
His transformation is simple. Almost too simple. He steps from one social ladder to the next like a trapeze artist, confidently putting his foot rung by rung up the ladder of social mobility. He is an actor and is it his fault if the general public are so quick to accept him?
In Bel Ami when Duroy is offered a post as a journalist he is asked if he is up to snuff on his Cicero or Tiberius, when Duroy says he knows them “pretty well” he is met with this advice:
“Good; no one knows any more, the exception of a score of idiots who have taken the trouble. It is not difficult to pass as being well-informed; the great thing is not to be caught in some blunder. You can maneuver, avoid the difficulty, turn the tables and floor others by means of a dictionary. Men are all as stupid as geese and ignorant as donkeys.”
When we come to Felix Krull’s reiteration, after observing the theater goers being swept up in the farce that is the pimply actor he says:
“What unanimity in agreeing to let oneself be deceived! Here quite clearly there is in operation a general human need, implanted by God himself in human nature, which Miller-Rose’s (the actor) abilities are created to satisfy. This beyond doubt is an indispensable device in life’s economy, which this man is kept and paid to serve…Restrain your disgust and consider that, in full knowledge and realization of his frightful pustules, he was yet able- with the help of greasepaint, lighting, music and distance- to move before his audience with such assurance as to make them see in their hearts’ ideal and thereby to enliven and edify them infinitely.”
And that is Mann’s thesis statement: We all with a little greasepaint and the correct lighting are forced into the spotlight of our destiny. We all play act for the benefit of another. And if we play our part with the diligence and integrity true to our character and type, that is the true and relative morality we can live by.
This is evidenced in Krull when he puts on his bell hop costume and then diligently does his work well and with a positive spirit for sixteen hour shifts. Despite having a small fortune, he chooses to serve both the wealthy patrons and his fellow employees, well and to the best of his ability, a contrast to his bell hop foil Eustache. Eustache has the elevator drop off the patrons level with the floor, but for his fellow workers he pulls the elevator either too high or too low resulting in his compatriots awkwardly having to climb out. Krull reprimands him thus: “Those who are weak ought not to show their contempt for one another. That does nothing to improve their position in the eyes of the strong.”
Nietzsche believes that morality is suspect because the rich and powerful operate on another level. He isn’t creating moral relativity, he is observing it. The rich can use the lower classes as consumable goods. They can behave amorally to those beneath them without consequence.
Maupassant describes the masses as almost stupid herds ready and willing to believe anything. Perhaps Shakespeare’s line is more fitting here: “Why then the world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open.” It is up to the protagonist to take what he will and survive as he may. It’s an aggressive worldview. Duroy becomes a sad shadow of a human wearing fine livery; with his last grasp dominating and demanding as his due the obsequious worship of those around him. The result is awful and heartbreaking. A farce that sits in the pit of your stomach.
Mann’s hero never has to pry loose anything. Oysters are lining up to spit out their pearls before Krull’s feet. Not once does he meet a villain or scenario he can’t charm his way out of. Men and women alike line up to offer their love and proffer their unfettered wealth. He is picky and choosy and when he finally gets around to play acting “falling in love” it isn’t sinister but merely an accouterment to his character.
And here we have the final similarity. Both Krull and Duroy find themselves the triad of a mother daughter affection. In Duroy’s case he is carefully working his way up, and the mother, jaded and wrinkled is a rung bellow her daughter. It is carefully choreographed for the most emotional wreckage and largest monetary gain. When Duroy elopes with the daughter, the mother is trapped- she can not admit to her husband that Duroy is a rake without exposing herself.
Krull’s case is the opposite. He patiently woos the daughter, with propriety and at the last moment when all his efforts have culminated in a single kiss from the previously self proclaimed misandrous young girl, he looks up to see the flushed angry face of the mother! With literally no effort on his part the jealous mother sweeps hims away. And:
“Hole! Heho! Ahe!” She exclaimed in majestic jubilation. A whirlwind of primordial forces seized and bore me into the realm of ecstasy. And high and stormy, under my ardent caresses, stormier than at the Iberian game of blood, I saw the surging of that queenly bosom.”
The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man. The Early Years is unfinished. Despite the fact that Mann worked and reworked his novel over the course of thirty years, when he unexpectedly died in 1955, there was no closure or sequel to smooth out the rough edges and tie up loose ends. (Like for example the constant references to his stint in prison.) The whole thing feels very messy and disorganized, lacking a cohesive plot line. Yes, Felix is described as a conman…but really to no one’s disadvantage. So if you are circumspectly conning someone i.e.. they think you’re a bell hop…but actually you’re really rich…and a bell hop…does that count as being conned?
Even his interactions with the rich Iberians isn’t predatory. They believe he’s rich. He loves visiting the museum and talking ad nauseum about primordial man and the three spontaneous generations. Who, besides the reader is being conned here? There was one moment when he sort of did a “Parent Trap” swap scenario (I’ll pretend to be you, you pretend to be me.) I held my breath and anticipated the “con man” being conned. I anticipated this random stranger in the coffee shop, taking his wealth in exchange for a bankcard that was to an empty account etc. But no such thing ever happened! Not only does Felix Krull basically never con anyone- he is never conned! I contend that this world Thomas Mann has invented does not exist.
The only con that Felix Krull perpetrates is that of his chimeric identity. He cons people into believing he is what he tells them; and they are complicit in his deception by their willingness to believe.
2. Beyond Good and Evil, trans. W. Kaufmann, New York: Vintage, 1966.