Thomas Mann’s Munich: A Lone Trip to Germany

by Sosig Mardirosian

All night it had snowed, and by morning the rooftops were white and the cobbles along the narrow streets of Regensburg were not yet swept. I walked with haste, my hands thrust inside the pockets of my coat, pulled close against the German winter.

Inside the train station it was white and clean like a hospital. I sat beside the window and looked past my reflection at the wind brushing snow across Maximilianstrasse.

Munich was shining.

Thomas Mann’s famous first line in Gladius Dei was imprinted in my mind. For one year I had studied and dreamed of going to Munich. And there I was, about to board a train for the city where I hoped to find that broad range of experience which I felt had been missing from my life.

The works of Thomas Mann are rich with insight into the nature and depth of the human soul. The Magic Mountain is an example of Mann’s ability to symbolize the attitudes and stages of man’s psychic development, simultaneously mirroring the development of the society in which he lives.

It was Tonio Kroeger however, a novella written by Mann in 1903, that struck a personal chord. I had felt restless and uneasy in my hometown, surrounded by the familiar things which could neither satisfy nor stir my soul. And here was young Tonio, half Italian-half German, with the same terrific distaste for the mundane affairs of the people around him. In Tonio, Mann was speaking of the nature of the artistic temperament: resentful of the seeming simplicity of the non-artistic soul, yet envious of this same simplicity. Abundant also in this type are the feelings of superiority–the idea that somehow, the place and people you came from are not good enough. These were the sentiments defining Tonio’s impression of the light-eyed people of his hometown, and their “dance” versus “dream” approach to life.

The train pulled to the platform and I boarded, sitting in an empty compartment. I imagined Tonio leaving his family for the first time. His father was a successful businessman in northern Germany, a responsible man who earned a living for his family. My own father had set his dreams aside to earn an income. He worked well and hard, and we had everything we needed. But it was the drudgery of it all that begged the question: Is this all there is to living? In reply, Tonio Kroeger headed south to Munich.

The landscape rushed past the windows of the train. High pines and hills and plotted land and villages borrowed from a Grimm’s brother’s dream. I chose early winter because by then the festivities of October would have passed, the tourists returning home with their heads full of beer and sounding brass. For a brief period before Christmas, Bavaria would be at peace again.

The train pulled into the station. Muenchen Hauptbahnhof is an enormous structure of steel and concrete and glass. Stepping onto the platform, one feels he has entered the hub of the modern world. Rounded red intercity trains and shark-nosed white ICEs rush and pause, the doors opening at last to release the restless crowd.

I was as tense as I was excited then, stepping off that train and outside into the city itself. I had never been away from my family, much less across a continent and an ocean, and suddenly the realization of what I had done struck hard and frightening.

Journeying to Munich, Tonio went to live amongst the bohemians, the counter-culture artists who had the same disdain for conventional work and family. With these people he thought he would find an understanding, perhaps experience a “higher” form of living. Thus, Tonio’s restlessness had been a recognition of my own. I knew on some level that human beings must be the same everywhere, but appeased myself with the fact that I had not been everywhere to know for sure.

I walked past the low square buildings and telephone wires. Men in dark coats and briefcases went past, looking ahead to some invisible goal. Their faces were stern and determined, a little like the faces of the city-folk back home, I thought.

Then I paused, my heart beating full in my throat. High and commanding, the “Dom zu unserer lieben Frau,” the Cathedral of Our Lady, appeared in the distance. The twin domes of the Frauenkirche are the most recognizable features of the Munich skyline. The images I had seen were those famous ones taken from Ludwigstrasse looking southwest to the domes, and south and east to the yellow Theatinerkirche and the Altes Rathaus. Beyond were the Alps, white and jagged on the horizon. These same mountains created weather: swirling Alpine winds that rushed northwards across the sky and through the streets of Munich, generating a kind of solar phosphorescence that made everything pulse in vital form and color. This is what Mann spoke of in his famous line.

As I walked in the direction of the Frauenkirche, the sky hung low and gray and the streets were wet with rain. Still, Munich was shining.

I went without map or guide, following the domes that were now lost behind a building, now appearing again, my heartbeat strengthened with every glance of her fine brick towers. The Frauenkirche had symbolized Munich for me, and perhaps more, she symbolized the freedom of this new place where I imagined making my home.

Every writer speaks a little of himself in his work, even if he does not know it. Thus, I wondered how much of Mann was in the heart of his literary protege. Had Mann himself felt the weight of convention upon him? Had he felt the same oppressive feelings of social responsibility and requirement? Mann had moved to Munich as a teenager after the death of his father. He worked and studied there, and it was during these early years that he began writing fiction. He was the artist, then, the voice which gave Tonio Kroeger form.

I stood before the massive Karlstor, the gateway to the old city center. The Altstadt is truly the social center of Munich. Walking down Neuhauser Strasse with its expensive department stores and cafes, and those single-focused faces moving towards me, I was struck again by the seeming familiarity of it all.

A narrow street opened up to my left. I could see the cathedral itself. I stood before the Frauenkirche and pressed my open palms against the cool brick wall and looked up. I have arrived. Oh, if only they could see this back home! If only they knew how beautiful it was, they would know what was missing from their own lives. Some wisp of irony was settling and I brushed it off and stepped into the cathedral.

The experience of the sublime is never forgotten. I sat down on the pew farthest from the apse, and gazed in awe at the beauty that was around me. I did not move for two, perhaps three hours and thought about those back home. I imagined father sitting at his desk in his narrow office, working away the hours. I imagined them rushing to work or home, preparing dinners and tomorrow’s lunches and putting children to bed. They were getting through the days as best and as happy as they could.

I got up. I walked through the courtyard and turned right onto Neuhauser Strasse, my pace even and hurried, my eyes seeing nothing save the destination.

I passed beneath the Karlstor and across the Platz and down the winding street to the broad entrance of the Hauptbahnhof. The next train to Regensburg was boarding.

There were people inside the compartment, though I did not notice their faces, and sat alone at the farthest end. During the two-hour journey north, I watched the landscape while my mind drifted to distant places and people.

I spent the following weeks traveling back and forth between Regensburg and Munich. Each time I went alone, and sitting outside or admiring a work of art, I came across people who called Munich their home. I never met the bohemians. I never got the experience of a collective resentment for the “simple life.” But neither did I resent that life anymore.

After staying in Munich for a while, Tonio Kroeger wrote to a friend back home:

For if anything is capable of making a poet of a literary man, it is my hometown love of the human, the living and ordinary. All warmth derives from this love, all kindness and all humor.

Tonio Kroeger moved back to his small town in northern Germany. He said he admired those artists that were resentful of mankind, but he did not envy them.

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