“Tonio Kroger,” (included in “Death in Venice, and Seven Other Stories,”)

I know that the novella “Tonio Kroger” is not Thomas Mann’s greatest work. There is some part of me that feels that I should be putting up “Buddenbrooks” or “The Magic Mountain” here. And there’s a strong case for “Death in Venice,” too. But this is the book of his that felled me completely when I read it as a German student in my teens. All Mann’s enduring themes are here: the struggle between duty and love, between the febrile pleasure and teutonic responsibility; and the lethal vulnerability of the lover, set against the wanton cruel power of the beloved. It’s an anguished worldview, which is what spoke so directly to the adolescent reader I was, but no one reads Thomas Mann for woo-woo life-enhancing sentimentality.

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