Thomas Mann Fragments | Part One | Chapter 3
VISIONARY experiments and speculations of this kind served to isolate me inwardly from my contemporaries and schoolmates in the town, who spent their time in more conventional ways. But it is also true, as I was soon to learn, that these boys, the sons of winegrowers and government employees, had been warned by their parents to stay away from me. Indeed, when I experimentally invited one of them to our house, he told me to my face that he couldn't come because our family was not respectable. This pained me and made me covet an association that otherwise I should not have cared for. It must be admitted, however, that the town's opinion of our household had a certain justification.
I referred above to the disturbance in our family life caused by the presence of the Fräulein from Vevey. My poor father, in point of fact, was infatuated with the girl and pursued her until he gained his ends, or so it appeared, for quarrels arose between him and my mother and he left for Mainz, where he remained for several weeks enjoying a bachelor's life, as he had occasionally done before. My mother was entirely wrong in treating my poor father with such lack of respect. She was an unprepossessing woman and no less a prey to human weaknesses than he. My sister Olympia, a fat and inordinately sensual creature, who later had some success in comic opera, resembled her in this respect — the difference between them and my poor father being that theirs was a coarse-grained greed for pleasure, whereas his foibles were never without a certain grace. Mother and daughter lived on terms of unusual intimacy: I recall once seeing my mother measure Olympia's thigh with a tape measure, which gave me food for thought for several hours. Another time, when I was old enough to have some intuitive understanding of such matters though no words to express them, I was an unseen witness when my mother and sister together began to flirt with a young painter who was at work in the house. He was a dark-eyed youth in a white smock, and they painted a green moustache on his face with his own paint. In the end they roused him to such a pitch that he pursued them giggling up the attic stairs.
Since my parents bored each other to distraction they often invited guests from Mainz and Wiesbaden, and then our house was the scene of merriment and uproar. It was a gaudy crowd who attended these gatherings: actors and actresses, young businessmen, a sickly young infantry lieutenant who was later engaged to my sister; a Jewish banker with a wife who awesomely overflowed her jet- embroidered dress in every direction; a journalist in velvet waistcoat with a lock of hair over his brow, who brought a new helpmeet along every time. They would usually arrive for seven-o'clock dinner, and the feasting, dancing, piano-playing, rough-housing, and shrieks of laugher went on all night. The tide of pleasure rose especially high at carnival time and at the vintage season. My father, who was very expert in such matters, would set off the most splendid fireworks in the garden; the whole company would wear masks and unearthly light would play upon the earthenware dwarfs. All restraint was abandoned. It was my misfortune at that time to have to attend the local high school, and many mornings when I came down to the dining-room for breakfast, face freshly washed, at seven o'clock or half-past, I would find the guests still sitting over coffee and liqueurs, sallow, rumpled, and blinking in the early light. They would give me an uproarious welcome.
When I was no more than half grown I was allowed, along with my sister Olympia, to take part in these festivities. Even when we were alone we always kept a good table, and my father drank champagne mixed with soda water. But at these parties there were endless courses prepared by a chef from Wiesbaden assisted by our own cook: the most tempting succession of sweets, savouries, and ices; Loreley extra cuvée flowed in streams, but many good wines were served as well. There was, for instance, Berncasteler Doctor, whose bouquet especially appealed to me. In later life I became acquainted with still other notable brands and could, for instance, casually order Grand Vin Château Margaux or Grand Cru Château Mouton-Rothschild — two noble wines.
I love to recall the picture of my father presiding at the head of the table, with his white pointed beard, and his paunch spanned by a white silk waistcoat. His voice was weak and sometimes he would let his eyes drop in a self-conscious way and yet enjoyment was written large on his flushed and shining face. 'C'est ça', he would say, 'épatant', 'parfaitement' — and with his fingers, which curved backwards at the tips, he would give delicate touches to the glasses, the napkins, and the silver. My mother and sister would surrender themselves to mindless gluttony interrupted only by giggling flirtations behind their fans with their tablemates.
After dinner, when cigar smoke began to eddy around the gas chandeliers, there were dancing and games of forfeit. As the evening advanced I used to be sent to bed; but since sleep was impossible in that din, I would wrap myself in my red woollen bedspread and in this becoming costume return to the feast, where I was received by all the ladies with cries of joy. Snacks and refreshments, punch, lemonade, herring salad, and wine jellies were served in relays until the morning coffee. Dancing was unconstrained and the games of forfeit became a pretext for kissing and fondling. The ladies, décolleté, bent low over the backs of chairs to give the gentlemen exciting glimpses of their bosoms, and the high point of the evening would come when some joker turned out the gaslight amid general uproar and confusion.
It was mostly these social affairs that provoked the town gossip that called our household disreputable, but I learned early that it was the economic aspect of the situation that was principally in question. For it was rumoured (and with only too much justification) that my poor father's business was in desperate straits, and that the expensive fireworks and dinners would inevitably furnish the coup de grâce. My sensitivity early made me aware of this general distrust, and it combined, as I have said, with certain peculiarities of my character to cause me first and last a good deal of pain. It was therefore all the more delightful to have the experience that I now set down with special pleasure.
The summer that I was eight years old my family and I went to spend several weeks at the famous near-by resort of Langenschwalbach. My father was taking mud-baths for his gout, and my mother and sister made themselves conspicuous on the promenade by the exaggerated size of their hats. There as elsewhere our opportunities for social advancement were meagre. The natives, as usual, avoided us. Guests of the better class kept themselves very much to themselves as they usually do; and such society as we met did not have much to recommend it. Yet I liked Langenschwalbach and later on often made such resorts the scene of my activities. The tranquil, well-regulated existence and the sight of aristocratic, well-groomed people in the gardens or at sport satisfied an inner craving. But the strongest attraction of all was the daily concert given by a well-trained orchestra for the guests of the cure. Though I have never taken occasion to acquire any skill in that dreamlike art, I am a fanatical lover of music; even as a child I could not tear myself away from the pretty pavilion where a becomingly uniformed band played selections and potpourris under the direction of a leader who looked like a gypsy. For hours on end I would crouch on the steps of this little temple of art, enchanted to the marrow of my bones by the ordered succession of sweet sounds and watching with rapture every motion of the musicians as they manipulated their instruments. In particular I was thrilled by the gestures of the violinists, and when I went home I delighted my parents with an imitation performed with two sticks, one long and one short. The swinging movement of the left arm when producing a soulful tone, the soft gliding motion from one position to the next, the dexterity of the fingering in virtuoso passages and cadenzas, the fine and supple bowing of the right wrist, the cheek nestling in utter abandonment on the violin — all this I succeeded in reproducing so faithfully that the family, and especially my father, burst into enthusiastic applause. Being in high spirits because of the beneficial effects of the baths, he conceived the following little joke with the connivance of the longhaired, almost inarticulate little conductor. They bought a small, cheap violin and plentifully greased the bow with Vaseline. As a rule little attention was paid to my appearance, but now I was dressed in a pretty sailor suit complete with gold buttons and lanyard, silk stockings, and shiny patent-leather shoes. And one Sunday afternoon at the hour of the promenade I took my place beside the little conductor and joined in the performance of a Hungarian dance, doing with my fiddle and Vaselined bow what I had done before with my two sticks. I make bold to say my success was complete.
The public, both distinguished and undistinguished, streamed up from all sides and crowded in front of the pavilion to look at the infant prodigy. My pale face, my complete absorption in my task, the lock of hair falling over my brow, my childish hands and wrists in the full, tapering sleeves of the becoming blue sailor suit — in short, my whole touching and astonishing little figure captivated all hearts. When I finished with the full sweep of the bow across all the fiddle strings, the garden resounded with applause and delighted cries from male and female throats. After the bandmaster had safely got my fiddle and bow out of the way, I was picked up and set down on the ground, where I was overwhelmed with praises and caresses. The most aristocratic ladies and gentlemen stroked my hair, patted my cheeks and hands, called me an angel child and an amazing little devil. An aged Russian princess, wearing enormous white side curls and dressed from head to toe in violet silk, took my head between her beringed hands and kissed my brow, beaded as it was with perspiration. Then in a burst of enthusiasm she snatched a lyre-shaped diamond brooch from her throat and pinned it on my blouse, amid a perfect torrent of ecstatic French. My family approached and my father made excuses for the defects of my playing on the score of my tender years. I was taken to the confectioner's, where at three different tables I was treated to chocolate and cream puffs. The children of the noble family of Siebenklingen, whom I had admired from a distance while they regarded me with haughty aloofness, came up and asked me to play croquet, and while our parents drank coffee together I went off with them in the seventh heaven of delight, my diamond brooch still on my blouse. That was one of the happiest days of my life, perhaps the happiest. A cry was raised that I should play again, and the management of the casino actually approached my father, and asked for a repeat performance, but he refused, saying that he had only permitted me to play by way of exception and that repeated public appearances would not be consistent with my social position. Besides, our stay in Bad Langenschwalbach was drawing to a close....