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Immediate Identification

Finding things in common with a boy from old L

Marco Roth
May 10, 2007

After witnessing two years of my utter misery in school, my father, who would come home each night to find me in tears or sullenly withdrawn, at last got up the courage to ask me directly what was wrong. When I tried to tell him, he decided the time had come for me to sit on our couch and read Tonio Kröger.

By the time he reached the beginning of the second paragraph—“He had been waiting a long time in the street and went up with a smile to the friend he saw coming out of the gate in talk with other boys and about to go off with them”—I felt I’d been kidnapped. But not only kidnapped: kidnapped and then, like something out of a science fiction story, copied and reproduced as another, for unlike the movie characters, comic heroes, and Arthurian knights of my earlier childhood, here, suddenly, was a character who seemed like me. I was staring at myself from the outside—and yet I was also inside the other self I was staring at. This was a kind of reading unlike any I’d ever done before, but I didn’t need to learn how to suspend disbelief; I didn’t have any disbelief to suspend.

I vanished inside this other life that also became my life. “In the gabled streets it was wet and windy and there came in gusts a sort of soft hail,” my father read on, his voice losing its usual slight stammer. I brushed my cheek as though I felt the drizzle, more a mist blown in from the sea. The black iron railings of the school gate were silvered over with droplets, and my coat had taken on a seal-like sheen. Standing for what felt like hours, I no longer minded the wet. It strengthened and refreshed me, and, after the exhaustion and boredom of classes—a stupid stock market game meant to teach math to the children of investment bankers—I felt alive again, free. I could write a poem about it, except I didn’t know how. Poetry wasn’t in the sixth-grade curriculum. I wiped the condensation from my glasses, the rim of my black sailor’s cap, and this gave me something to do while I still waited for my friend Hans. At last, I spotted him coming through the school gates with another group of boys. “There you are, finally,” I said, trying to seem righteously indignant. “What? Oh, yeah.” He turned to the others. “Hey boys, I’m taking a walk with Kröger.”

My daydream was interrupted by my father passing me the book. This was how we’d read: He’d start and I’d take over when I became bored or he got tired. Occasionally he’d ask me if I knew what words meant or correct my pronunciation. Performance and accuracy seemed to matter most, although perhaps not more than meaning, which hovered silently between us, unacknowledged. At the time, I was too caught up to wonder what the story meant for him; it seemed natural that he’d be able to pluck this magic book off the shelf and offer me a mirror for my life. As I stopped listening and began reading, I found plenty of circumstantial evidence to back up my fantasy. Wasn’t my father, with his “thoughtful blue eyes,” like Tonio’s father, a member of an important merchant family? And hadn’t he married an outsider to his little world—a woman who, if not exactly dark and Mediterranean, at least played the piano and seemed to possess this mysterious thing called “the artistic temperament,” which meant extravagant displays of emotion and a license to spoil me with chocolates or kisses for misbehavior? Didn’t I, too, play the violin? And wasn’t I, also, bearer of an unusual name that set me apart from the many Daniels, Benjamins, and Davids of my class? Tonio’s name is “so crazy” that his friend can’t bring himself to pronounce it in public; another boy nastily—but not wrongly—observes that “they probably only called you that because it sounds so foreign and sort of something special.”

The resemblances weren’t only superficial. Although three years younger than the fictional Tonio, I understood intuitively that “he who loves the more is the inferior and must suffer,” and I could say—in the stilted diction of H.T. Lowe Porter’s standard translation—that my soul had already been instructed by life in this hard and simple fact.

It takes great strength to bear a heroic mixture of jealousy, unyielding admiration, the knowledge of resentment, and the ability to refuse that resentment.

Yet, unlike Mann’s character, I don’t remember being “so organized as to receive such experiences consciously,” nor did I “write them down inwardly,” or “take pleasure in them without letting them mould my conduct.” The young Tonio Kröger does do so because he is already the unhappy writer and “bourgeois manqué” he will become by the story’s end, envying the well-adjusted, animal happiness of beautiful, ordinary people, knowing he can never belong to their world. More sophisticated than I could imagine or even understand, Tonio falls in love with his handsome and popular friend, and is torn between his desire to bind him closer by getting him to share his interest in literature and history and his inclination to let him go on as he is, uninfluenced, a horseback-riding, unselfconscious specimen of unbothered privilege and Aryan boyhood.

If I’d been more self-aware, or more skeptical, or maybe just older, I would have realized that I was much less capable of loving the very people I could never be if there was no hope of reciprocal affection and recognition. It takes great strength to bear, as Tonio does, a heroic mixture of jealousy, unyielding admiration, the knowledge of resentment, and the ability to refuse that resentment. Whatever resources he has, I didn’t possess them. Had the boy who makes fun of Tonio’s name come along and interrupted my walk with a friend with his chattering about horseback riding, I would have been likely to start a fight I might have lost. Then I’d have insulted my friend to punish him for keeping such bad company. Less a violinist than a vibrating string, I registered every slight, every attempt to fit my behavior to those of other boys, as an assault. I cried out. Pushed back. Threw tantrums. I became a willing instrument in my own torment. I was, in short, an easy mark. Weekday mornings the steel-gray, red-striped Liberty Lines bus pulled up to the Central Park West building that I lived in and I’d climb up the steep steps into a nest of dangers. I can’t remember if anyone waited with me at the stop; I always seemed to board the bus alone. I made for the front seats, perennial and useless refuge of persecuted children. The buses were old, decommissioned Greyhounds, exhaust-choked, raised high above the street, dirty and dark.

The high-backed seats and narrow aisles didn’t prevent the constant bustle of the younger and more dangerous kids. The high-schoolers owned the back and did a better job policing themselves. I’ve no idea if there were teachers on board, though if there were, they never prevented my scarf or coat from being stolen and passed back, or my bag. I made the mistake of using my French schoolboy satchel, the kind that was just coming into New York fashion—among girls. “Are you a girl?” I heard at least once a day. “Why do you have that girly bag?” It’s a boyish blue, I thought. But it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except that “girl” stuck to me. Innocently, someone might ask to see it. At the end of the ride, I’d be left to search for it among the far-back seats, pushing my way back against the current of students filing off the bus. My glasses, too, often disappeared. “He’s blind!” “He’s blind!” If I was reduced to tears, an older boy would sometimes step in and return them. There was an unacknowledged system, masters of bullies who determined when enough was enough. These boys I came to love after a fashion.

I learned to say nothing, protect my face, stare out the windows as the bus wound its way through the Upper West Side, crossing Central Park at the 96th Street transverse, and heading up the truck route into Harlem, over the Willis Avenue bridge until it reached the suburban-like corner of the Bronx known as Riverdale. I grew familiar with the glass-strewn vacant lots of 116th Street, the burnt-out shells of brownstones with men hanging around the stoops, a sudden flicker and glow of cigarette lighters but not cigarettes, oil-can fires on winter mornings, garbage piled high, the squeegee men who’d linger by the bridge entry, Brown’s Lounge, an “exotic” dance club on 121st Street and 2nd Avenue, and the Iglesia Pentecostal across the street. I relied on these landmarks to tick time off the journey and tried to make sense of the skinny women in high heels and puffy Polo jackets, the shouts and shoves and cries of the gangs and their clients. Some of these men were my father’s patients at the sickle cell clinic at Mt. Sinai hospital, and he’d tell stories about a certain Mr. D., a crack addict who shoveled snow to afford his next fix, despite a leg ulcer and his growing sickle crisis. When the bus bogged down in the morning rush hour, I often wondered if I’d be able to escape and find my way home through this charred and ruined landscape. What would happen out there, and could it be worse than what was happening to me as I rode the Liberty Line to prep school?

Decidedly, New York in the mid-1980s was not the trim, gabled Lübeck of the 1880s. I didn’t love my tormentors as Tonio did, but there were some who I wished would like me a little. My Hans Hansen was elsewhere, a friend from my old school who’d gone to Dalton and yet kept his affection for me. We’d still meet occasionally, and when we did, he told me that there were things I’d have to learn. He took me to my first Rangers game, showed me my first Madonna video, taught me to curse, introduced me to sex magazines and the vocabulary needed to talk about them. My father seemed to dislike him immensely. In calmer moments, he’d ask, “Is your loud friend coming over?” And once, perhaps not long after he’d received confirmation of the blood tests I wasn’t to learn about for another two years, he banned him from our apartment altogether, a ban lifted on the condition that he could only come around when my father was sure to be absent. There’s always something tragicomic (or is it comitragic?) when those famous bad readers of novels—Don Quixote, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina—decide their lives should resemble the novels they read. But it’s also too simple to fault such readers for failing to recognize their proper identities in the world—or to blame them for narcissism. Narcissus, after all, falls in love with his own reflection. The reflection of ourselves that we find in novels is always distorted. Better to say that we identify with another who may not be us at all. We choose to become entangled, possessed. At most, and at our most superstitious, our reading encounters are with a potential future self, a prophecy. Reading becomes a “sortes virgiliniae”—the ancient Roman divinatory practice of opening the Aeniad at random, reading the first sentence your eyes fall upon, and applying it as a kind of “fortune cookie” utterance to your own life. The leap from mere resemblance to full identification with characters and novels can only happen among those least sure of themselves and who they might be. Our submission to narrative promises to resolve a crisis, a failure of self.

Tonio Kröger falls into a long tradition of novels that question the use and abuse of fiction and identification for life. Unlike Don Quixote, Tonio romanticizes “Life” and despises books. But the image of normal, healthy, banal life Tonio falls in love with is less important than his manner of loving it: without hope for himself. The story’s pathos derives from his refusal to reject those bright and shining characters who will never acknowledge him. He prefers to think of himself as a sick man, nursing both a passion for health and an illness he can never get rid of. For Tonio, the idea that he might try to win the affections of those he loves, or become more like them, would be to make himself as ridiculous as Don Quixote wearing a barber’s bowl and calling it the helm of Mambrino.

“No one would be foolish enough to try to grow grapes by the light of the word ‘day’,” writes the literary critic Paul de Man, “but it is hard to deny that we structure our lives according to schemes found in fictional narratives.” De Man wants us to think that this need for fictional structures is a flaw in human design. He implies that while most of us are not credulous enough to believe words have magic powers to change nature, we too easily grant them a power to shape our destinies, usually for the worse. “Scheme” is a more disreputable word for “plot,” but “plot” also has the negative connotation of conspiracy. We either hide the truth from ourselves or unmask the plots that threaten to take over our lives. When I copied that line from de Man’s “The Resistance to Theory” as a college junior, I did it out of some half-sense that I must demystify the strange power novels and stories had had in my own life. And yet I could not give up the urge to go through fiction to escape from fiction. If the structure is undeniable, no matter how foolish, why not simply embrace our narrative self-deceptions rather than struggle to break free of narrative altogether? The only question that remains for us is how to find and choose the right stories, which we do by testing how well they suit our happiness. There are no “true” stories, only good stories and stories that are good for you, and these are not same thing. My father’s sister subscribed to such a belief. A novelist and memoirist, she often wrote about our family, particularly our women, and how they found, or failed to find, the narratives they needed for happy lives. One bright June weekend in my late teens, I sat with her in the kitchen of her Amagansett summer house, digesting my breakfast before a morning swim, and listened as she told me that she’d been furious with my father for reading those first 15 or so pages of Tonio Kröger to me when I was 11. I hadn’t known they’d discussed it. They were often angry with each other, but this meant that they seldom spoke at all, let alone candidly. She believed that I’d taken the book’s narrative scheme too much to heart, that I felt it as a recommendation from my father, almost a command: “Behold! This is life!” My aunt explained that the idea of the artist as an “unhappy consciousness,” alienated and at odds with both himself and the world, was an anachronism and a harmful cliché. There was no reason that writers couldn’t be as well-adjusted and content as the bankers and lawyers they might write about, if not even happier. Her remarks at the time astonished me. I’d assumed that if I ever, by some miracle, found happiness, I’d have to give up art. Could one really have both? It seemed dishonest, or at least unfair to unhappy people like me and my father. If we had to share literature and the pursuit of truth with a bunch of well-adjusted people, we’d be left with nothing truly our own except our sense of failure. I’d be faithful to our particular tribe, much as I loved my aunt’s swimming pool.

Even though I didn’t want to believe her, because her promise was so tempting, I also had to acknowledge a certain justice in what she said. My first acquaintance with Tonio Kröger established “the artist” as an existential category of utmost importance in my life…. I didn’t need to be a loser, nerd, or freak; my particular unhappiness could be explained by a more dignified name.

I’d assumed that if I ever, by some miracle, found happiness, I’d have to give up art.

And so I adopted this word to describe myself before it was even clear if I had any particular talents. Certainly by the end of my years at Riverdale I had discovered only my capacity for suffering.

My aunt was too nice to say she thought that I’d actually been harmed by the story, that I seemed, to her, a poseur. But she implied that she felt my father had risked too much by introducing the story to me as he did. When she went upstairs for her morning’s work, I wandered out to the pool. For some reason, although no one was around, and my aunt’s back garden was well-fenced off from the neighbors by a line of dense, tall fir trees, I felt watched, and discovered I couldn’t take my shirt off and dive in.

I sat down by the edge of the pool, waiting for the feeling to pass. It didn’t. I remained paralyzed, looking down at my reflection. And then it came back to me, the culminating incident of my Riverdale career, my first sally into the world: One morning, almost at the end of semester, the fire bells went off and we all poured outside, with the usual relief of children let off school unexpectedly. As we lined up in our designated areas and waited, rumors began to make their way through the crowd of students. Someone’s brother in the high school said that the fire drill was not a drill. A bomb threat was mentioned. Maybe we’d get the whole day off. The prospect was almost unbelievable, and then I remembered that my violin was inside the building. I needed to go back for it. I had to save it—it belonged to my grandmother and I thought it the most beautiful thing I’d ever owned. I told a boy I ought not to have trusted that I was going to sneak back in and get it. Caught, I was dragged back to the line, kicking and pleading, while my schoolmates jeered and laughed at a phrase I’d hear thrown back at me over my last remaining months at the school, “Don’t you understand? I need my violin. I am an artist.”

Marco Roth is a founding co-editor of n+1 magazine, and the author of The Scientists: A Family Romance.

Marco Roth is Tablet’s Critic at Large.

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