“The Prodigy,” by Thomas Mann – My Translation

For the Christmas 1903 issue of Vienna’s Die Presse, the Nobel laureate-to-be Thomas Mann contributed this lovely short story, about a wintertime concert given by a prodigy pianist. “Das Wunderkind” was the title it carried when published as a novella in 1914. Mann himself wrote in 1910 that it was his “most beloved” work. I wrote this translation some years ago for a contest, which I didn’t win, but enjoyed what I had written so much that I wanted to present it here.

The prodigy enters! — the hall grows quiet.

It grows quiet, and then the people begin to clap, because somewhere a man, born to power and leadership, has been the first to strike his hands together. The people still have heard nothing, but they applaud, in some part because a tremendous publicity machine has worked ahead for the prodigy’s sake, and the people are already infatuated, whether they know it or not.

The prodigy comes out from behind a magnificent curtain, completely decorated with the  wreaths of empire and flowers of mythology. He nimbly ascends the steps to the stage aloft and steps into the applause, as if in a bathroom, a little misted, wetted by a little shower, yet still in a friendly element. He proceeds to the edge of the stage, smiles as if he should be photographed, and thanks the crowd with a shy and lovely ladies’ greeting, although he is a boy.

He is from head to toe clothed in white silk, his clothes spreading a certain feeling through the hall. He wears a little white jacket of fantastic tailoring with a sash underneath, and even his shoes are made of white silk. But against the white silken pants, his naked little legs stand out sharply, brown all over — he is a Greek boy.

He is called Bibi Saccellaphylaccas. This is, first of all, his name. Whether “Bibi” is a shortening or a diminutive of a real first name, no one seems to know, excepting the impresario, but he considers it a trade secret. Bibi has smooth, black hair that hangs down to his shoulders and parts sideways, with a small silken ribbon tied around the thin brown ends. He has the most harmless face a child’s yet had in the world, an unfinished nose and a mouth, devoid of opinions; the area under his inky mouse’s eyes is already a bit dull and limited to just two trains of character. He looks 9, counts himself 8 and is presented as 7. The people themselves know naught, even if they actually believe it. Maybe they do know better and believe him nevertheless, as they have gotten used to doing in such cases. A little lie, they think, belongs to such beauty. Where, they think, remains the uplifting and raising of daily life, if one cannot even bring a little good will with one, to let 5 be just so? And they had this all worked out in their minds!

The prodigy thanks everyone, until the greeting cracklings lay themselves down; then he goes to the grand piano and the people throw a last glance to the program. First comes “Marche solennelle,” then “Rêverie,” and then “Le hibou et les moineaux” — all by Bibi Saccellaphylaccas. The whole program is by him, they are all his compositions. Indeed, he cannot even write them down, but he has them all in his strange, tiny head, and such behavior must be granted to a kind of artful meaning. So honest and objectively is the program recorded onto the pamphlets, which the impresario took the liberty to write up. It seems that the impresario has wrested at least this concession, after many struggles.

The prodigy sits himself on the swivel chair and fishes with his little legs for the pedals, which, by means of an ingenious mechanism, he can raise to his liking so as to better reach them. The piano is his own, and he takes it everywhere. It rests on wooden horses and its polish has been punished by the many trips, but that only makes the thing even more interesting.

Bibi sits his white silken feet on the pedals and produces a subtle expression, looks straight ahead and raises his right hand. The hand is that of a little, brown, naive child, but the joints are strong, unchildlike, and show hard-worked knuckles.

Bibi makes such an expression for the people, since he knows that he must undertake a little conversation with them. But for himself, it is a particular and secret pleasure, a pleasure that he could never describe to anyone. It is this tingling happiness, this secret blissful shower, each time trickling over him, whenever he sits at his vacant piano — he will never lose this feeling. Again the keyboard presents itself, the black and white octaves, under which he can so oft lose himself in adventures and deep, exciting fates, and which time and again so clean and unaffected appear, like a newly cleaned chalkboard. It is the music, the complete music, that lies before him! It lies before him submissive, like an alluring ocean, and he can plunge himself and blessedly swim, carry himself and let himself be carried away, and in the storm completely go under and nevertheless hold on to the sovereignty in his hands, governed, owned. He holds his right hand in the air.

The hall is breathlessly silent. Such is the tension before the first tone… How will it begin? And thus it begins. And Bibi summons with his pointer finger the first tone out of the grand piano, a completely unexpected, empowered tone in the middle position, something like a trumpet’s shock. Others fit themselves in, an introduction arises — thus one resolves the parts.

It is a palatial hall, lying in a fashionable inn of the first rank, with rosy, carnal paintings on the walls, with Rubensian pillars, mirrors enveloped by flourishes and an immense number, a true modern system, of electric gas lamps, which in flowering sprouts, in complete bundles everywhere arise, and which tremble an extended, thin, golden, heavenly light of day through the room…. No seat is unfilled, indeed in the aisles themselves and in the back of the room people stand. In front, where seats cost 12 Marks (due to the impresario’s allegiance to the principle of awe inspiring price), the distinguished society strings themselves along; it is in the highest circles that a lively interest in the prodigy avails. One sees many uniforms, many chosen tastes of toilette… Even a number of children is there, who in a well-behaved way let hang their legs from the seats and with dulled eyes regard their gifted, white silken colleague.

At front left sits the mother of the prodigy, an extremely obese woman with a powdered double chin and a plume on her head, and at her side the impresario, a man of oriental type with great golden buttons on his out-stuck collars. But in the middle of the front sits the princess. She is a small, wrinkled, shriveled, old princess, but she supports the arts, insofar as they are of the delicate variety. She sits in a deep velvety chair, and at her feet, a Persian rug is spread out. She holds her hands tight under her bust on her gray striped silken dress, declines her head to one side and provides a picture of settled peace, all the while watching the working prodigy. Near her sits her lady-in-waiting, who may not even once lean herself on the princess.

Bibi finishes with great pomp. With such strength this tot handles the piano! One cannot trust one’s eyes. The theme of the march, an enthusiastic melody full of momentum, breaks into full harmonic features once more, broad and boastful, and Bibi throws his upper body with each stroke back, as if he marches triumphantly in pageantry. Then he mightily ends, throws himself sideways off the chair and, grinning, lies in wait for the applause.

And the applause breaks out, unanimously, enthusiastically, the audience so moved: But see, what dainty hips the child has, all the while executing his little ladies’ greetings! Wait, I’ll wave my handkerchief. Bravo, little Saccophylax, or whatever you’re called! But that is truly a devil of a fellow! 

Bibi must three times come out from behind the curtain, before they let peace. Some stragglers and latecomers push from behind towards him and fit laboriously into the full hall. Then the concert takes its transition.

Bibi whispers his “Rêverie,” a song consisting totally of arpeggios, above which sometimes a piece of a melody, with weak wings, can arise; and then he plays “Le hibou et les moineaux”. This piece has resounding success and a sparkling effect. It is a true child’s piece and wonderfully clear. In the bass one can see the eagle-owl, sitting and sullenly folding into itself with its veiled eyes. Meanwhile in the treble the sparrows schwirrr naughtily, anxiously, as they try to tease the eagle-owl. Bibi was four times applauded to the rafters after this piece. A hotelier with blank buttons takes up three great laurel wreaths to him on the stage and holds them in front of Bibi, while Bibi greets and thanks. Even the princess joins in the applause, tenderly moving her flat hands together without ever causing sound.

How well this little savvy runt understands to drag out the applause! He holds himself behind the curtain to be waited for, regards with a childish pleasure the sateen edges of the wreaths (even though they have long since bored him), greets haltingly and lovely and lets the people time to let off steam, so as not to let the valuable noise of their hands perish away. “Le hibou” is my trump card, he thinks — naturally having learned such an expression from the impresario. Afterwards, the Fantasia, which is really much better, especially the parts where it goes that half-tone higher. But you all have devoured a fool with this “hibou,” you audience, even though he is the first and the dumbest of all my creations. And so he thanks lovingly.

Then he plays a Meditation and then an Étude — it is an orderly, extensive program. The Meditation goes just the same as the “Rêverie,” with similarly few objections to it, and in the Étude Bibi shows all his technical accomplishments, which in any case stand a bit behind his present tasks. But then comes the Fantasia. It is his favorite piece. He plays it each time a little differently, handling it freely and surprising himself occasionally through new incidences and phrases, if he has a really good night.

He sits and plays, small and dulled white, in front of the great black grand piano, alone and ordained on the stage above the blurred mass of humanity, who even together only a dull, barely movable soul have. This soul is the one he must make effects on, with his separated and elevated soul…. His smooth, black hair has, together with the white bow at the end, fallen into his forehead, his bony, trained wrists work, and one sees the muscles of his brown, childish cheeks shuddering.

Occasionally there come seconds of forgetfulness and aloneness, where his strange, flat rimmed mouse’s eyes to one side slide, from the audience away onto the painted hall’s walls to his side, always seeing past, trying to lose themselves in one of those eventful widths of vague duration in life. But then his gaze jerks out of the corner of his eye back onto the hall, and he is again in front of the crowd.

Moans and exultations, rises and deeper falls — My Fantasia! thinks Bibi, full of love. But hear, now the section comes, where it raises a half-tone! And he lets the shift play, as the piece raises a half-tone. Are they noticing? God forbid! They don’t notice at all! Circumventing, he performs a beautiful batting of his eyelashes to the ceiling, so the audience will have something to look at.

The people sit in long rows and all watch the prodigy. Even they think all sorts of things in their common brains. An old man with a white beard, a ring with a seal on his first finger and a bulbous swelling on his bald spot, a protuberance, if you will, thinks so: Actually they should be shamed. They have never done better. Three hunters from the Palatinate, brought all the way out, and now they sit like gray-haired men and let themselves be deluded by this three-cheese-high wonder. But one must consider, that it could come from high. God distributes his gifts, there’s nothing we can do about it, and it’s no shame to be an ordinary man. It’s something like with the Christ child. One may bend themselves before a child without having to be ashamed about it. How strangely soothing that is! He dared not think: How sweet he is! “Sweet” would be shameful for a strong old man. But he feels it! He feels it regardless!

Art… thinks the businessman with the parrot’s nose. Sure, it brings a bit of shimmer into life, a little kling-klang and some white silk. But that doesn’t really cut through to the heart of it. There are fifty places sold at 12 Marks: that alone makes 600 Marks — and then there’s still all the rest. Consider the rent for the hall, lighting, printing in discount, but that’s still a happy thousand Marks net. That you take home with you.

Now, that was Chopin, that he just played the best, the piano teacher thinks, once a randy woman in her years, and now one who only hopes for the chance to be let to sleep and who chases the focus of the mind. A man could say, “That wasn’t really direct.” I would afterwards comment, “It is a little direct.” That sounds good. Anyway, his hand poses are completely untaught. You should be able to hold out a silver piece on the back of your hand … I’d take the ruler to him.

A young girl, looking as if made of wax and located in that taut age, wherein one can easily resort to delicate thoughts, thinks secretly: But what is that?! How he plays! It is really a passion that he plays! But that is just a child?! If he were to kiss me, it would be as if I kissed my brother — it would be no kiss. Is it then just a detached passion, a passion of itself and without earthly object, only a soulful child’s piece? Oh, were I to say this loud, someone would prescribe me cod liver oil. Ah, so is the world.

Near one buttress stands an officer. He watches the successful Bibi and thinks, You are something and I am something, each of his own type! Then he pulls his heels together and pays the prodigy the same respect he does to all the powers that be.

But the critic, an old man with a coatless, black robe and crumpled, spattered trousers, sits in his free seat and thinks, They look at him, this Bibi, this pest! As an individual, he is not yet grown but as a type, he is all there — the type of the artist. He has in himself the sovereignty of the artist, the artist’s indignity and charlatanism, his holy spark and scornfulness, and that artful secretive smolder. But I can’t write that; it’s too good. Ach, believe me, I myself would have become an artist, if I hadn’t seen so clearly through it all…

Then the prodigy is done, and a true storm raises in the hall. He must again and again and again come out from behind his curtain. The man with the bare buttons hauls new wreaths up to him, four laurels, a lyre made of velvet, a bouquet of roses. His arms were not quite enough for the donations all to reach Bibi, so the impresario himself goes to the stage in an attempt at helpfulness. He hangs a laurel wreath around Bibi’s neck and strokes tenderly the prodigy’s hair. And suddenly, as if overwhelmed, the impresario bends himself down and gives the prodigy a kiss, straight on the mouth. But then the storm swells into a hurricane. That kiss drove like an electric shock in the hall, running through the masses like a nervous shiver. A great involuntary noise ravished the people. Loud calls on high mixed themselves into the wild crackle of the hands. Some of Bibi’s ordinary friends under him waved with their handkerchiefs… But the critic thinks, Naturally, the impresario kiss was going to happen. An old, yet effective ploy. God alive, if one couldn’t see so clearly through it all!

And then the concert comes to its end. It began around 7:30 and exits at 8:30. The stage is full of wreaths and two small flower pots now stand on the lamp boards of the grand piano. Bibi plays as his last number his “Rhapsodie grecque,” which at the end devolves into the Greek hymn, and his present countrymen would not have so good a mind to sing a long, if it weren’t such a posh concert. They compensate for that at the end by raising a tremendous amount of noise, a hot blooded round, a nationalist demonstration. But the old critic thinks, Certainly, the hymn had to happen. One plays these things in another region, one lets no enthusing medium go untried. I will write that it was unartistic of him. But maybe it was artful. What is an artist? A buffoon. Criticism is the highest form. But I can’t write that. And he departs in his crumpled trousers from the hall.

After nine or ten eliciting calls the overheated prodigy stops going behind the curtain. He goes to his mother and the impresario, underneath, in the hall. People stand between the rows and applaud and push forwards, trying to catch a close view of Bibi. Some also want to view the princess — so forms before the stage two dense circles, one around the prodigy, and one around the princess. No one knows properly who belongs to one, the other or both. But the lady-in-waiting attends to the matter of Bibi for the princess. She tugs and pulls at his silky jacket, being cordial to him, then leads him by the arm in front of the princess and indicates to him the hand of her queenly highness. “What are you doing, child?” asks the princess. “Do you come here of your own accord, as you were just sitting down?” “Just so, madame,” Bibi replies. But inwardly, he thinks, Ach, you dumb, old princess…! Then he turns himself shy and untactful and goes back to his people.

Outside at the wardrobes there prevails a dense throng. One holds his number aloft and then receives in one’s open arms pelts, skins, and leather boots over the table. Somewhere the piano teacher talks criticism among acquaintances. “It was a little direct,” she says loudly and looks around her.

In front of a great mirror, covering the wall, a distinguished young woman’s evening coat is laid out by her brothers, two lieutenants. Her steel blue gaze and clear, purebred face make her unsurpassingly beautiful, a true noblewoman. When she is clothed, she waits for her brothers. “Don’t stand so long in front of the mirror, Adolf!” she says quietly and annoyed to one of them, who cannot bear to separate his gaze from the image of his simple face. Now, that’s good enough! Lieutenant Adolf’s coat may be buttoned in front of the mirror, with your benevolent permission! Then they go out into the street, where the arc lamp murkily shimmers through the snowy fog. On the walk, Adolf begins to kick, and with popped collar, dance a little on the solidly frozen snow, agitated by the cold.

A child, thinks the unkempt girl, with her freely hanging arms accompanying one of the gloomy youth behind her. A charming child! Back there, inside, was a commendable… And with louder, more monotonous voice she says, “We are all prodigies, we creators.”

Now! thinks the old man, who is still not over coming out for the three hunters from the Palatinate and whose protuberance is now covered by a cylinder, what exactly was that? A form of Pythia, it seems to me.

But the gloomy youth, who understood the girl as she spoke, nods slowly. Then they fall quiet, and the unkempt girl looks to the three noble siblings. She despises them, but she looks on at them, until they disappear around the corner.

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