‘Tobias Mindernickel’ by Thomas Mann

My introduction to Thomas Mann was through his early short stories, and as much as I enjoy his novels, it’s the former that love the most. Even Mann was moved to say that the short form was his ‘own genre’ and that he had more confidence in it than his longer works.

I have a particular inclination toward the deeply sad ‘Tobias Mindernickel’. Tobias is an outcast who lives alone and is the butt of the neighbourhood jokes. Children mock him in the street and he avoids the company of others. He is unhappy, but does not seek to change this, except that one day a chance opportunity for charity gives him insight into his caring, nurturing side, and it is transformative:

His eyes looked larger and brighter, he looked squarely at people and things, while an expression of joy so strong as to be almost painful tightened the corners of his mouth.

In short, kindness has made Tobias happy. This small act changes him and he seeks out its rewards further, adopting a dog – who he names Esau – upon which he can dote. But Tobias has misunderstood what love is. He desires it only for what it can bring him and when Esau does not behave in a way that is pleasing, there are unpleasant, then tragic consequences.

I don’t know why I like this story so much, if I’m honest. It’s not a pleasant read (but who said stories have to be?) but there is something about it, something so unbearably sad, that it remains in the head, the heart, long after I’ve read it.

From Death in Venice and Other Stories, Penguin, 1999

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