1. Novels, 1.1 Historical Novels, Alexander - Fiction Book, Reviews

Review: “Alexander. A Novel of Utopia” by Klaus Mann

RECENSIONE IN ITALIANO: QUI

Good day everyone, I’m Elena and thanks to be here on Alessandro III di Macedonia, blog about Alexander the Great and Hellenism. Today I’m talking about:

Alexander. A Novel of Utopia

(Alexander. Roman der Utopie)

by Klaus Mann

Read in the Italian translation by Gianni Bertocchini

Preface by Jean Cocteau e Afterword by Gianni Bertocchini

Il Nuovo Melangolo, 2005

ISBN: 978-8870185799, 213 pages

«One can imagine with what fear I approached an Alexander… an Alexander the Great. It must be said that that Alexander presented himself with courage: a full-bodied tome in an era, ours, of short books. And then it came to me from Klaus Mann, a young man certainly endowed with grace, intelligence and the most touching of glories, that of Thomas Mann’s father, aware that greatness doesn’t always dwell in great things. A little boy swinging on a gate can move more than the parade of Parsifal.» (from the Preface by Jean Cocteau, my translation)

KLAUS MANN was born in Munich in 1906, died in Cannes in 1949. He left Germany immediately after the brownshirt coup, founded and directed in Amsterdam, with Gide, Huxley and with his uncle Heinrich Mann, the anti-Nazi magazine “Die Sammlung”. He later emigrated to the United States, where he took American citizenship.

Classificazione: 4 su 5.

Reading time: from 23rd to 28th May 2022.

Klaus Mann, son of Thomas Mann, wrote Alexander. A Novel of Utopia at the age of 23, it was his second novel and it’s the fictional story of Alexander the Great but not only this. I read the 2005 Italian edition published by Il Nuovo Melangolo now difficult to find with a beautiful and flattering preface by Jean Cocteau and an afterword by the translator Gianni Bertocchini that if it had been longer and more detailed (it’s five pages) I’d have liked it because this text opens to further analysis given that the author uses the historical character of Alexander to express other transcendent themes. In 2021 a new edition was published by the Italian Castelvecchi Editore always with the translation by Bertocchini (ISBN: 978-8832828795) and is now available.

The book consists of five chapters each divided into five parts. What struck me about this reinterpretation of Alexander is that in my opinion it can be considered an example of Alexander’s polymorphy because he takes on the tones of the hero of chivalrous poems steeped in myth and legend. In this book Alexander’s mission is to build the kingdom of earthly bliss (therefore in a Christian key) by shifting the principle from the masculine to the feminine one and he can only succeed after a process of spiritual formation that makes him know the infinite. Who entrusts this mission to Alexander is Olympiad, opposed to Aristotle who instead directs the young Macedonian towards rationality. The title, however, already makes us guess the ending: utopia is in fact something that fails to come true, a failed attempt.

This book is therefore not the classic fictionalized life of Alexander by a great author but is something different because Mann puts his own in an original way: from the beautiful characterization of the characters, in fact Aristotle is an old eccentric; Clitus lives in another world but is the example of the most abstract rationality (he is Mann’s most autobiographical character); for the way Cleopatra behaves on Philip’s death she assumes the characteristics of a tragic actress; Eumenes was not liked by anyone and was unpopular so they make the joke of setting his tent on fire and, however, many administrative documents and official documents were lost and many others are well-described characters. Babylon also undergoes almost a process of personification because it’s described as fat, lewd, luxurious, soft and reflects the typical image of the East that seduces. Mann romances Alexander’s best-known situations and events, changes their real order and even merges some characters with each other, in fact Roxane is here the Amazons’ queen who becomes the bride of the Macedonian and when Alexander receives the omens of death the stranger ascending the throne here is Arrhidaeus who had disappeared. In the case of Arrhidaeus this is a historical change (but as already mentioned it’s not the only one) but it assumes the importance of a very beautiful and meaningful prediction. One thing that I didn’t like but that has its reason for being like this in the book is that Alexander accomplishes all this as a mission entrusted to him by Olympics and not of his own free will, but he wants to conquer everything in order to know everything on the wishes of his mother. The episodes of armed clashes and sieges are here reduced to the essentials because the important thing is something else. I liked that Aristotle with Alexander in Mieza spoke to him about ancient philosophy. In the book we also find the settling of accounts with his father Philip (and Thomas for Klaus) because he dies when he presents himself as a divinity and this expresses the need to sacrifice himself to the god. Alexander’s mission remains utopian because he’s unable to combine the search for the divine and the infinite with the idea of ​​sacrifice because he doesn’t sacrifice himself but others and thus there cannot be the kingdom of love.

Alexander. A Novel of Utopia is not the classic fictionalized biography on Alexander and whoever expects to find such a book remains a bit confused, I myself thought it was a more normal, less strange book. I believe that this work by Mann can like it or not, with no middle ground because is a particular text that hides deeper meanings beyond what it says. Texts of this kind can be oversimplified or read without going further or even misinterpreted, but if they are analyzed they give unexpected and surprising visions. I liked it precisely because I interpret it as a further example of Alexander’s polymorphy and if I think that this text was written by a 23-year-old boy, I am speechless. Fortunately, this text by Klaus Mann has been republished (in Italian edition) because I believe that he deserves more attention than what has been reserved for him and can be read by anyone, passionate about Alexander or not.

Klaus Mann’s novel contains, hidden among the meshes of a story told in the ways of myth and fairy tale, exposed in a dense and metaphorical language, a solid and precise Kulturkritik; the story of the Macedonian sovereign teaches us that in history as man has conceived and realized it up to that moment, in his idea of progress, neither infinity nor divinity can be given; the attempt to combine progress and divinity brings with it not only failure, but tragedy: by illustrating the danger inherent in a historical-political entity that mistakenly combines the exercise of power with the principle of love, Alexander represents a severe warning on the risks of idolatries and totalitarianisms that would soon have shaken Europe.

Gianni Bertocchini, my translation

Thank you,

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