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Introduction to Bruno Frank's The Magician and Other Stories (1946)

Non-Fiction

Bruno Frank, the son of a banker, was born in Stuttgart in 1887. He received the usual education of a German boy in comfortable circumstances, entered the University of Tübingen, traveled, wrote poetry, studied at various seats of learning, took a degree, traveled again, entered the German Army, and fought in World War I. In 1924 he married and settled in Munich, where he wrote industriously and with success till 1933. He left Germany with his wife on the day after the Reichstag was burned. Then, an exile, he lived in Switzerland, France, the Tyrol, and England. He went to Hollywood in 1937 and there died in 1945.

I am not going to say very much about the short stories contained in this volume. They are there for the reader to read and there is no reason for him to care a row of beans what I think of them. His opinion is all that need matter to him. If a piece of writing says something to him, that, so far as he is concerned, is enough, and he should bear it with fortitude if he finds himself in disagreement with those who have set themselves up, often with small justification, to be judges of literature. There is no need for him to forget that the history of criticism offers many examples of the gross errors of which the most eminent crticis have been guilty.

The object of fiction is neither to preach nor to instruct, but to entertain, and if it does not do that, whatever other merits it has, it fails of its purpose. It must, in short, be readable; but readability does not depend only on the author; it depends on the reader as well; he must be able to sympathize with the characters of the author's invention, take an interest in their doings, want to know how they deal with their predicaments, and be curious to see what happens to them. All this means that he must have an interest in human nature and in human behavior. There are people who tell you they cannot read fiction; they give you to understand that their minds are too busy with more important things; I think this is baloney. They are like the people who despise cards: ask them one or two pertinent questions and you will discover that they have no card sense. it is the same with people who despise fiction: they lack the imagination to put themselves in the place of the persons of the author's invention and so take part in their trials and tribulations; they are, in fact, too self-centered to be interested in anyone but themselves.

I should not like the reader of the above to think that I am apologizing for the stories in this book. I am not. They are various and ingenious. They have humor and emotion.

The honest short-story writer tells stories for one reason only—because it amuses him to tell stories. Some incident strikes his fancy, some person he meets by chance excites his interest, a train of circumstances arouses his curiosity, and then his imagination gets to work, and if he is a good storyteller he will in due course devise a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end which satisfies his creative faculty. But the incident, the person, the circumstances that have kindled his faculty he has, have done so only because he is the sort of person he is. Many writers try to be objective, but, however hard they try, fail, for their choice of subjects, their outlook on the creatures of their fancy, the way they treat the incidents they are called upon to deal with, are conditioned by their own personalities. In the final analysis the author can give you only himself.

But of course the self the writer shows in his works is not always the self he shows to the world. We have all known ferocious polemists in public who in private were too meek and mild to say boo to a goose, and idealists whose verse filled us with rapture who at home were monsters of selfishness. Which is the real man? Both.

There was no such dichotomy in Bruno Frank. I knew him, though not intimately, for some years, and the impression he gave me was that in him the writer and the man were one and the same. He was of a singular modesty and entirely devoid of envy. He had a trait that is not so common among us authors: he could sincerely admire work that was very different from his own and generously praise it. He had a tender and compassionate heart. He was more apt to see the good than the evil in his fellow creatures and he was indulgent to their weakness. He had a healthy sensuality and liked women to be young, pretty, and buxom. He regarded the foolishness of the young with a pleasant irony and was inclined to be lenient with the errors, the crimes even, into which the sexual passion might lead them. He recognized that there were rogues in the world, but any loathing he may have felt for them was tempered with humor.

These traits are very plainly manifested in the stories in this volume. I should like to draw the reader's attention particularly to the narrative called "An Adventure in Venice." His study of the character of Herr von Slozek is subtle and shows with what understanding Bruno Frank could enter into the soul of a scoundrel who, one would have thought, would have been likely to fill him only with repulsion. "An Adventure in Venice" is not only an interesting and even exciting tale, it does not only show how sensitive he was to the beauties of nature and the beauties of art, it touches upon a theme which he dealt with in other stories and so which, one may suppose, revealed a deep-seated urge. There is something of it in "The Moon Watch," something in "The Unknown Woman." It was this urge, perhaps, that led him in early youth to break away from home and wander into unknown countries. I fancy there was in him, as in the characters he created, a passionate desire to escape from the common round, from domestic ties and the humdrum of every day, from success and the comfort that accompanies it, to some far-off place, a place on the map or a place only in the spirit, where life was new, strange, and adventurous. It is a pathetic but natural urge, and it is thwarted by habit, duty, common sense; and perhaps it is well that it should be thwarted, for when we seek thus to escape it is not from our surroundings and our circumstances, as we foolishly imagine, but from ourselves; and that is impossible. The advantage the writer has over other mortals is that by the means of his pen or his typewriter he can sublimate his longing. The reverse of the medal is that it is this longing in us that makes us writers when we might be mayors of cities, directors of banks, or manufacturers of motor cars, and so respectable members of the community.

One last word. The reader of this book will read it in English. It has always seemed to me that German is a very fine language for poetry, but somewhat heavy and cumbersome for prose. It is dangerous for anyone to make a pronouncement upon the style of a writer in a language that is foreign to him. I speak with diffidence. I have read Bruno Frank's stories in German and I have a very strong impression that he wrote it with grace, lightness, and lucidity. If I am right it is a further indication of his charming, honest, and unpretentious character.

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