Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Our Lives

Death in Venice and Other Tales, by Thomas Mann, Translated by Joachim Neugroschel, Read by Paul Hecht, Recorded Books Classics Library, 1999

When I was engaged to be married, shortly before the actual ceremony, my fiancé and I went book shopping for some sort of reading material to take on our honeymoon. I had narrowed the choice down to three large novels, Frog by Stephen Dixon, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, and The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. For reasons I no longer recall, the first of these won out, though I purchased the also-rans for later enjoyment.

Later, after having read the Murakami though not the Mann, I went through a period of listening to a vast amount of Joseph Campbell lectures. Mann’s tetrology, the Joseph series, greatly impressed Campbell, and he wrote extensively on Mann, returning to the German novelist repeatedly. I came away with the impression that Mann was one of the greatest philosophical novelists of all time, and as I was also embarked upon a reading project of working my way through the great philosophers of the Western canon, I held off on The Magic Mountain, planning to return to it when I was at least at the point of rereading Nietzsche.

Nietzsche was reached just at the time my daughter was born, and so Mann has languished as I found myself hung up somewhere in the second essay of Untimely Meditations. The Magic Mountain remains, it appears, to be scaled.

No less an iconic work, however, is Mann’s Death in Venice, a novella often paired with several of the author’s other short works. In finding this available in audio format, I felt I might spur myself to tackle the novel that has remained on my shelf, a daunting volume of some heft an importance. I hadn’t ever read any Mann before, so this was to be my introduction.

Neugroschel’s translation is the kind of pleasant work that includes the scholar’s introduction explaining about the various syntactical dilemmas a translator approaches when trying to find common ground among two different languages. For as much as English and German share, there are a number of interesting elements where the two languages diverge. Translator’s introductions to fiction are the only kind of introduction I’m willing to read (most others merely spoil the novel by providing you with scholars’ preconceived notions or with plot spoilers).

There seem to be at least two kinds of stories in this collection, stories of artists and stories of other kinds of socially isolated characters, the deformed, the shy, the residents of a sanatorium. Yet even the stories that aren’t about artists per se feature a throbbing art current, operas, theatre, galleries. To read Mann’s work is to get an idea of the vibrant, thrilling culture German pigheadedness destroyed through two world wars. It is as if Mann foresaw the future, the kind of elegiac vein these stories mine, a lament for something still extant but on the verge of disappearing. To feel yourself at times alone in foreseeing this calamity can be an isolating experience, deforming and mis-shaping your life.

“Tristan” is a sanatorium story, much like The Magic Mountain. It tells of Herr Spinell, a cowardly writer who lives at this sanatorium and briefly falls in love with a young woman, Frau Kloterjahn. He disapproves of her husband’s flirtatious manners with the nurse and in fact disapproves of everything about him. Mann’s prose here, the abstract reckoning of the Tristan score of Wagner has a radiantly intellectualized sensuality, a seduction that is purely mental without embraces. It is a kind of inversion of the Tristan story, the lover being kind of a ridiculous figure, a man who hides behind a sickly façade and writes insulting letters. The climax, the telling off of Spinell by Herr Kloterjahn is rather hysterical, the pompous twit getting his “you’re an ass” from the burgher. It is one of the only stories herein where we are asked not to sympathize with the artist, but instead with the plain man of business.

“The Will for Happiness” is another such story about an artist, though of a kind of tale not generally told too much anymore, that of the spectator to events, the narrator who is not, in fact, the protagonist of his own story. Everyone is their own protagonist anymore. The narrator tells of his childhood friend Paolo Kaufman who he meets again after a long separation. The man is sickly still, a painter, pining for love. There is a romantic notion to the story, in which Paolo dies just having achieved his happiness, the kind of story in which it is only the drive to be happy that keeps a man alive.

Not so “Tobias Mindernickel” a cruel story about how cruelty towards others can so warp them that their only comfort manifests itself in cruelty to others. I had come to believe after listening to a few of these stories of Mann’s is that there would be a kind of intellectualized and romanticized view of life that stressed the beautiful and transfiguring in unexpectedly positive ways. At first you feel sympathy for the man, but then when he begins to hurt his dog, just so he can commiserate with the animal in pain, you see the depths of his own tortured soul; this doesn’t make you loathe the man more, but it is a curious psychological portrait. At the conclusion of this tale I had a kind of chilled feeling all throughout me.

A few of the tales are interesting as a kind of portraiture work, such as “Little Lizzy” which surely comes close to Dostoyevsky in its telling of a doomed marriage between a voluptuous unfaithful wife and her self-debasing husband. Or “The Starvelings” whose main character’s reflections are a study in self-important identification with the downtrodden by one whose position is nowhere near as degraded, and yet how there still exists a bedrock human commonality. “The Wunderkind,” a portrait of an audience as they listen to a young child prodigee playing piano, features a deliciously nasty miniature of the “aging critic,” bitter at all artists for doing what he cannot.

Perhaps the story that seems most pertinent to our own times right now, “Gladius Dei,” introduces us to Hieronymous living among the art community that ruled Munich, the city of artists. He is struck by the painting of a Madonna and it shakes him to the core. He demands the proprietor of the gallery to take down this rather sensual painting as it offends his religious and moral sensibilities. The sanctimonious, close-minded, literalist objections and the authoritarian judgmental nature, the urge to destroy art that offends — these were the same then as they are now.

My favorite of all the tales in this volume was not the title story, though it had its high points, but was in fact the shorter, lesser known work “Tonio Kröger,” which reminded me a great deal of the middle and late period novels of Knut Hamsun. This is one of my adored kinds of stories, the short biography novella following someone from boyhood to old age, but done with precision and remarkable economy, like selecting twelve photographs of a person over the course of their life.

One can easily pair “Tonio Kröger” with “Death in Venice” as the overlapping similarities of the story (as well as their correspondences to Mann’s own life) are too numerous to ignore. All three men are writers born to fair-complected fathers who were sensible governmental officials involved in business married to dark, exotic wives from foreign and/or southern places. All three men found themselves isolated from both their families and their countrymen, all three men burn with unrequited love and passion.

While these elements are compelling (and while Mann’s wife’s journals later reveal that the events told in “Death in Venice” follow precisely real life events after a fashion), it is important to stress the difference between life and art. Too often biographers pick over the stories looking for salacious angles into the psychology of authors, and too often the reverse path is true too, literary critics digging through an author’s personal life hoping to match real-life A to fictional A.

What Mann is doing in these instances is telling his own story, yes, that is true. In making these protagonists so closely resemble his own self, however, he is not saying, “I am Tonio Kröger” or “I am Gustav Aschenbach,” but rather something very like, Just as I am like these men and they are like me, they are human, just as you yourself are, just as you too play the fool for love and passion and a longing for a sense of home.”

All the stories in this collection try in some way or other to make that same point, to say that in us all there is a longing for that which is outside of us, for that which is beyond us, for that which maybe once upon a time we did hold, we did possess, but now we have lost. It is an argument that must be made on a daily basis, of which we must be constantly reminded, and which far too often much of what passes as literature simply fails to state with anything resembling the force of conviction. With an artful and elegant intelligence, Mann makes literature’s most profound and important case for humanity, and he makes it with some of its most damaged members. That is important too.

Narrator Paul Hecht, last heard in these parts presenting us with Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and regularly seen on any number television crime show reruns, delivers a kind of authoritatively dry voice. In this way he’s a nice match for Mann’s sometimes bloodless-seeming prose; he doesn’t always dig deep enough in his reading to deliver up the life humming under the surface of Mann’s polished prose, but he does move effortlessly through the longer, more baroquely structured sentences, never losing a kind of crystal clarity.

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