Thursday, June 20, 2013

I summarize the Thomas Mann story "The Blood of the Walsungs"

Thomas Mann, “The Blood of the Walsungs,” 1905.  A story in two scenes.

Scene 1:  Lunch with the Aarenhold family, massively wealthy Polish Jews who have become assimilated Prussians, so assimilated that the oldest son has become an Erich von Stroheim-like Prussian officer, “a stunning tanned creature with curling lips and a killing scar” and the youngest son and daughter, nineteen year-old twins, are named after Richard Wagner characters.

The aestheticized manners and grandiose wealth of the characters are a sight to see:  “With careful, skinny hands Herr Aarenhold settled the pince-nez half-way down his nose and with a mistrustful air read the menu, three copies of which lay on the table,” for example.  They are at home.  I am going to institute this practice.  Hand-written menus at every meal for every guest.  This will be easy because they will only need one word: BEANS.  And I can reuse the menus every night.

A more ordinary German has had the bad luck (“[t]owards the end of the luncheon [his] eyes were red and he looked slightly deranged”) of becoming engaged to the daughter.  He apparently has not noticed that she and her brother “were always hand in hand, heedless that the hands of both inclined to moisture.”

Scene 2:  The twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde, are going to attend Die Walküre for the last time before her marriage.  He dresses, exchanging his “rose-tinted silk drawers and socks” for “black silk drawers, black silk socks, and heavy black silk garters with silver buckles.”  His sister joins him, and they make out (“They spent another minute on the chaise-lounge in mutual caresses”).

The next quarter or so of the story shows the twins at the opera.  Many pages present a detailed summary of the plot of the opera, focusing mostly on the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde who fall in love, discover that they are brother and sister, and behave in a manner that eventually produces the hero Siegfried:

Crouching on the bearskin they looked at each other in the white light, as they sang their duet of love.  Their bare arms touched each other’s as they held each other by the temples and gazed into each other’s eyes, and as they sang their mouths were very near…  In ravishment he stretched out his arms to her, his bride, she sank upon his breast – the curtain fell as the music swelled into a roaring, rushing, foaming whirlpool of passion – swirled and swirled and with one might throb stood still.

Rapturous applause.

Curiously, the “real” Siegmund has a white bearskin rug in his white room lit by “soft milky” light.

The twins return home, eat caviar sandwiches with red wine (“a combination offensive to good taste”), and copulate on the bearskin rug.  “Thus Mann has life imitate art” writes Peter Gay in Savage Reprisals (2002, p. 120) after his own summary of the story.

Gay is wrong.  Mann has art imitate art.  There is not a hint of life in any of this.

How I hated this story when I read it long ago; how it poisoned Mann.  On re-reading it, I have changed my mind, although without cleansing the story of its toxins – it is deliberately poisonous – but I will save the defense for the next post.