Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Ringing and shimmering, and giving hint of their infinite origin - I fail to make the case for Thomas Mann

It has been twenty years or more since I read Thomas Mann, in the old Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories collection.  I do not want to say that I read Mann well – I am sure I did not – but he left a bad taste so I never pursued the matter until recently.  I believe I have narrowed the offender to a single story, so perhaps the experience was like eating a bad clam.  Puts a fellow off clams for a while.  Buddenbrooks (1901) has turned out to be a tasty clam, thank goodness.

I want to postpone Buddenbrooks to sometime after my upcoming vacation and instead look at some of Mann’s early short fiction, most of it new to me.  The book at hand is Little Herr Friedemann & Other Stories, Minerva Press, 1997, the translator nowhere mentioned although I was able to figure out it is H. T. Lowe-Porter.  Eighteen short stories ranging from 1896 to 1911.

The last one I read, “A Weary Hour” (1905) is an internal monologue by Friedrich Schiller about the meaning of art and life and so on (Schiller’s name is never used).  It contains almost everything I find artless in Mann.  “And from his soul, from music and idea, new works struggled upward to birth and, taking shape, gave out light and sound, ringing and shimmering, and giving hint of their infinite origin – as in a shell we hear the sighing of the sea whence it came” – I was tempted to add “and hot gas” after “light and sound.”  So this is not the place to reconcile myself with Mann.  I note the year, the centennial of Schiller’s death so perhaps it is a special case, for a commemorative issue of a magazine.

Mann loved dogs.  The 1918 story “A Man and His Dog,” too long and late for this collection, contains little more than a man taking his dog for a walk.  I have not reread it recently, and remember it as a marvel, a wonderful piece of writing, so it has been a kind of mental cocklebur reminding me that Mann was worth another try.  A number of these stories have appreciative writing about dogs.  Sensitive dog lovers might want to avoid “Tobias Mindernickel” (1897), though, in which a grotesque misfit finds love in a dog, but for temperamental reasons should not own a dog.  Mann can be cruel, even to innocent dogs.

He is more cruel to people, especially the grotesques he returns to again and again, like the disfigured and bent hero of “Little Herr Friedemann” (1897), who as a baby was dropped by his drunken nurse.  After a life of self-denial he foolishly falls in love, is rejected, and drowns himself by force of will in shallow water.

Or how about Jacoby the lawyer:

He was stout, Jacoby the lawyer; but stout is not the word, he was a perfect colossus of a man!  His legs, in their columnar clumsiness and the slate-grey trousers he always wore, reminded one of an elephant’s…  The upper lip and the round head were covered with harsh, scanty, light-coloured bristles that showed the naked skin, as on an overfed dog.

His beautiful, evil wife and her no-good composer boyfriend bully Jacoby into performing  at a public theatrical.  They make him dress like a little girl and sing an insipid song (thus the title of the story, “Little Lizzy,” 1897).  He is killed by the F-sharp major chord on which the composer ends the song.  Mann is quite specific about that chord; he always is when he writes about music.

Humiliation, abuse, loneliness, death and more death.  I am not really making the case in favor, am I?  Tomorrow, the bad clam.  Let’s get it out of the way.


  1. I had an almost identical experience with Mann, having been assigned "Death in Venice" at an age when it just seemed creepy and sordid (an anecdote: a visit to the Grand Hotel des Bains while in Venice a few years later didn't help dispel this impression; Kurt Waldheim - or an exact replica - was seated on the terrace and glared at me as I walked in wearing my t-shirt and backpack). I didn't take to Mann until Buddenbrooks, which struck me as a sort of missing link between the 19th century and modernism. I eagerly await your posts on it, but enjoy your vacation first.

  2. I dd not read "Death in Venice" with great comprehension, but the poison pill in my case, which I will defend later today, was "The Blood of the Walsungs."

    I have some arguments with Buddenbrooks, but it is a book with many virtues. Hard to believe he wrote something so accomplished and ambitious by the time he was 26.

  3. I also had an interesting time with Mann.

    About ten years years ago I did something unusual for me, I started The Magic Mountain and stopped fairly early in the read. As you allude to, I just was not reading the book "well". I feel that I was not ready for the book. I did not have enough exposure to enough of the philosophical underpinnings that Mann was playing with. I am a little better versed in these ideas now and I will give Mann another go sometime.

  4. Knowing the tradition of the Big Ideas in play would have to be an enormous help. There is a lot less of that in Buddenbrooks and these other early stories - much, much less.

  5. I liked Buddenbrooks a lot, but The Magic Mountain was spectacular...I read it in college, had a great professor, and got more out of that book than perhaps any novel I've ever read.