Saturday, June 22, 2013

Thomas Mann's antidote to decadence - never had he lost himself in a book

This is the last pre-vacation post.  It is an odd one to have atop Wuthering Expectations for two weeks, but it provides a clue as to where I am going, so that’s all right.

To catch us all up, “The Blood of the Walsungs” is Thomas Mann’s story of Wagnerian decadence that ends in an eye-rolling act of unapologetic incest.  Twenty years ago or more, I found the whole thing repulsive.  Now it seems hilarious, narrow but successful as a satire, not decadent but a parody of literary decadence.

Thus the mannered speech of the brother and sister:

‘I should enjoy an ice,’ said she, ‘if they were not in all probability uneatable.’

‘Don’t think of it,’ said he.

Or the preposterous clothing:

She wore a Florentine cinquecento frock of claret-coloured velvet, too heavy for her slight body.  Siegmund had on a green jacket suit with a tie of raspberry shantung, patent-leather shoes on his narrow feet, and cuff-buttons set with small diamonds.

Or the abuse with which the poor fiancé, a sort of point of view character, is subjected.  These people are ridiculous and behave accordingly.

And thus the long description and theft from Wagner, the conceit that the characters in the story behave like other fictional characters whose name they happen to share, something I remember finding deeply irritating.  Couldn’t Mann come up with his own symbolic action?  Or couldn’t he make it less obvious?  But I now take this as Mann’s point, that the twins have become so corrupted by wealth and aestheticism that they are only capable of imitation.

The brother, Siegmund, while dressing for the opera is given a reverie, an internal wandering that is as close as Mann comes to directing sympathy towards a character.  Siegmund is aware of the emptiness in his life.

The preparation, the lavish equipment for what should have been the serious business of life used up all his energy.  How much mental effort had to be expended simply in making a proper toilette!  How much time and attention went to his supplies of cigarettes, soaps, and perfumes; how much occasion for making up his mind late in that moment, recurring two or three times daily, when he had to select his cravat!

Yes, admittedly, that exact problem may not be one many of us share, but at least Mann allows for some possibility of an alternative other than a Wagner-inspired sexual affair with his sister.  He does it most clearly in a description of a problem many of us do share:

Siegmund loved to read, he strove after the word and the spirit as after a tool which a profound instinct urged him to grasp.  But never had he lost himself in a book as one does when that single work seems the most important in the world; unique, that single work seems the most important in the world; unique, a little, all-embracing universe, into which one plunges and submerges oneself in order to draw nourishment out of every syllable.  The books and magazines streamed in, he could buy them all, they heaped up around him and even while he read, the number of those still to be read disturbed him.  But he had the books bound in stamped leather and labelled with Siegmund Aarenhold’s beautiful book-plate; they stood in rows, weighing down his life like a possession which he did not succeed in subordinating to his personality.

In other words, he behaves badly because of the size of his To Be Read pile.  And his life would be transformed if he could just find that one great book among the corrupting excess.

Back in a couple weeks.  I will have to juice up the bug zapper a bit while I am away, sorry.


  1. That is a good guess.

    I will put another clue under "Currently Reading."

    I want to mention the possibility that Mann meant all of the Wagner business seriously, that he really did want me to be impressed by the impulses generated by Wagner's music, as also perhaps in his 1902 "Tristan," another layering of Wagner onto his own characters.

  2. There's a late novella by Mann- The Holy Sinner- which retells a mediaeval legend involving incest in a parodic style. Perhaps incest was a temptation- like homosexuality- that Mann dealt with in fiction to avoid in life.

  3. Oh God no, not The Holy Sinner! - That brings back memories of some of the most tedious moments of my life.

    I must admit, my Mann experience is perhaps the opposite to others: I really liked the novellas I read first (Tonio Kroeger, Death in Venice, the one about the man and his dog), but God I find his novels a bore: in which I include, first and foremost, Buddenbrooks (unfinished), and then Lotte in Weimar (unfinished), The Holy Sinner, Royal Highness (ok), Felix Krull (ok). I've no idea why I've got it in mind to read The Magic Mountain; experience advises against it.

    I'm pretty sure you'll find Barset is a made-up place and the travel agent was having you on.

  4. I love the juxtaposing of your perception as a younger reader to now. I'm sure someone has done it, but a guide by the ages- or rather a re-read by the ages would be a good book. I'd get three chapters just out of Hawthorne.

  5. I read Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories in November of 2011, according to my blog. At the time, I said of "Walsungs" that it was "too self-consciously symbolic and pedantic for my tastes." When I liked one of Mann's stories, I really liked it, but the collection was so hit-or-miss that I've been afraid to pick up more of his work. So I hope you write about Buddenbrooks.

  6. Reading about ennui makes it worse.

  7. The correct answer was Schleswig-Holstein. Congratulations to everyone who guessed I was vacationing in Schleswig-Holstein.