Saturday, July 1, 2017

single words of the sentences shaped in his disordered brain - some progress with Thomas Mann

I last read Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories, the Vintage International collection of Thomas Mann’s novellas, when I was an undergraduate.  I read it with outstanding – perhaps even perfect – incomprehension.  Have I made any progress in thirty years?

Mann’s humor is still opaque to me.  “Felix Krull” (written 1911, pub. 1936) is a parody of autobiography, a parody of Goethe’s specifically, so even having read a lot more, including Goethe’s four-volume autobiography, I cannot hear the tone.  It is recognizably comic, with a pompous fool for a narrator; if only I found it funny.  The story is full of the grotesques that inhabit Mann’s early fiction – Felix’s obese father, for one, or this actor:

All this I might have borne.  But not the pimples with which Müller-Rosé’s back, chest, shoulders, and upper arms were thickly strewn.  They were horrible pimples, red-rimmed, suppurating, some of them even bleeding; even today I cannot repress a shudder at the thought of them.  I find that our capacity for disgust is in direct proportion to our capacity for enjoyment, to our eagerness for the pleasures which this world can give.

I believe that long ago I took this all more literally.  I suppose I attributed banal insight that the actor so sublime on stage is much less so up close and without his artificial aids, or the last bit of supposed wisdom, obviously false, to Mann himself.  But no, it’s a parody, meant to be funny, even.  All right.  At least I can see that now.

“Death in Venice” is the perfect chaser to The Horseman on the Roof, the 1832 cholera epidemic followed by the last gasp of cholera.  An esteemed writer, quite a bit older and narrower than Mann himself, vacations in Venice, where he totally crushes on a beautiful fourteen-year-old Polish boy staying in his hotel.  He becomes a stalker, harmless but creepy; meanwhile, here comes the cholera.  The whole thing is a riff on Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872), a struggle between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, with the embrace of the Dionysian spirit meaning both ecstasy and death.

There he sat, the master; this was he who had found a way to reconcile art and honours; who had written The Abject, in a style of classic purity renounced bohemianism and all its works, all sympathy with the abyss and the troubled depths of the outcast human soul…  His eyelids were closed, there was only a swift, sidelong glint of the eyeballs now and again, something between a question and a leer; while the rouged and flabby mouth uttered single words of the sentences shaped in his disordered brain by the fantastic logic that governs our dreams.

A paragraph of such sentences follows, dream-stuff that I do not really understand (“’And now, Phaedrus, I will go’”), but more importantly I see that the author, “the master,” is or becomes another grotesque.  He is a parody, the ideas attributed to him not to be taken so seriously.  The one thing I have learned.

Now, here is something I still do not understand.  It is on the next-to-last page:

A camera on a tripod stood at the edge of the water, apparently abandoned; its black cloth snapped in the freshening wind.

There has not been a photography theme in the story, nor another camera.  It is on the beach that is a major setting.  “Here you go,” says Mann, “a symbol – enjoy!”  It is so detached from everything else.  Maybe it symbolizes death.

I don’t know how this looks to you, but to me it looks like progress.  Tomorrow I’ll look at “A Man and His Dog,” the most guacamolesque story in the collection.  Guacamolesque is my new favorite word.  It is French.

These are all T. H. Lowe-Porter translations, by the way.  They are dated in places.  A lot of “hither” and “thither” in “Death in Venice.”


  1. I have been reading "How to Read Literature Like a Professor" by Thomas C. Forster, a breezy, easy guide for AP English types and those that never had AP classes when they were in school (back in the Dark Ages). "Here Comes the Cholera!" would make an EXCELLENT title for a chapter on natural disasters as literary symbols in Mr. Forster's next book. He also argues for the value of some more contemporary novels (Song of Solomon, e.g.) as good examples of novels that illustrate the use of various literary tropes and themes. I took his advice and finally read it; I thought it was great.

  2. I enjoyed these most of Mann years ago, but tried reading Death in Venice again recently and couldn't get through it. Too much abstraction, I think. I kind of enjoyed Tristan, if that's in your collection, but that too is a bit silly and too much an idea than a story. Also because I'd been reading versions of Tristan and tried to see how it related. Not too well, was my opinion. But now you mention Nietzsche, probably it's a Wagner reference.

  3. I can't believe I misspelled an author's name. It's Thomas C. Foster. I'm working on a seminar on "Maurice" for early 2018, so I must have E. M. Forster on the brain...

  4. I've picked up the Foster book but never committed - it looked good. I guess I have no complaint about symbolism as such - it is inherent in story-telling - but it is more artful when the symbolic value is generated within the story, when a character finds something symbolic.

    "Too much abstraction" and "too much an idea" are Mann's besetting literary sins. At least they are aspect of his fiction that I do not understand.

  5. I read "Death In Venice" about six years ago and even blogged about it: About halfway into the story I got the strong impression that I was reading a sketch of Lolita as written by Henry James. An old writer lusting after a youth, with layer upon layer of symbolism and irony. The entire story is a symbol for itself, a large irony about irony, a reckless joke about art not being life which is pulled off by art becoming lifelike. I don't remember the story well enough to know if I'd agree today to even a word of that. I also don't remember the camera.

  6. I have enjoyed many of Mann's large-scale works, but "Death in Venice", and his other short novels, all elude me. The two occasions I read "Death in Venice", I forgot all about it almost immediately afterwards. Possibly because I have too literal a mind, and am not very good at identifying and interpreting symbols: to me, a camera on a beach is just a camera on a beach, unless I have good reason to believe otherwise. Anything that demands a symbolic reading before it can be adequately understood is possibly not for me. This probably indicates nothing more than my deficiencies as a reader.

    Or it may be that Mann's concerns here aren't really mine. The life-and-death struggle between the Apollonian and the Dionysian strikes few chords in me; nor does the seductive power of Eros and of Thanatos. Once again, that possibly indicates only the failure of my imaginative sympathies.

    Whatever the reason, I find myself unable to succumb to the "haunting quality" that "Death in Venice" is reputed to have. It leaves behind for me only the most shadowy of impressions.

  7. A lot of blunt symbolism and a lot of dualism - the Eros / Thanatos business - is used to build a lot of artless twaddle. Mann at least ironizes in a way a more dopey Romantic would not. But it is hardly a failure to roll the eyes a bit.

    On the other hand, very few artists, including most of my favorites, have much interest in my concerns, and why would they, and why would I want to read about it if they did. I know about my concerns already.

    I had great trouble remembering Mann's stories, too. "Mario the Magician," in particular, had completely evaporated. I assume I will have similar trouble this time, in the near future.

  8. How sad is it that my most memorable moment about reading "Death in Venice" came while watching "Bagdad Cafe" and Christine Kaufmann's character was reading the same Vintage Book copy as I was reading (at the same moment)? I looked around to see if Candid Camera was somewhere in my house.

    There was no Allen Funt to be seen, but obviously I've remembered that shiver quite well.

  9. It's a distinctive cover!

    Hey, I saw Bagdad Cage when it came out, in a theater, as was the style at the time. That was in 1987. Gee, I'd totally forgotten.

  10. "As was the style at the time." OK, Abe Simpson.

    Here's a still of her reading the book:

    I enjoy seeing books in films or programs because usually someone has put some thought into it. Not always, but when they have it's fun to see the parallels.