Monday, June 1, 2009

Death in Venice and Other Stories - Thomas Mann (Transl. David Luke)

The story is well-known to those of my friends that I unleash my artistic insecurities upon, for lack of better conversational material or to convince myself that my work is less dubious than it appears: the time is December 2006. The effort is an MFA application. The problem is a lack of confidence in any of my prior work for use as a writing sample. The solution is this volume, inspiration, and three or four stories written in a period of three or four weeks, now of questionable value. Two-and-a-half years later I still don't have an MFA.

Bought from a used bookstore on Clark St. in the summer of 2006 for $3.00, this collection of seven short stories has been perused two or three times since that initial encounter, spawned an interest in three long, great novels Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain, and Doctor Faustus, and appropriately earned the distinction of the 99th post on Flying Houses.

This collection will prove to be more difficult than any other review on this blog because of the quotability of far too many passages. Inevitably some great ones must be left out. There are seven stories, and while each deserves much attention, it will be clear that in this collection in particular, there is a definitive progression. I am not sure what other Mann story collections include. Perhaps four or five of these are included in most collections, and there are other stories of a different quality that deserve recognition--in particular "Mario and the Magician"--but I am convinced that if you have not read Mann and you need a place to start, this is the only way to go. Seven stories, around 260 pages, and almost perfect the whole way through.

"Little Herr Friedemann," published in 1897, begins the collection, and Mann's literary career on a hilarious and horrible note: "It was the nurse's fault." (3) The nurse has a problem with drinking, and so has dropped a baby which will now endure the rest of its life a hunchback. A breezy biography of the next thirty years of this person's life follows, including the one time he was afflicted with sexual desire, at age 16, and how he realized--"such experiences...obviously engrossing though they were for others, belonged like gymnastics and ball games to the category of things for which he was not suited." (5) The next fourteen years pass unperturbed until a new military commandant and his wife, Gerda, settle in the town and Herr Friedemann cannot help but be moved. The manner in which his attraction is evoked, nurtured, teased, and ultimately denied, is the element of the story that elevates it to a higher level. Also, it gives a taste of what is to come, since many of these stories share the same disconsolate themes.

"The Joker" comes next, and hardly anyone could fail to love a story that begins as such:

"The end of it all, the upshot of life--of my life--is the disgust with which it fills me. A worthy ending indeed! Disgust with it all, disgust with the whole business, this disgust that chokes me, goads me to frenzy and casts me down again into despair--sooner or later, no doubt, it will give me the necessary impetus to cut short the whole ridiculous, contemptible affair and clear out for good. True enough, I may well hold out for a month or two yet; maybe for another three or six months I shall carry on eating, sleeping and passing the time--in the same mechanical, calm and well-ordered fashion in which my life has outwardly gone by all this winter, contrasting so hideously with the vile process of my inner disintegration. One might almost suppose that a man's inner experiences become all the more violent and disturbing the more undisturbed and uncommitted and detached from the world his outward life is. There is no help for it: life has to be lived--and if one refuses to be a man of action and retires into the quiet of a hermit's solitude, even then the vicissitudes of existence will assault one inwardly, they will still be there to test one's character and to prove one a hero or a half-wit." (31)

This troubled character is unnamed and proceeds to tell his story in the first-person of how his parents died and how he was given an inheritance and how he traveled for three years and then settled and never really developed any serious occupation and then lived his days in quiet, contemplative leisure. Until, he happened to see a young woman in particular driving a horse carriage, and how he saw her again at a performance of Faust, and how he found out that she would be at a bazaar, selling wine from a booth (on this point the story could be construed as another version of Joyce's "Araby," except about ten times more depressing), and how there has always been a certain other gentleman caller close by, and how he finally comes upon the decisive moment at the bazaar, and, much like "Little Herr Friedemann," experiences horrible disappointment.

"The Road to the Churchyard" is story #3, and it concerns another alcoholic--this one a widower who cannot stand the fact that a boy (named Life) is riding his bicycle on a road leading to a churchyard instead of on the main road. This character, sporting the moniker Lobgott Piepsam, owns perhaps the most depressing history of any Mann character, in a sprightly and ironic kind of way:

"He was--in rather low spirits, is that it?...It is hard to explain these matters to happy people like yourselves...But yes, he had his little troubles, you know, he was rather badly done by. Alas, if the truth be told, his troubles were by no means little, but grievous in the highest degree--in fact, his condition could fairly be described as absolutely wretched.
To begin with, he drank. Well, we shall have occasion to refer to this again. Secondly, he was a widower and a bereaved father, forsaken by everyone; he had not a soul left on earth to whom he was dear. His wife, whose maiden name had been Lebzelt, had been snatched from him six months ago when she had borne him a child; it was their third child, and it had been born dead. The other two had also died, one of diphtheria, the other of nothing in particular, perhaps just a general deficiency. As if this were not enough, he had shortly afterward lost his job, he had been shamefully dismissed from his employment and livelihood, and this had been in consequence of the above-mentioned ruling passion, which was a passion stronger than Piepsam." (64-65)

Lobgott, who had been drinking before setting out to visit the graveyard, becomes so infuriated with the boy that it becomes the central plot of the story. To be sure, this is the greatest trifle in the collection, but a lighthearted comic one, with obviously very dark shades. Mann had just completed Buddenbrooks and had intended this story as a light afterthought. Story #4, "Gladius Dei" perhaps concerns itself with a pressing artistic controversy--censorship--but is definitely the second trifle in the collection. This should hardly be taken to mean that these stories should be skipped in reading--but perhaps if you are on your deathbed, and you have very little time, if you absolutely must...but they are the most variegated, they conform least to Mann's set of governing themes, and so may be of potentially greater interest.

This story concerns another unhappy protagonist, this one named Hieronymus, who is religious and lives in "resplendent" Munich. There is an art gallery in town displaying some rather immoral artwork in its front window. Hieronymus takes extreme issue with the proprietor of the gallery, in a way that almost mirrors Lobgott in the previous story in the sense that, the entire central arc of the story concerns the main character's (potentially) deranged invective against a "disrespectful" representative of common society:

"Art! they cry--pleasure! beauty! Wrap the world in a veil of beauty and set upon everything the noble imprint of style!...Enough of this infamy! Do you think gaudy colors can gloss over the misery of the world? Do you think loud orgies of luxurious good taste can drown the moans of the tortured earth? You are wrong, you shameless wretches! God is not mocked, and your insolent idolatry of the glistering surface of things is an abomination in His sight!...'Who are you,' you will answer, 'to be reviling Art?' You lie, I tell you; I am not reviling art! Art is not a cynical deception, a seductive stimulus to confirm and strengthen the lusts of the flesh! Art is the sacred torch that must shed its merciful light into all of life's terrible depths, into every shameful and sorrowful abyss; art is the divine flame that must set fire to the world, until the world with all its infamy and anguish burns and melts way in redeeming compassion!...Remove it, Herr Bluthenzweig, remove that famous painter's work from your window--indeed, you would do well to burn it with hot fire and scatter its ashes to the winds, yes, to all four winds!..." (87)

Once we arrive at "Tristan," we enter into the final trilogy of stories, and the proceedings are driven up a notch. After reading The Magic Mountain, it is clear that "Tristan" shares many similarities with that novel (despite being published 21 years earlier) in its central arc alone--the sanatorium romance. This time it is between Herr Spinnell and Gabriele Kloterjahn--a writer and a wife of a businessman. "Tristan" definitely marks a turning point in the collection towards heavier material. There is also the first WTF moment when Spinnell and Gabriele sit at the piano while she plays music from Tristan and Isolde and it turns into a kind of metaphysical narrative that is about the story of the opera, but really symbolic of the short story at hand, confusing enough that you will have no clue what is going on--markedly similar to the segment near the end of The Sorrows of Young Werther where Goethe goes off on the Ossian tangent towards a parallel aim--and one which enhances the mystery of the story. Near the end, Spinnell writes a letter to Gabriele's husband, and it begets the most satisfying moment in the piece. Also, Spinnell has horrible contempt for Gabriele and Herr Kloterjahn's infant son, which is hilarious. The passages to note are too numerous to mention. But the most touching for me at least remains the description of how husband and wife met:

"'Yes, all those years are a precious memory to me; especially the garden, our garden behind the house. It was terribly wild and overgrown, and the walls round it were crumbling and covered with moss; but that was just what gave it its great charm. It had a fountain in the middle, surrounded by a dense border of flag irises. In summer I used to sit there for hours with my friends. We would all sit on little garden chairs round the fountain.'
'What beauty!' said Herr Spinnell, raising his shoulders. 'You sat round it singing?'
"No, we were usually crocheting.'
'Ah, nevertheless...nevertheless...'
'Yes, we crocheted and gossiped, my six friends and I...'
'What beauty! Ah, dear me, how beautiful that is!' cried Herr Spinnel, with his face quite contorted.
'But what is so particularly beautiful about that, Herr Spinnell?'
'Oh, the fact that there were six young ladies besides yourself, the fact that you were not one of their number, but stood out amongst them like a queen...You were singled out from your six friends. A little gold crown, quite inconspicuous yet full of significance, gleamed in your hair...'
'Oh, what nonsense, there was no such crown...'
'Ah, but there was: it gleamed there in secret. I should have seen it, I should have seen it in your hair quite plainly, if I had been standing unnoticed among the bushes on one of those occasions...'" (108-109)

From there we proceed to "Tonio Kroger"--arguably Mann's greatest work, the one I believe Franz Kafka valued more highly than any other, generally regarded as his second greatest story. Here the prose noticeably becomes even more direct. I think it is fair to say that "Tonio Kroger" is the most autobiographical of all of Mann's stories in that it presents his artistic concerns under less of a veil than his other characters. The long middle portion--the salon between Tonio and his painter friend Lisaveta--is perhaps the greatest discussion of the "artist" as a type that I have ever read.
The story opens with a young Tonio and his friend Hans walking home from school. Tonio writes poetry and loves reading Schiller's Don Carlos; Hans loves riding horses and looking at picture books of them. Then it is clear that Tonio loves Hans, and Hans considers Tonio a friend, but not quite to the same extreme. And so Tonio suffers. Several years later, there is Ingeborg Holm, whom he longs for at a dance. He makes a mockery of himself at the dance by performing the female part of one, and the instructor points this out for everyone's entertainment, and then he goes and stands in front of a window, even though a shade is drawn and he cannot see out of it, and he waits and hopes for Inge to "put her hand on his shoulder and say: 'Come back and join us, don't be sad, I love you!' And he listened to the voices behind him, waiting in senseless excitement for her to come. But she did not come. Such things did not happen on earth." (148)

Later he enters into a career as a writer, and almost immediately, the 4th chapter showcases him now in his early 30s, delivering a near-monologue to Lisaveta for approximately ten pages, finally settling upon an element in the artist that is tantamount to all others:

"You see, Lisaveta, I harbor in my very soul a rooted suspicion of the artist as a type--I suspect him no less deeply, though in a more intellectual way, than every one of my honorable ancestors up there in that city of narrow streets would have suspected any sort of mountebank or performing adventurer who had strolled into his house. Listen to this. I know a banker, a middle-aged man of business, who has a talent for writing short stories. He exercises this talent in his spare time, and what he writes is often first class. Despite--I call it 'despite'--this admirable gift he is a man of not entirely blameless reputation: on the contrary he has already served quite a heavy prison sentence, and for good reason. In fact it was actually in jail that he first became aware of his talents, and his experiences as a prisoner are the basic theme in all his work. One might draw the rather fanciful conclusion from this that it is necessary to have been in some kind of house of correction if one is to become a writer. But can one help suspecting that in its roots and origins his artistic tendency had less to do with his experiences in jail than with what got him sent there? A banker who writes short stories: that's an oddity, isn't it? But a banker with no criminal record and no stain on his character who writes short stories--there's no such phenomenon...Yes, you may laugh, but I am half serious nevertheless. There's no problem on earth so tantalizing as the problem of what an artist is and what art does to human beings. Take the case of the most remarkable masterpiece of the most typical and therefore mightiest of all artists--take a morbid, profoundly equivocal work like Tristan and Isolde, and observe the effects of this work on a young, healthy listener of entirely normal sensibility. He will be filled with exultation, animation, warm, honest enthusiasm, perhaps even inspired to 'artistic' creative efforts of his own...Poor, decent dilettante! We artists have an inner life very different from what our 'warmhearted' admirers in their 'genuine enthusiasm' imagine. I have seen artists with women and young men crowding round them, applauding and idolizing them, artists about whom I knew the truth...The sources and side-effects and preconditions of artistic talent are something about which one constantly makes the most curious discoveries..." (158-159)

Later, Tonio travels, and is mistaken for a criminal in his hometown, where they have turned his family home into a public library. And then, in Elsinore, Tonio finds "Hans" and "Inge" at a dance at his hotel. This is a story whose greatness is not easily described--but for me, at least, its greatness lies in Tonio's articulations on the nature of art and the artist, along with the atypical, yet direct and confrontational views of love and romance that affect Tonio. Also of note in the story is Mann's use of leitmotif--the repetition of certain phrases--which imbues the story with a lyricism seldom found in prose--some of these phrases like "such things did not happen on earth" or "the girl who was always falling over" or "in it there is longing, and sad envy, and just a touch of contempt, and a whole world of innocent delight" or "And if it was the wrong way, then that was because for certain people no such thing as a right way exists" or the oft-quoted "After all, I wasn't born a gypsy in a green caravan"--some of these phrases comprise the final 1/3 of the story's near-perfection.

From there we proceed to the title story, generally viewed as Mann's most important contribution to the western literary canon. And a difficult one to write about. If you would like a fine distillation and something more involved, I would like to point you towards Andrew O'Hehir's astute and scholarly review roughly five years ago (of a different translation/edition/collection)--not two years after he served as my only professional mentor in the journalism trade when he presided over a couple meetings as technical advisor to our college newspaper arts section. I will not be able to focus my efforts as singularly on this story as O'Hehir, but I will make my best effort.

This story concerns Gustav von Aschenbach and a sudden whim that directs him on a vacation to Venice. After a couple preliminary oddities, in a cemetery and on a ship, he arrives in the title city and notices a particular Polish family, whose youngest member is a 14-year-old boy named Tadzio. Aschenbach is smitten with the boy, and the fixation becomes the central element of the story. Along the way, something else is amiss in Venice, and the authorities are trying to cover it up, and it is transparently suggested that the greater chaos at hand is reflective of Aschenbach's inner turmoil.
The story is generally regarded as "the" originator in the Queer genre of literature. For being written in 1912, it is very far ahead of its time. The subject matter is still very unsettling and it is hard for a reader to sympathize with Aschenbach, and still harder to denounce him. To add another layer of controversy to it, this may be regarded as Mann's second most autobiographical story, as it all apparently happened, while he was on vacation in Venice with his wife and brother, to a somewhat less severe degree, we can assume. He said he wanted to portray "the loss of an artist's dignity"--and in the end, this little infatuation proves to be the ultimate vehicle for that sentiment. Few would argue that the story cannot be deeply felt or that it lacks emotional power. In giving voice to a situation without literary precedent, under circumstances of the utmost disgrace, with both seriousness and irony, Mann created a very unlikely masterpiece indeed.

While Aschenbach does eventually lose all sense of moral decency and takes to following the Polish family around Venice, there are moments where he realizes the incompatability of his attraction with his respectable exterior, and attempts to self-reconcile:

"Nevertheless, there were moments at which he paused and half came to his senses. Where is this leading me! he would reflect in consternation at some moments. Where was it leading him! Like any man whose natural merits move him to take an aristocratic interest in his origins, Aschenbach habitually let the achievements and successes of his life remind him of his ancestors, for in imagination he could then feel sure of their approval, of their satisfaction, of the respect they could not have withheld. And he thought of them even here and now, entangled as he was in so impermissable an experience, involved in such exotic extravagances of feeling; he thought, with a sad smile, of their dignified austerity, their decent manliness of character. What would they say? But for that matter, what would they have said about his entire life, a life that had deviated from theirs to the point of degeneracy, this life of his in the compulsive service of art, this life about which he himself, adopting the civic values of his forefathers, had once let fall such mocking observations--and which nevertheless had essentially been so much like theirs! He too had served, he too had been a soldier and a warrior, like many of them: for art was a war, an exhausting struggle, it was hard these days to remain fit for it for long. A life of self-conquest and of defiant resolve, an astringent, steadfast and frugal life which he had turned into the symbol of that heroism so much in keeping with the times--surely he might call this manly, might call it courageous? And it seemed to him that the kind of love that had taken possession of him did, in a certain way, suit and befit such a life. Had it not been highly honored by the most valiant of peoples, indeed had he not read that in their cities it had flourished by inspiring valorous deeds? Numerous warrior-heroes of olden times had willingly borne its yoke, for there was no kind of abasement that could be reckoned as such if the god has imposed it; and actions that would have been castigated as signs of cowardice had their motives been different, such as falling to the ground in supplication, desperate pleas and slavish demeanor--these were accounted no disgrace to a lover, but rather won him still greater praise." (245-246)

For the time it was written, these are some revolutionary statements to be included in such a mainstream work. But moving just beyond the salacious element, the story is certainly Mann's most elegantly composed piece. It is precise, pure, and detailed to just the right degree. A feeling of mystery enhances the opening pages and the driving compulsion that pushes the story to its already-promised end render it a surprising page-turner. And there are still moments of overpowering emotion at which the reader cannot help but be moved, as after the time that Tadzio recognizes Aschenbach and smiles at him:

"He who had received this smile carried it quickly away with him like a fateful gift. He was so deeply shaken that he was forced to flee the lighted terrace and the front garden and hurry into the darkness of the park at the rear. Words struggled from his lips, strangely indignant and tender reproaches: 'You musn't smile like that! One musn't, do you hear, smile like that at anyone!' He sank down on one of the seats, deliriously breathing the nocturnal fragrance of the flowers and trees. And leaning back, his arms hanging down, overwhelmed, trembling, shuddering all over, he whispered the standing formula of the heart's desire--impossible here, absurd, depraved, ludicrous and sacred nevertheless, still worthy of honor even here: 'I love you!'" (241)

I am not sure the degree to which these stories shattered the conventions of their times--some of them are quite ordinary--but for me, this short story collection was a discovery of rare value. I feel that Mann is one of the first writers to experiment with so-called "transgressive fiction" in the modern sense of the term, and while he has legitimately cemented his place in the canon of German literature, proving himself worthy of the kind of respect only known to Goethe, few present day American readers will be familiar with his work. One should not forget that Mann himself became an American citizen in the 1950's and lived in California, and there is sometimes an American element that will appear in his stories that will make one proud with the kind of respect he shows this country and its citizens. Keeping all of this in mind, if it is your motive to review all of the classic works of literature created in this world before you die, please add this collection to your list. I do not think you will find the time wasted.

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