Monday, September 14, 2009

Death in Venice & Seven Other Stories

by Thomas Mann

translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter

There is a glimmer of twilight here. Something vast fading, resigning itself to a quiet end in exhaustion. The stories which make up ‘Death in Venice & Seven Other Stories’ were composed between 1903 and 1929, ranging from evocations of somber grotesquery, in the title story and others such as ‘Mario and the Magician,’ to philosophical ramblings on nature in as ‘A Man and his Dog,’ to broad comedic episodes, such as ‘Tonio Kroger’ or ‘Felix Krull.’ One would not be fooled into thinking that this is a deliberate collection of interlocking works, instead we are confronted with a succinct introduction to a prolific writer. Nonetheless, it isn’t much of a stretch to find a thematic affinity between translator H.T. Lowe-Porter’s selections. These are elegiac short stories written on the edge of obsolescence. Thomas Mann writes a dignified German modernism fully engaged with the romantic flair and gravitas of its history. These stories were for the most part, written in the intermittent period of the Weimer Republic. This was a time of ennui and incipient collapse, of terror and denial, and the studied poise of Mann’s prose comes across as a vain guard against the tumult of change.

The confidence man Felix Krull, whose short story of the same name would later be expanded to a novel left unfinished at the time of Mann’s death, narrates how his “…parents bored each other to tears and got relief by filling the house with guests from Mainz and Wiesbaden so that our house was the scene of a continual round of gaieties. It was a promiscuous crew who frequented these gatherings: actors and actresses, young business men, the sickly young infantry lieutenant who later proposed to my sister; a Jewish banker with a wife whose charms gushed appallingly out of her jet-spangled frock; a journalist in a velvet waistcoat with a lock of hair falling over his brow, who every time brought along a new wife.” The walls are coming down all around the Krull’s as the they dance and drink to the early morning, painfully aware of the inevitability of their own fall. The demise of the aristocracy, of the guardians of Western culture, hangs over each of these stories. We are confronted with death – the suicide of Krull’s father in his bed-chamber, where “…he lay, upon the floor, with his clothing opened; his hand was resting upon the roundness of his belly, and beside him lay the fatal shining thing with which he shot himself in his gentle heart.” Elsewhere we observe the beachside collapse of von Aschenbach in “Death in Venice,” and the incestuous and empty embrace of the twins Siegmund and Seiglinde in “the Blood of the Walsungs”

This culminates, perhaps, in ‘Tristan.’ The action occurs at “Einfried, the sanatorium. A long, white, rectilinear building with a side wing, set in a spacious garden pleasingly equipped with grottoes, bowers, and little bark pavilions. Behind its slate roofs the mountains tower heavenwards, evergreen, massy, cleft with wooded ravines.” Yet, as prosaic as the estate may be, it remains the site of a sanatorium. It is here that we witness the death of an aristocratic sense of history. The vaunted legacy of the Enlightenment’s rationalism is confined to a madhouse. It is here that Herr Kloterjahn’s ailing wife convalesces. It should be noted that she is predominantly identified in relation to her husband, a businessman of the firm of A.C. Kloterjahn & Co. She exemplifies an aristocratic frailty, with “her beautiful white hands, bare save for the simple wedding-ring, rested in her lap, among the folds of a dark, heavy cloth skirt; she wore a close-fitting waist of silver-grey with a stiff-collar – it had an all-over pattern of arabesques in high-pile velvet. But these warm, heavy materials only served to bring out the unspeakable delicacy, sweetness, and languor of the little head, to make it look more than ever touching, exquisite, and unearthly.” Herr Kloterjahn’s wife exemplifies, much like von Aschenbach in “Death in Venice,” the final manifestation of a dignified German lineage which the outbreak of World War II proved to shatter – a war in which the face of which the notion of German romanticism and History was called into doubt, a war that sent Thomas Mann himself fleeing to California, due to his public denouements of National Socialist policy.

Also interned at Einfried is a Herr Spinell, described multiple times in story by Mann as “…a queer sort of man, with a name like some kind of mineral or precious stone.” Spinell is an aestheticist, a gallantly strange man not far from the decadence of Huysmans or Louys. He has written “…a novel of medium length, with a perfectly bewildering drawing on the jacket, printed on a sort of filter-paper. Each letter of the type looked like a Gothic cathedral… Its scenes were laid in fashionable salons, in luxurious boudoirs full of choice objets d’art, old furnitures of all sorts and kinds. On the description of these things were expended the most loving care…” Spinell is an interesting figure. In some sense, he serves as Mann’s mouthpiece, as Spinell espouses on art and culture. Yet Mann doesn’t refrain from satirizing Spinell clearly seen in the above excerpts. On Spinell’s sole novel, which he keeps on display in his quarters, the Fraulein von Osterloh remarks she “…read it once, in a spare quarter-hour, and found it ‘very cultured’ – which was her circumlocution for inhumanly boresome.”

Spinell explains to Herr Kloterjahn’s wife, whom he prefers to remember by her maiden name of Eckhof, that “…it not infrequently happens that a race with sober, practical bourgeois traditions will towards the end of its days flare up in some form of art.” Spinell envisions a halo or crown above the head of the infirm Gabriele Kloterjahn. The eccentric author writes a letter to Herr Kloterjahn denouncing the base businessman, claiming in a letter that he “…lead her idle will astray [and beguiled] her out of that moss-grown garden into the ugliness of life, you give her your own vulgar name and make of her a married woman, a housewife, a mother. You take that deathly beauty –spent, aloof, flowering in lofty unconcern of the uses of this world- and debase it to the service of common things… I hate you and your child, as I hate the life of which you are the representative: cheap, ridiculous, but yet triumphant life, the everlasting antipodes and deadly enemy of beauty.”

The story closes with Spinell confronting the ghastly visage of Herr Kloterjahn’s spawn - the infant Anton Kloterjahn, with “…a bone teething-ring in one hand a tin rattle in the other… his eyes [almost] shut, his mouth gaped open till all the rosy gums were displayed; and as he shouted he rolled his head about in excess of mirth.” This is the vulgarity of the new bourgeois, as they displace the elegance of the past with broad pleasures and cheap strength. As Europe’s Krulls and Eckhofs fade into silence, the whoops and cries of the Kloterjahn’s gain in bluster.

After reading through the eight stories in “Death in Venice,” one can’t help feel as if Mann, his writings, is as doomed as Gabriele Kloterjahn. These stories are smothered by their stifling literary dignity. There’s a cold formalism at play here, and it is evident in the successful stories, including the title piece, just as much as it is in the weaker entries, such as “Tonio Kroger.” Look at “Death in Venice!” The persistent of the malodorous odor wafting through the streets of Venice is a crushingly obvious, as are the formal symmetries at play - the old man drinking with the young party at the beginning of the story is a clear foreshadowing of Aschenbach towards the close of the novella, as he dyes his hair black, paints his face a florid pink and swallows overripe strawberries on the streets of a mephitic Venice. There’s a dark humor at play in Mann’s best work, and this grotesquery makes “Death in Venice” and the similarly perverse “Mario and the Magician” two of the strongest pieces in the volume. But Mann lacks the restless skepticism and malleability which delighted me when I recently read through a selection of an early German author, Hoffmann.

One wishes Mann had written more pieces such as “A Man and His Dog,” which straddles personal essay and philosophical rambling in a manner not dissimilar to Henry David Thoreau. In this novella, Mann is, for once, not bound by the hoary constraints of formalism and allows himself the freedom of many digressions as he chronicles his relationship with a spirited hound. Mann’s descriptions are exhilarating, as his prose pursues the river along which he walked - the water “swollen and dark yellow it rolls threateningly along, rushing and dashing in a furious hurry this way and that; its muddy tide takes up the whole extra bed up to the edge of the undergrowth, pounding against the cement and the willow hurdles… the water is quiet, it makes almost noise at all. And there are no rapids in its course now, the stream is too high for that. You can only see where they were by the fact that the waves are higher and deeper there than elsewhere, and that their crests break backwards instead of forward like the surf on a beach.” These passages rush toward the reader with none of the stultifying pomp so prominent elsewhere in Mann’s prose. Instead, they are almost humble, sacred perhaps. They fell alive.

Mann defers to nature; he allows it to speak for itself. This frees his prose of some of its shackles. He admits that “having gone into some detail in describing the riverzone, I believe I have covered the whole region and done all I can to bring it before my reader’s eye. I like my description pretty well, but I like the reality of nature even better. It is more vivid and various; just as Bashan himself is warmer, more living and hearty than his imaginary presentment.” Now, it is possible to attack such a sentiment – is Mann saying that his art’s main goal is mimesis, in which case it will inevitably fail in the face of nature itself? Doesn’t art instead reach for something beyond mimesis? “A Man and His Dog,” with its digressions and extending wanderings, allows the book’s strongest and most vital entry into the act of thinking. As I work my way through the books on my shelf, I don’t always encounter writers I enjoy, but it is thrilling to find moments that still manage to ignite.

NEXT: Reflections by Walter Benjamin.

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