Saturday, December 5

Considering Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories"

Some things get worse every time I return to them. Every time I see Juno, it seems a little more artificial. Every time I see V for Vendetta, it's a bit more banal and ridiculous. What may have been clever at the first, becomes trite by the second.

Thomas Mann, on the other hand, is firmly in the opposite camp. He shares this distinction with kiwi fruit. They only get better. His writing is so far from modern sensibilities in terms of keeping a reader's attention through any action whatsoever that the first time reading him is a slog. Before any character gives a line of dialogue, we are treated to a half-page accounting of their total physical appearance and three pages worth of background on their moral character and family history. Consider Lisabeta Ivanovna of "Tonio Kröger."

"She was about the same age as himself--slightly past thirty. She sat there on a low stool, in her dark-blue apron, and leant her chin in her hand. Her brown hair, compactly dressed, already a little gray at the sides, was parted in the middle and waved over the temples, framing a sensitive, sympathetic, dark-skinned face, which was Slavic in its facial structure, with flat nose, strongly accentuated cheek bones, and little bright black eyes. She sat there measuring her work with her head on one side and her eyes screwed up; her features were drawn with a look of misgiving almost vexation."

And all she does is listen to Kröger whine that to be a good artist, such as himself, he cannot fully immerse himself in and enjoy life but must remain a cold and distant observer. And she calls him bourgeois. That's it. This descrption contains nearly as many words as she speaks in the entire story. You should rejoice that I chose an instance of Mann writing with restraint. He gives equally extensive descriptions of hotel managers who are limited to only welcoming the real characters.

It doesn't help either that the stories begin to blend into one another as, once again, a middle-class family declines in spectacular fashion or beauty is contemplated or a writer finds it impossible to partake in the sensual pleasures like the masses do. Really, how different are Tonio Kröger and Detlev Spinell? Are the differences between brother and sister pairs Ingrid and Bert Cornelius and Siegmund and Sieglinde Aarenhold so great? Not really. Mann's range of concern is rather limited.

But the second time through, when any thought that this will be a rollicking tale of high adventure and any hope for even a modicum of action has been banished to the farthest reaches, Mann improves considerably. I stop waiting for anything to happen and enjoy what has been written.

I wrote earlier that Mann has a limited range. That's one way to put it. Another way to put it is that he has a singular vision and is wholly intent upon exploring it. Art is that vision. By the end of the last story, a coherent philosophy of Art has been created. For Mann, Art is intrinsically and inseparably fused with death and stands in opposition to life. His great artist characters, from Gustave von Aschenbach to Felix Krull, are the final scions of dying noble families. In the words of Spinell, "Because 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." Children appear in his stories only to demonstrate just how far the family has fallen by their excesses.

This is because Art stands in opposition to life. Its adherents are unimpressive physically and often sickly. The most beautiful are, like Tadzio and Gabriele Eckhof, those nearest death. Their antagonists are the healthy and practical, but it is not so simple. The artists have their envies and are jealous of the vitality of the unartistic.

It's refreshing to see a writer so willing to describe their philosophy in detail. While this tends toward the didactic in "Tonio Kröger," the more subtle developments of it found in "Death in Venice" and "Blood of the Walsungs" are great. I don't see this so much in contemporary fiction. No doubt authors have their particular philosophies and whatnot, but they seem more interested in exploring situations and characters, more interested in considering alternatives to an idea than explaining it. Maybe that is more the domain of the essay, but Mann at least demonstrates it can be done in fiction with style.

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