Book Review: Writer Thomas Mann — Still August After All These Years?
By Matt Hanson
How does Thomas Mann’s grandiosity hold up today? A new selection of his short stories, freshly translated by veteran translator and fiction writer Damion Searls, suggests an answer, though only partially.
Thomas Mann: New Selected Stories. Translated by Damion Searls. W.W. Norton (Liverright), 272 pages, $30.
Thomas Mann is an august figure in 20th-century German literature, heavy with gravitas; Bertolt Brecht called him “the starched collar.” He is celebrated for issuing oracular pronouncements like “where I am is German culture” and writing long, allegorical, densely erudite texts such as The Magic Mountain. I once told a professor that one of the thinkers we were reading was fictionalized in the novel — I’m pretty sure it was the cranky Marxist Georgy Lukacs (whose writing paid Mann ample homage) — and he grumbled that that was probably why he liked the damn thing so much. How does Mann’s grandiosity hold up today? A new selection of his short stories, freshly translated into English by veteran translator and fiction writer Damion Searls, suggests an answer, though only partially. The collection contains some gems, but the gathering inexplicably excludes some significant work.
Mann’s garnered some attention recently after New York Review Books published Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, a collection of essays and speeches written during World War I. In the volume, he offers bloodthirsty support for Germany, suggesting that the war represented an exciting escape from the deadening rituals of bourgeois life. Mark Lilla writes in his introduction that “most readers today will find the reactionary political views he expressed in it repellent, as Mann himself eventually did.” Mann’s more liberal stance was articulated during his exile after the rise of Hitler, when he was lecturing at Princeton and living in L.A., hanging out with the legendary coterie of fellow expats who had fled fascist Europe to cast a notoriously cold eye on giddy mid-century America. (See the Arts Fuse review of Stanley Corngold’s The Mind in Exile: Thomas Mann in Princeton.) Still, Mann was never quite as fiercely politically engaged as some of his contemporaries. Art mattered most. Regardless, his work can be fascinating when seen as a kind of a prose petri dish in which various conflicting 20th-century ideologies intermix.
We start with the story previously translated as “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” a title that has the serrated edge of a Joy Division song title. Searls has changed the title to the vaguer “Chaotic World and Early Sorrow.” I hadn’t read it before, and to be honest it took a couple of tries before I could appreciate its subtle social critique of an entire generation of Germans between the wars. Mann’s style here is coolly analytical yet sharply observant: it zeroes in on the minutiae of the everyday life of his characters. Special significance lies in what brand of cigarettes someone smokes, or the way they push their hair back from their forehead. The story was a favorite of Hemingway’s for a reason.
A bourgeois family prepares for a party that reflects hard times, the precarious state of the German economy in the wake of the Great War. Rampant inflation has reached the point that even the festivity’s pudding must be watered down. It ends up tasting like “almonds and soap.” The patriarch is a history professor, musing at dusk, lost in a haze of musty reflection. His unruly children enjoy provoking strangers with outrageous jokes and entertaining slightly creepy infatuations for the adults around them. The extensive notes outline the specifics of the time period, which help readers see the surprising breadth in Mann’s miniature social canvas.
I haven’t yet read Mann’s other door-stoppers, Buddenbrooks and The Confessions of Felix Krull, which bookend his long and prolific literary career. I’ve been meaning to, but the chapter excerpts from these books that Searls provides don’t make them appealing. Digging out a chunk from a bigger and more intricate story is an editorial misstep, particularly for a writer who habitually caresses the details within his large social canvases and who is fascinated by the myriad subtleties that reflect (and push) generational change. We don’t know enough about the characters’ roles within these larger narratives. If you are going to include excerpts, then why not have the ethereal “Snow” chapter from The Magic Mountain?
The most glaring and inexplicable omission here is the vivid tale of fascism-as-carnival, “Mario and the Magician.” Bourgeois tourists are mesmerized by the brash charisma of a magnetically vulgar Italian hypnotist who manifests the crowd’s latent unconscious anarchy. The story worked as a potent metaphor for the crowd-swaying power of fascism back when it was published in 1930 — and it still packs a punch now, given how our modern demagogues (take your pick) push mass rage and resentment buttons with impunity. Mann, the deeply ambivalent aesthete, was obsessed with how charismatic performers ply their dark arts to create beauty as well as to grow their following. And he understood that charisma is also an inevitable part of politics, a “magic” that can easily be abused by demagogues who conquer by knowing just how to stoke their audience’s worst overheated fantasies.
In his witty, insightful, and charming introduction, Searls makes some useful observations about why Mann’s personal life is worth addressing. Even though he worked with determination to publicly play the part of the stolid north German eminence grise, Mann’s inner life was far more complex. I’ve always appreciated — yet could not help but wonder — why Mann appealed so strongly to Black intellectuals. Albert Murray was a great fan, for example, and during his stint in World War II he wittily claimed to want to stay alive long enough to read the last installment of Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers tetralogy.
Searls points out that Mann’s father came from solidly north German stock with deep roots in Lubeck, but his mother had ancestral roots in Brazil. She was a “Creole,” a term then for being of mixed race, which meant that Mann had partially Black ancestry as well. It’s something he was aware of and fairly comfortable with (even if he tended to downplay it). Mann’s background was on the list of indictments when fascists started burning his books. It’s a useful reminder of the subversive power of cultural hybridity — a writer whose Germanness was central to his public identity in fact contained multitudes.
A haunted and haunting novella that has been made into an opera and various films, Death in Venice is this volume’s centerpiece. It’s of renewed interest at this time because of its questioning of sexual categories in the context of illicit homoerotic desire. Set against the backdrop of looming societal collapse, the narrative juxtaposes intensely private erotic longing with social decadence: this was a brave line of inquiry to be exploring back in 1912. Such topics were not part of respectable discourse, especially for respected highbrow authors. Not known then was Mann’s anguished relationship to his own sexuality. Throughout his career he branded himself as a devoted family man with six children. That said, there’s evidence from his diaries and correspondence that his erotic urges weren’t, as we say now, heteronormative.
The first time I encountered Death in Venice it was listening to it via an audiobook. I still remember the way the words, read for some reason in an elegant English accent, slowly pulled me into the mysterious tale of Gustav Von Aschenbach, a famous German writer of history (Mann has a bone to pick with people who obsess over the past) who decides to go on vacation to sun-drenched Italy, ostensibly to perk up his sagging spirits. Aschenbach gradually finds himself obsessing over a lovely Polish teenager who is staying with his aristocratic family at the same beach resort. The resort is an escapist oasis amid an ancient city seething with dust and desire.
The “sirocco” that lingers over the city eventually drifts across the resort, bringing with it ill spirits and humidity, steadily poisoning what once had been a refreshing environment. Mann’s morbid vision of pollution taps into an uncomfortable contemporary reality: Covid, which claimed or ruined so many lives so pointlessly around the globe. And the deadly contagion — with all the paranoia, hysteria, and social malaise in its wake — is still claiming lives, by the hundreds every day they say, somewhere out there, but not here, not here…
Death in Venice is not just a neatly allegorical tale about Idle Intellect Corrupted By Lusty Lust, though it’s that, too. Mann’s adroit control of pacing and atmosphere guarantees that this vivid story unfolds like an unsettling fever dream. When Aschenbach indolently settles into the dark velvet seat of his gondola, guided by a mysterious gondolier who will soon disappear, murmuring about the price he will surely pay, the historian is being transported into a Lethean netherworld, whether he knows it or not. Still, he seems to be a rather willing victim, and we float down that doomed canal along with him.
One could argue that the fatalistic way the novella presents queer sexuality isn’t socially progressive. Searls mentions in his intro that his students believe that the old lech should be in jail. But that is an astonishingly myopic reading: Mann’s essential concern is with a universal predicament. The sudden arrival, with overwhelming force, of unconsummated desire. It is not homophobic that Achenbach’s doomed longing is homoerotic. Like most of us at one time or another, he becomes helplessly, even pathetically, possessed by an idealized image. The professor’s highfalutin musings on Platonic notions of love can’t withstand the febrile trembling of his all-too-human nervous system. He can’t even bring himself to greet the object of his desire or even tap the lad on the shoulder. His debauchery is almost completely internalized, which only gives his unconscious yearning an apocalyptic power.
It doesn’t matter, ultimately, if Aschenbach goes to pieces after gazing in awe at a teenage boy or a girl or a palm tree or a plate of spaghetti. All roads lead the same way — once your mind has turned. Mann gives us a few early clues — in the form of the strange figures Aschenbach encounters — that the stodgy professor is heading toward his own destruction before he even sees the boy. The evocative allure of his fruitless yet unrelenting obsession is lulling — the irony is that it cushions his doom even as it makes it inevitable. Mann the (once) reactionary aesthete saw just how beguilingly humanity’s death wish can be disguised. Given the current intoxications of demagoguery, it is a lesson well worth heeding.
Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at the Arts Fuse whose work has also appeared in the American Interest, the Baffler, the Guardian, the Millions, the New Yorker, the Smart Set, and elsewhere. A longtime resident of Boston, he now lives in New Orleans.