Sunday, November 27, 2011

Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories, by Thomas Mann

Bookface has been wrangling with unpleasant immigration issues lately. She's investigating a number options, which include uprooting herself, her belongings, and her two cats and shipping the whole lot to a different country. This particular option has all the appeal of a sinus infection. A normal person would reach for some David Sedaris at such a moment, or the Buddha, or Harry Potter or hobbits. Bookface decided that this was the perfect time to curl up with Aschenbach, who loitered in Venice during a cholera epidemic. I believe it's called wallowing.

This is a 1988 Bantam collection of Mann's novellas, translated by David Luke, Lecturer in German at Oxford. The contents, in chronological order, are Little Herr Friedemann, The Joker, The Road to the Churchyard, Gladius Dei, Tristan, Tonio Kroeger, and Death in Venice. I was re-reading the last two; the first five were new to me.

The first 20% of the book is Luke's introduction, a predictably academic dissection of Mann and his work. At the end of it, however, he explains his motivation to put out his own, new translation of these stories. This section gave me pause and triggered some reflection on the role of translation. I first read Thomas Mann's work in German. Later, years after college when my German had rusted to the point of inoperability, I re-read it in English, always in translation by Helen Lowe-Porter. I wrongly assumed that her translations were ubiquitous because they were the gold standard. No, the American publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, had decided to grant her the exclusive English translation rights. David Luke maintains that Lowe-Porter's translations were sub-par, listing some of her errors, which ranged from simple lexical misunderstanding -- by confusing two similar German nouns, she described something as 'rootless' when it should have been 'savourless' -- to meaning-altering gaffes. I hadn't realised that a translator might get exclusive rights to an author's work, and after reading David Luke's translation (permissible now that Lowe-Porter's rights have expired), I don't think one should.

Many of these novellas explore one of Thomas Mann's favourite themes (and one of mine, as well):  the rational, disciplined, Apollonian aspects of the self vs. the passionate, creative, Dionysian ones. Mann, like many of his characters, came from such a split-personality home:  His father was a Lutheran German senator, and his mother a Catholic Brazilian. Tonio Kroeger probably best exemplifies this dichotomy (although Aschenbach, choosing to renounce his highly-structured German life to stay in cholera-stricken Venice to observe beautiful young Tadzio is another). Tonio struggles his life long to find a comfortable space between these two worlds and ends by concluding that there isn't one.
He went the way he had to go; rather nonchalantly and unsteadily, whistling to himself, gazing into vacancy with his head tilted to one side. And if it was the wrong way, then that was because for certain people no such thing as a right way exists. 
Mann often repeats key phrases throughout a story, but then again, we often crash into the same obstacles again and again throughout our lives, repeating our patterns and missteps. Tonio, years later, finds himself once more at the same impasse.
Begin all over again? It would be no good. It would all turn out the same -- all happen again just as it has happened. For certain people are bound to go astray because for them no such thing as a right way exists.
Moreover, one cannot escape one's demons by retreating to a hermit's cave. Give oneself over to the sole pursuit of intellect or spiritual discipline, and the demons will likely follow. The narrator in The Joker realises that he cannot split off the Dionysian half of himself and leave it behind.
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 an to prove one a hero or a half-wit.
This character decides, however, that since he doesn't easily fit in with the rest of society, that he shall go his own way, move to another country, live very modestly (in a manner unbefitting his social class and education), and live a lifestyle which he himself has defined. It doesn't take long for him to understand the impact of his isolation; to compensate, he amplifies the benefits.
But after all, an absolutely fascinating book has just been published, a new French novel which I have decided I can afford to buy and which I shall have leisure to enjoy, sitting comfortably in my armchair. Another three hundred pages, full of taste, blague, and exquisite artistry! Come now, I have arranged my life the way I wanted it! Can I possibly not be happy? The question is ridiculous. The question is utterly absurd...
Ouch. That hits close to home. If I were back in my country of origin, working 50-hour weeks and enjoying all the perks that come with that paycheck, I'd fit in a lot more smoothly with my neighbours. Then again, I wouldn't be sitting around reading Thomas Mann, either. We make choices, and there are pros and cons to every one of them. Blague, by the way, is a joke, a bit of nonsense. In my former life, I certainly wouldn't have had time to blog about blague. Probably wouldn't have even taken the time to look it up.

Most people think of Thomas Mann's writing as grimly serious, but he's not without a sense of humour. Likewise, many focus on the homoerotic aspect of Death in Venice. Scholars acknowledge that Mann likely felt stronger emotional connections to men than to women, but there is no evidence that he ever had a physical relationship with a man. On the record, at least, he was a loving and dutiful husband and father of six children. A few of his stories, though, include laughably effeminate characters, and I suppose that may be a symptom of the author working through some gender-related struggles. Herr Knaak, Tonio Kroeger's dancing instructor, is nearly a parody, with his flamboyant movements and melodramatic pronouncements. In Tristan, Herr Spinell is an absurdly frivolous man who fancies himself a writer. If Mann was using this character to poke fun at himself, he was poking with a scimitar. Herr Spinell loves beauty. Nearly swoons over it, in fact.
"What beauty!" he would then exclaim, tilting his head to one side, raising his shoulders, spreading out his hands and curling back his nose and lips. "Ah, dear me, pray observe, how beautiful that is!" And in the emotion of such moments Herr Spinell was capable of falling blindly upon the neck of no matter who might be at hand, whatever their status or sex... On his desk, permanently on view to anyone who entered his room, lay the book he had written. It was a novel of moderate length with a completely baffling cover design, printed on the kind of paper one might use for filtering coffee, in elaborate typography with every letter looking like a Gothic cathedral. Fraulein von Osterloh had read it in an idle quarter of an hour and had declared it to be "refined", which was her polite circumlocution for "unconscionably tedious".  Its scenes were set in fashionable drawing rooms and luxurious boudoirs full of exquisite objets d'art, full of Gobelin tapestries, very old furniture, priceless porcelain, rare materials and artistic treasures of every sort. They were all described at length and with loving devotion, and as one read one constantly seemed to see Herr Spinell curling back his nose and exclaiming: "What beauty! Ah, dear me, pray observe, how beautiful that is!"
Contrast this fellow with Aschenbach, the protagonist of Death in Venice. Aschenbach is a very serious and renowned writer. He has not renounced Teutonic self-discipline, and at late middle age, he is nearly at the point of total exhaustion when he finally decides that a change of scenery would do him good.
Not that he was writing badly: it was at least the advantage of his years to be the master of his trade, a mastery of which at any moment he could feel calmly confident. But even as it brought him national honour he took no pleasure in it himself, and it seemed to him that his work lacked that element of sparkling and joyful improvisation, that quality which surpasses any intellectual substance in its power to delight the receptive world. 
Once his ship has moved beyond sight of land, Aschenbach begins to get in touch with his senses; his intellect begins to loosen its grip.
The horizon was complete. Under the turbid dome of the sky the desolate sea surrounded him in an enormous circle. But in empty, unarticulated space our mind loses its sense of time as well, and we enter the twilight of the immeasurable. 
Once in Venice, the battle proper between Aschenbach's intellect and senses really begins. He knows the city is battling a plague; his common sense tells him he must leave. On the other hand, he is relishing its beauties, not least of which is the exquisite Polish youth, Tadzio. He has spent his whole life in a cerebral straight-jacket and having got free of it, he gorges on aesthetic pleasures. Occasional pangs of guilt prick him, but he convinces himself (with the help of Mann's repetitive phrases) that he needs and deserves this change, the threat of plague be damned.
He let his gaze glide away, dissolve and die in the monotonous haze of this desolate emptiness... Because of a forbidden longing deep within him that ran quite contrary to his life's task and was for that very reason seductive, a longing for the unarticulated and immeasurable, for eternity, for nothingness. To rest in the arms of perfection is the desire of any man intent upon creating excellence; and is not nothingness a form of perfection? 
When rigid self-discipline and relentless work ethic have driven a man for so many decades, though, it's not easy to let go, no matter how obvious it is that one is at the point of collapse.
Aschenbach did not enjoy enjoying himself. Whenever and wherever he had to stop work, have a breathing space, take things easily, he would soon find himself driven by restlessness and dissatisfaction -- and this had been so in his youth above all -- back to his lofty travail, to his stern and sacred daily routine. 
At least, I suppose, Aschenbach had the beauty of the sea and Tadzio in front of him, the last things he saw before dying quietly in his beach chair.

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