Death in Venice and Other Tales

Death in Venice and Other Tales

Twelve tales that Mann wrote between 1896 and 1912 (Death in Venice), some quite strange, all with the tell-tale Mann stamp upon them.
The Will for Happiness (1896)- man with fatal heart condition evades death until at long last the father of his beloved allows them to marry. He dies on their wedding night.
Little Herr Friedemann (1897)- crippled by being dropped as an infant, Friedemann falls in love then realizes it is futile since he is grotesque, focuses on being cultured instead. Years later, he falls for a new woman in town who cruelly rejects him, he drowns himself in the creek by her house at a party one night.
Tobias Mindernickel (1897) – old man is laughed at by children, acquires a dog but then beats it, only finds relief in providing succor once he’s almost killed it. Then he does kill it.
Little Lizzy (1897) – attractive woman married to an obese lawyer and openly carrying on affairs that the whole town knows about. She convinces her husband to dress up like a giant baby and sing a number at her party, to his humiliation. “This fat man had the most bizarre character. No one could have been more courteous, more gracious, more obliging than he. Yet without actually articulating it, people felt that his overly friendly and flattering behavior was somehow forced, that it was rooted in timidity and insecurity, and so it got on their nerves. Nothing is uglier than a person who despises himself but who, out of cowardice and vanity, is eager to please because he wants to be liked.”
Gladius Dei (1902)- strange story where a painting of the Virgin Mary is deemed by a passerby to be too seductive, he tries to get it taken out of the window of the gallery that’s selling copies of it.
Tristan (1903) – hints of Magic Mountain in this one— a writer and a consumptive (only the windpipe tho!) meet in a sanatorium and develop a friendship; she dies after having been convinced by him to play Tristan and Isolde.
The Starvelings: A Study (??) – brief portrait of a jealous friend who wishes his lady friend would tell him to wait a bit and hang out with her. Echoes of this show up again in Tonio Kroger.
Tonio Kroger (1903)- fantastic novella, Kroger falls in love with Hans and then with Inge, both of whom he encounters later in Sweden they having married and he having traveled there to get a fresh perspective. “If he was asked what in the world he wanted to be, he would supply different answers, for he was in the habit of saying—and had already written—that he bore within himself the possibilities of a thousand different ways of life, together with the secret awareness that they were all impossibilities.”
“He did not work like someone who works in order to live; rather, he worked like someone who wants nothing but to work because he considers himself nothing as a living person, wishes only to be regarded as a creative being, and otherwise goes about gray and inconspicuous like an actor who has taken off his makeup and is nothing so long as he has nothing to portray. He worked in silent and invisible seclusion, disdainful of those small-minded people for whom talent was a social asset, who, whether rich or poor, went about wild and dilapidated or lived high on the hog with very individualistic neckties, who were devoted to their charming and artistic lives and unaware that good works can emerge only under the pressure of a bad life, that the person who lives does not work, and that an artist must virtually die in order to be fully creative.”
The Wunderkind (1903) – a young skilled composer and pianist pulls the wool over his audience’s eyes, or so he feels.
Harsh Hour (1905) – I think this is Mann’s portrait of Schiller writing? He mentions Don Carlos… it’s late at night, the writer is alone and taking a break to look more holistically at his work. “Do not brood: work! Limit, exclude, give shape, complete… And complete it he did, the work of his suffering. It may not have been good, but complete it he did. And when it was complete, lo and behold, it was good. And from his soul, from Music and Idea, new works struggled upward, resonant and shimmering creations, which, in sacred form, wondrously hinted at their infinite homeland, just as the ocean, from which it is fished, roars in the seashell.”
The Blood of the Walsungs (1905) – bizarre tale of twins who are in love with each other, named after the characters in Die Walkure who they see that night at the opera; they consummate their relationship on the eve of the girl twin getting married off.
Death in Venice (1912) – old man and the sea, feels the travel bug and doesn’t know how to fight it, goes here and there and finally Venice, tries to leave but his trunk gets sent on in the wrong direction, he uses this as an excuse to stay and watch a young boy whom he’s in love with. Disease hits the city, he dies.

Richard Wagner, His Sufferings and Greatness

In 1933, Thomas Mann put his thoughts about Wagner to paper in this essay, calling Wagner a product of the 19th century: “greatness, of a turbid, suffering kind; disillusioned yet bitterly, fanatically aware of truth; conscious too of the brief, incredulous bliss to be snatched from beauty as she flies–such greatness as this was the meaning and mark of the nineteenth century.” Relying on letters, Mann deconstructs Wagner’s process, calling him a dilettante for his all-encompassing art (visual, musical, poetical), and somewhat belittling Wagner’s words, saying to keep in mind it must not be read, but must be accompanied by gesture, music and picture and is only poetry when all these elements are there, “purely as composition it is often bombastic, baroque, even childish…”
Mann calls Schopenhauer’s influence “the greatest event in Wagner’s life,” saying that it freed his music to be itself. Wagner himself writes “My friend Schopenhauer… a gift from heaven to my loneliness… But one friend I have whom I love ever to win anew. That is my old Schopenhauer, who seems so grumpy and is always deeply loving.” (P.S. they were decidedly NOT friends– Schopenhauer had no interest in Wagner)
Also in this essay I discovered the odd habit Schiller had of keeping rotten apples in a nearby drawer while he worked, finding that he could not work without that smell, but which made Goethe nearly faint when he discovered them after dropping in on his pal.
The essay also details Baudelaire’s love of Wagner, and juxtaposes it with Baudelaire’s love of Edgar Allen Poe, putting Wagner as a “glorious brother and comrade of all these sufferers from life, given to pity…” It made me realize the interconnectedness of all these works; you can’t just study one aspect of culture but have to open your mouth wide to pour in every corner before swishing it around to get a taste. I wonder if it’s always as easy to discern who has impacted whom– most likely clues get left behind in journals, reading logs, letters.

Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family

This was a re-read, my interest in Mann rekindled by Magic Mountain’s eerily wrapping itself around my brain. Short chapters work really well for me, but I did have to push a bit to consume this tale of a wealthy German family deteriorating into poverty and death. From the first chapter, we dine on descriptions of each family member’s laugh, “a high pinched giggle,” “giggled exactly like her husband,” “laughed the Kroger laugh which began with a splutter as her chin was pressed against the chest.”
The respectable old merchant has just settled his family into an enormous house at the beginning, and by the end, the estate is sold off, the last heir dies of typhoid fever, the widow moves back to Amsterdam, and Tony lives on, bemoaning her fate of divorce, abandonment, widowhood. In the early sections of the book, Tony grapples with not wanting to marry the merchant, falls in love with the seashore student of medicine, but is whisked back to town to marry Grunlich after all. The whole story I kept waiting for the doctor to reappear to sweep Tony off her feet, but she is doomed to have a few more awful marriages.
Much preferred Magic Mountain to this, but glad to have it behind me.

The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg)

Mann’s writing was interrupted by WWI, making this a much more complex book than he intended to write. Published in 1929, he started writing it in 1912. Heralded as one of the most influential works of 20th century German literature.
Quick plot summary: Hans Castorp goes for a three week visit to his cousin Joachim Ziemssen at a Swiss sanatarium, and ends up staying seven years. Along the way he encounters the Italian humanist Settembrini, who acts as intellectual mentor to Castorp. Through Settembrini he meets Naphta, a Jew converted to Catholicism and Jesuit. Naphta and Settembrini get into furious intellectual quarrels, ending the book with a duel, S refuses to kill N, so N shoots himself in the head. Castorp falls in love with Clavdia Chauchat, the Russian lady of mystery who leaves the sanatarium only to return several months later with Peeperkorn, a boisterous and wealthy Dutchman. Castorp has one eventful night during Marti Gras where all rules are lifted and thus speaks frankly to Clavdia. He borrows a pencil from her, as he borrowed one from the Kirghiz-eyed classmate of long ago, Pribislav Hippe.
Castorp’s stay is prolonged first by catching a cold, and then when he is examined, they find “spots” on his lung, thus he becomes a full time resident, buying the fur lined blanket with which to wrap himself as he takes in the rest cure on his balcony in the fresh mountain air. Life at the sanatarium is decadent- five huge meals a day, followed by resting on comfortable chaise lounges on their balconies, with brief walks in the valley. Time becomes meaningless, seasons not guideposts since May contains more snow than October. Ziemssen heads down to the flatlands, rejoins his regiment happily. A few months later, he is back, in worse shape than ever. In the interim, Castorp received a visit from his uncle Tienappel, who wanted to know why Ziemssen had left but Castorp had not. The uncle was freaked out by the antipathy surrounding him in the high alpine air (“we’re never cold”), and flees for the flatland after getting an answer to his question about what happens when bodies decay. “First of all, your guts burst… you stink yourself out.”
Ziemssen then dies at the sanatarium, leaving Castorp alone. Years pass. The institution receives a gramophone which Castorp takes responsibility for. There are seances which summon dead spirits (when asked how long the spirit had been there, “hastening while”). Castorp takes up skiing.
Recurring ideas: Castorp’s notion of “playing king” as he daydreams in the green meadow, the constant referring to bareheaded men or men without hats– what is the significance? — this is a purely alpine tradition, as the lowlands men all wore hats. The concept of time – Mann mentions the trimming of nails bringing a heightened sense of time passing, something I myself have also noticed.

What people call boredom is actually an abnormal compression of time caused by monotony– uninterrupted uniformity can shrink large spaces of time until the heart falters, terrified to death. When one day is like every other, then all days are like one, and perfect homogeneity would make the longest life seem very short, as if it had flown by in a twinkling.

…she exuded bleakness of spirit the way a cellar exudes damp.

Death in Venice

Sometimes it’s necessary to disconnect from the conveyor belt of current literature and feast on older delights like those Thomas Mann brings to the table. I wish I read German, but I thoroughly enjoyed Heim’s translation.
Basic idea is that a writer breaks away from his mountain home to seek inspiration for the work he’s stuck on. “He needed a change of scene, a bit of spontaneity, an idle existence, a foreign atmosphere, and an influx of new blood to make the summer bearable and productive.” (Chapter 1) After a brief stop in Greece, he heads for the sparkling city of Venice where he puts down roots for the summer, becoming enchanted with the Polish youth Tadzio, whom he compares with Greek statues and whom he indulges various fantasies about.
Inspiration to write returns to him in a flash, and with Tadzio in his sight, he pens a glorious few pages on the youth’s beauty. “It is surely as well that the world knows only a beautiful work itself and not its origins, the conditions under which it comes into being, for if people had knowledge of the sources from which the artist derives his inspiration they would oftentimes be confused and alarmed and thus vitiate the effects the artist had achieved.” (Chapter 4) “Yet it cannot be said he was suffering: he was drunk in both head and heart, and his steps followed the dictates of the demon whose delight it is to trample human reason and dignity underfoot.” (Chapter 5)
While he was keeping his love a secret from the youth, the city of Venice was keeping a cholera epidemic secret from all visitors. When von Aschenbach (the writer) finally wheedles the truth out of the British travel agent, he considers telling the Polish family and then fleeing the city. Instead, he embraces the chaos and decides to remain in Venice. His death at the end of the story is not cholera-related, but rather the result of knowing Tadzio is leaving that day and his heart breaks.

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