Wednesday, January 4, 2012

January Classic Challenge: Thomas Mann

For the January Classics Challenge: Thomas Mann, Death in Venice

Who is the author?
Thomas Mann, considered to be one of the greatest German authors.

What do they look like?
Here's a short film showing Mann and his family, already in exile. You can listen to him speak about Richard Wagner here (with English subtitles). I tend to imagine Armin Müller-Stahl, though, who played Thomas Mann a few years ago in an excellent movie.

When were they born?
1875-1955

Where did they live?
That's a long story with Thomas Mann. He was born in Lübeck in northern Germany, moved to Munich after the death of his father, lived in Italy for a while with his brother and moved back to Munich, where he married Katja Pringsheim in 1905.

They lived in Munich until 1933 when they did not return from a holiday/lecture tour and settled for a time in France. In 1938 the family moved to the United States, first to Princetown and then to Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles. Thomas Mann did not intend to return to Europe even after the Nazi regime had ended, but the threats of the McCarthy-Era were serious enough to convince him to leave in 1952. Anyone who had been outspoken against the Nazis was now under suspicion and Mann had certainly done that.
He settled in Switzerland, in Zurich, but visited Germany many times until his death.

What does their handwriting look like?
Here's his signature and here's a handwritten page from Tristan

What are some of the other novels they've written?
Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus

What is an interesting and random fact about their life?
Thomas Mann had six children, all of them gifted, and almost none of them could (or would) escape the shadow of their father.

What do you think of their writing style?
There are not many other authors who have such a command of German as Thomas Mann had. His style is very refined and it's the result of hours and hours of painstaking work. That doesn't make his books easy to read, but it's certainly elegant.

My problem with Thomas Mann is that there's just too much introspection and reflection. In the case of Death in Venice, that was fine, but The Magic Mountain has about 1000 pages of this. I'm not afraid of long books, but after nothing much had happened after 400 pages, I gave up. I may try again now, though.

Is there are particular quote that has stood out to you?
In Death in Venice, the author Aschenbach writes an essay on beauty, inspired by the beautiful boy he has discovered, which is very much admired when it's published. Mann goes on to say that it's probably better that the admirers know nothing of how and why the essay was written because that knowledge would only confuse or frighten them. Thomas Mann's books were always inspired by people he encountered and things he experienced, but here it's very obvious that Aschenbach is a stand-in for himself. It was certainly obvious to Katja Mann.

Why do you think they wrote this novel?
Like I said, Mann took his inspiration from his own life and he did encounter a very beautiful boy in Venice a few years before writing Death in Venice. It's a meditation on beauty and on self-denial, something Thomas Mann did know a lot about. It's also the most fascinating book about obsession, with the possible exception of Lolita, that I know and while Mann was too disciplined to become such a victim of obsession as Aschenbach, it's definitely a popular theme in his books.

How did their contemporaries view both the author and their novel?
Thomas Mann was pretty much a legend in his own lifetime, much admired and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. In Germany, he went from bestselling author to persona non grata, as far as the Nazis were concerned - although his books were not burned, unlike those of his brother Heinrich and his son Klaus. After the war, the Germans was at first suspicious and sometimes downright hostile, especially since Mann was not about to feel very sorry for the suffering the Germans had brought upon themselves with Hitler. But soon he was accepted again and celebrated.
There were (and are) of course critics, especially more political authors like Bert Brecht and Kurt Tucholsky and, at the outbreak of WWI, his brother Heinrich, who was much more clear-sighted politically and did not share Thomas' patriotism.

As far as I know, the novella was received just as well as any of his books. Which amazes me to no end, I have to admit, considering the topic.

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