Archive for the ‘mann thomas’ Category

You know those books you’ve been meaning to reread for decades, but don’t?Because you’re scared of them. Meet one of mine.


I read The Magic Mountain in my early twenties, when I was much too young to appreciate it. Or did I become afeared because of that translation exercise – the one of the 6-page long sentence. Which might not have been as long as that, but was definitely loooooooooong , and definitely written by Thomas Mann. Perhaps not in The Magic Mountain though. It might have been Doctor Faustus. Anyway something made The Magic Mountain insurmountable in my head, despite Buddenbrooks being one of my top 10 novels of all time.

And yet I always had a lurking suspicion that one day I would revisit. Hence the presence on my shelves of a beautiful second-hand copy of the Folio Society edition from 2000, translated by John E Woods, illustrated by Leonard Rosoman.  It’s probably been there for 12 years or so, but I have finally summoned up the courage to make a start, prompted firstly my Buddenbrooks conversation with Tony during last year’s German Literature Month, during which I began to contemplate rereading The Magic Mountain for this year’s event. Then I discovered that Dovegreyreader is currently making her own ascent. I have decided to join her.

Now I would be delighted to find myself bounding up this mountain with the panache of a mountain goat, but, somehow, I doubt it. So this is the plan. The Magic Mountain is Sunday afternoon reading for the next few weeks. At just under 700 pages, I should be approaching or, better still, standing on the summit by the end of February. Expect progress reports.  You may need to be on hand to supply me with oxygen when the atmosphere becomes rarified.

For now though I’m enjoying the train journey into the Swiss Alps ….


“The moment the small, but uncommonly sturdy engine pulls out, the real adventure begins.”


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Buddenbrooks 1st edition

In its eagerness to be seen, this post published a day early. It’s best read after part three, which you can find over at Tony’s Reading List.


Tony Malone of Tony’s Reading List and I have been chatting about Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks for the past few days.  Today’s installment brings our musings to a conclusion – for now.  You’ll see, if you read to the end, that I’m not quite done with the Buddenbrooks just yet ….

The story so far:

Part One – Background, Business and Buildings
Part Two – Character Flaws in the 3rd and 4th generations
Part Three – On technique and the translation of dialects

And so to Part Four – A 20th century novel in 19th century clothing

LS: To return to the decline of the Buddenbrooks. We’ve identified a number of reasons for it: the unstoppable course of history, poor commercial decisions and marriages, as well as the corrupting influence of the artistic nature. That enables Buddenbrooks to be read on multiple levels. The historical and domestic dramas, firmly grounded in the realism of the nineteenth century, are what makes it so readable (not a dirty word in my lexicon). It could also be read as a fin-de-siécle novel – just think of all those images of decadence and decay, in particular, the teeth. As for the poor artist (or musician in this case) as the embodiment of the conflict between self-fulfillment and duty, this is a theme which Mann returns to again and again throughout his career. There are obviously autobiographical elements to this, but this is the theme that to my mind turns Buddenbrooks into what I think of as “a twentieth century novel in nineteeth century clothing”. Do you see what I mean by that?

TM: Yes, very much so. I mentioned the idea of a comfort read early in this conversation, and Buddenbrooks certainly has that Victorian Literature aura about it, a long, rambling family saga with a few weddings and the odd funeral (the Trollope comparison suddenly seems rather apt!). However, there’s a definite post-modern feel to the work, something that Mann declares from the very start with the novel’s alternative title (Verfall einer Familie). Yes, it’s a story about the comfortably-off that won’t scare the middle-class horses, but there’s an air of inevitable doom hovering over everything that even first-time readers will sense rather quickly. That’s my take on it anyway – is there anything else you meant by your statement?

LS: I’m thinking of the way the novel anticipates preoccupations that became more pronounced in the literature of the twentieth century. Talking to his brother, Heinrich, prior to publication, Mann himself said. “The whole thing is metaphysics, music and adolescent eroticism”. Some of it not dealt with as explicitly as we’re now used to but nevertheless present. Thomas’s inner turmoil about what comes after death, the (albeit brief) comfort he found in the writings of Schopenhauer. We’ve already commented on the importance of music in the novel, but let’s not forget the homage Mann paid to Wagner, the source of his beloved leitmotif. As for that final point, take another look at those passages where Hanno is improvising on the pianoforte and tell me that Mann isn’t alluding to a different kind of satisfaction entirely …. (More ellipsis!) Finally what’s going on when Hanno’s friend, Kai, visits him on his deathbed and kisses his hand. There are homeoerotic undertones there. For why else would the family need to think about it for a good while afterwards?

IMG_0207Which brings us back to the autobiographical and the well-documented issues with Mann’s own sexuality. That Buddenbrooks was autobiographical like many debut novels, I always knew, but not quite how much. I’ve just read a terrific essay, in Savage Reprisals, written by Peter Gay, which I can wholeheartedly recommend. Very illuminating, particularly about the “metaphysics, music and adolescent eroticism”, but also about the autobiography. For instance, did you know that Mann’s father – like Thomas Buddenbrooks – stipulated that his grain business be sold off as he recognised that neither of his sons had the wherewithal to continue with it? That action causing such feelings of guilt in Thomas Mann  that you could say it compounded already existing internal conflicts, but it also spawned such anger that he was impelled to write Buddenbrooks which in 1905 he called “the artist’s sublime revenge on his experience”. To quote Peter Gay the novel is “a revenge on a father disappointed in his son’s failure to succeed, and a revenge on a reputable, upright society that expected him to be more infallibly masculine than he turned out to be”.

TM: There’s certainly a lot going on beneath the surface, but I wouldn’t say that I really focused on this angle in my own reading of the book (probably because I haven’t really gone into the author’s background). Of course, when it comes to some of Mann’s other books, these themes are far more prominently foregrounded, and for anyone who has read more of his work, it’s fascinating to draw parallels between them. Death in Venice (Der Tod in Venedig) is the obvious example, and you could almost make the claim that von Aschenbach is a sort of possible future Hanno, one that survived and ended up lusting after young boys in Italy. Tonio Kröger focuses more on the loneliness of the artist and even takes us down to Munich for a brief interlude, a stay very different from, but nevertheless reminiscent of, Tony’s disastrous time in Bavaria.

What interests me most, though, is the obsession with ill health and the effect it has on the way we approach life. Tristan is a short piece set in a sanatorium, but the ultimate goal for any Thomas Mann admirer must surely be to pack their rucksack and set off on a hike up The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg). Is that a journey you’re looking to make, having finished Buddenbrooks?

LS: Oh, I’m not finished with the Buddenbrooks yet! I’m currently half-way through the 12-part TV series from 1979. After that I’ll move onto Tonio Kröger, Mann’s personal favourite from his oeuvre, I might think about The Magic Mountain for next year’s German Literature Month, but only if you’ll agree to another conversation like this one. Thank you for taking the time to do this this. I found it a much more rewarding experience than trying to shoehorn a 600-page masterpiece into a 500-word review!

TM: Well, I think we might have passed the 500-word mark long ago! Thank you for the chat, and as for another ascent of Mann’s magic mountain, well, you never know.

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Buddenbrooks 1st edition

I have always wanted to offer Buddenbrooks as a readalong during German Literature Month (GLM) but a number of regular GLM participants have already read it on their own. After visiting the Buddenbrooks house in Lübeck last June, this was always going to be the year for, what I think is, my 5th reread. When I discovered that Tony Malone of Tony’s Reading List was also in the midst of a reread, I suggested that we have a leisurely chat about it. So we did just that – on and off for about a fortnight! We’ve ended up with a thesis enough material to a) do the author justice, and b) dedicate a long weekend to the novel William Faulkner considered the best novel of the twentieth century. This is a four-part conversation that consists of:

Part One – Background, Business and Buildings  (Published below)
Part Two – Character flaws in the 3rd and 4th generations (Published at Tony’s Reading List)
Part Three – On technique and the translation of dialects (Published at Tony’s Reading List)
Part Four – A 20th century novel in 19th century clothing

We hope you enjoy reading our ruminations as much as we did ruminating! Beware, there may be spoilers. If you’ve already read the novel, please add to the discussion.

Without further ado:

Part One – Background, Business and Buildings

TM: Which edition did you read, Lizzy?

LS: I read my beloved Folio Society edition which uses Helen Porter-Lowe’s translation. I know it’s fashionable to malign her work these days, as she was not always accurate, omitted sentences that could offend the finer feelings of her readership, and openly admitted that the translation of dialect was an impossibility! However, she did work with Thomas Mann’s blessing and I have to say that none of the above interfered with my enjoyment in any way. In fact, I found the old-fashioned and polite cadence of her style well-suited to the 19th century Hanseatic environment.

I assume you read the original, Tony. How did you get on and what motivated your reread?

TM: Yes, I was lucky enough to read it in the original German, and other languages besides (more on that later…), and my lovely Fischer Verlag edition even has a rather familiar photo on the front cover – of the famous Buddenbrook house! As for the reasons for my reread, well, I’m not sure there were any, really, apart from the fact that I’d been wanting to give it another go for a while. I think I was looking for something long and comforting at the time, and while Anthony Trollope is usually my go-to author in that category, there was something about another vicarious journey to Lübeck that appealed… I’d have to say that the setting was a major attraction; with Husum (Theodor Storm’s old stomping ground) not far away, this area of Germany has quite the literary history – as you recently found out!

LS: I did. It was all rather wonderful, if a tad wet! It appears all the bad weather blows over from Scotland to Schleswig-Holstein! (Or it did in June, when I was there.) But I digress. You wanted something long and comforting. Long it certainly is. Comforting? I suppose it is, in the sense of being familiar (although I was surprised by how much I had forgotten!) On the other hand the history of the Buddenbrooks isn’t exactly a happy one; the novel is subtitled Verfall einer Familie (decline of a family.) When do you think the decline sets in?

TM: To be honest, I think it’s already begun to some extent when the novel begins. The purchase of the new house is symptomatic of the family’s desire to show off their status (ironically enough, no different to the way other, ‘lower’, families seek to prove themselves later), and it’s this willingness to sink their hard-earned capital into bricks and mortar, which appears to be a depreciating asset in this period, that brings about their decline. You could argue that the later purchase of a bigger house is the moment that tips them over the edge, but for me the seeds of the family’s decline are there from the very first page…
Speaking of the era, I think the time and place are a crucial aspect of the story as it is often external influences that affect the family’s fortunes. Did you know a lot about the period before reading the book?

LS: Not in any great detail and I found it didn’t really matter as there is sufficient exposition in the text. Business is business in whichever era, rivalries will always exist and the nouveau-riche blamed for the malaise of the more established families. (I loved how Antonie (henceforth Tony) made such a bête-noire of the Hagenströms, even though the Buddenbrooks don’t go that far back themselves. After all, Tony is only 3rd generation herself.

That said, Mann places the novel firmly in the context of 19th century Lübeck, a city granted independent free status in 1815, and able to profit from its advantageous waterway connections from the river Trave to the Elbe and the Baltic Sea to trade grain. That is the source of the Buddenbrooks fortune and also the reason for the big mercantile house, the ground floor of which would have served as business premises. If you look at the Fischer Verlag book cover, you can see the layout of the house. The large ground floor, business premises and at time storage facilities, the lst floor where the family lived, and the second floor with smaller windows for bedrooms and servants quarters,

Apropos the business, Mann incorporates fastidious details of grain transaction and prices into the text, but I glossed over these to be honest, It was sufficient to know that Thomas Buddenbrooks lacked the business acumen of his grandfather and father, despite his promising start, best efforts and ongoing exertions. I found all the shenanigans and details concerning Tony’s and Erika’s dowries much more interesting! It wasn’t only bad business that frittered away the family fortune. It’s a puzzle to me that the Buddenbrooks couldn’t find suitable marriage partners for their women. Can you offer any explanations?

TM: (Response to be revealed tomorrow.)

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Mengstrasse 4, Lübeck

Earlier this year I recorded my trip to Theodor Storm’s home town of Husum, but I never told you what happened after that.  I travelled from the North Sea coast to the Baltic Coast.  To Lübeck, the home town of Thomas Mann, where a visit to Mengstrasse 4, the former home of Mann’s grandparents, is obligatory for German litlovers.  Why? Because that is where the Heinrich and Thomas Mann Centre is situated.  Well, that may be it’s official name, but it is better known as the Buddenbrooks House, being the house Mann immortalised in his debut novel.

I made a beeline for the second floor. For it is dedicated to the novel, Buddenbrooks, in a way that is, as far as I am aware wholely unique.  Two rooms are presented as the Buddenbrooks’s sitting and dining rooms.


The Sitting Room

They were sitting in the “land-scape room” on the first floor of the rambling old house in Meng Street, which the firm of Johann Buddenbrook had acquired some time since, though the family had not lived in it for long.  The room was hung with heavy resilient tapestries put up  in such a way that they stood well out from the walls. They were woven in soft tones to harmonise with the carpet, and they depicted idyllic landscapes in the style of the eighteenth century, with merry vine-dressers, busy husbandmen and gaily beribboned shepherdesses who sat beside crystal streams with spotless lambs in their laps or exchanged kisses with amorous shepherds,  These scenes were usually lighted by a pale yellow sunset to match the yellow coverings on the white enammelled furniture and the yellow silk curtains at the two windows.

For the size of the room, the furniture was rather scant.  A round table, its slender legs decorated with fine lines of gilding, stood, not in front of the sofa, but by the wall opposite the little harmonium, on which lay a flute case, some stiff arm chairs were ranged in a row round the walls, there was a sewing table by the window, and a flimsy ornamented writing-desk laden with knick-knacks. (Translation H T Lowe-Porter)


The Dining Room

The tapestries in this room had a sky-blue background, against which, between slender columns, white figures of gods and goddesses stood out with plastic effect,  The heavy red damask window-curtains were drawn; stiff, massive sofas in red damask stood ranged against the walls, and in each corner stood a tall gilt candelabrum with eight flaming candles, besides those in silver sconces on the table.  Above the heavy sideboard, on the wall opposite the landscape room, hung a large painting of an Italian bay, the misty blue atmosphere of which was most effective in the candle-light. (Translation H T Porter Lowe)

Look more closely and you will see individual artifacts tagged with the the numbers of the pages in which they make individual appearances if you will.  Unfortunately the labels don’t detail the relevant edition.  Still I’ll include the photos here, for anyone who may be reading Buddenbrooks at the moment.  Let me know when you track down the relevant passage.

The permanent interactive exhibition on the ground floor details the life and times of Heinrich and Thomas Mann, and made me understand that Buddenbrooks, like many debut novels, contains many autobiographical elements.  For instance, the Mann family originated from Rostock, and many of Hanno Buddenbrook’s experiences were based on those of the author, such as his torment during his school days at the Katharineum.

The museum’s mission statement is to encourage readers to pick up read or re-read the works of the Manns.  I can report a case of mission achieved, because right now, I am deep into what must be my 5th or 6th reading of Buddenbrooks, and  I am loving every word all over again.

It’s where my journey during German Literature Month VII will begin.  Have you made any plans yet?

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Translated by Helen Lowe-Porter (1928)

Translated by Michael Henry Heim (2004) Winner of the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize (2005)

The legendary Anthea Bell has said that classic works needed to be re-translated to bring them up-to-date. That is certainly true of Helen Lowe-Porter’s 1928 translation. Scholars have long bemoaned its inadequacies: the omissions, the errors and even the moral judgment of the translator. There has even been a thesis written about it! I didn’t notice any of that when I reread it two years ago, without recourse to the German original. I did notice the archaic vocabulary, particulary the repeated use of the word “gay” in the former sense of the word, although the irony is that the current sense would not go amiss – or would it? It appears there’s as much controversy about the homeoerotic nature of the content as there is about Lowe-Porter’s translation. But that is a subject for another post – today it’s all about translation.Mann’s novella, originally published in 1912, must be one of the most translated in the whole of German literature. Eric MacMillan has taken a number of these and done a fine job of comparing the various strategies of the translators. Heim’s translation (no longer the most recent as there is now a centennial edition), is not included amongst them. So in the spirit of a translation duel, let’s pit Helen Porter-Lowe against Michael Henry Heim. Sadly neither translator is here to speak for themselves. Helen Porter-Lowe died in 1963 and the world of translation is still mourning Michael Henry Heim, who passed away only last month.However, as a reader, I can still compare and contrast. In so doing, I’ll use the same key sentence as MacMillan.

Aschenbach noticed with astonishment the lad’s perfect beauty. His face recalled the noblest moment of Greek sculpture—pale, with a sweet reserve, with clustering honey-coloured ringlets, the brow and nose descending in one line, the winning mouth, the expression of pure and godlike serenity. Yet with all this chaste perfection of form it was of such unique personal charm that the observer thought he had never seen, either in nature or art, anything so utterly happy and consummate.

Aschenbach noted with astonishment that the boy was of a consummate beauty; his face – pale and charmingly reticent, ringed by honey-colored hair, with a straight nose, lovely mouth, and an expression of gravity sweet and divine – recalled Greek statuary of the noblest period, yet its purest formal perfection notwithstanding it conveyed a unique personal charm such that whoever might gaze upon it would believe he had never beheld anything so accomplished, be it in nature or art.

Thomas Mann
Mit Erstaunen bemerkte Aschenbach, daß der Knabe vollkommen schön war. Sein Antlitz,—bleich und anmutig verschlossen, von honigfarbenem Haar umringelt, mit der gerade abfallenden Nase, dem lieblichen Munde, dem Ausdruck von holdem und göttlichem Ernst, erinnerte an griechische Bildwerke aus edelster Zeit, und bei reinster Vollendung der Form war es von so einmalig-persönlichem Reiz, daß der Schauende weder in Natur noch bildender Kunst etwas ähnlich Geglücktes angetroffen zu haben glaubte.

Points to observe

1) As an English reader (without looking at the German) I prefer Lowe-Porter’s translation. It flows much better due to the break down of Mann’s two sentences into three.
Lowe-Porter 1 Heim 0

2) While Heim’s translation sounds stilted in English, it preserves the formality and intellectuality of Mann’s syntax. That is the point. Aschenbach is an intellectual and proud of it. Death in Venice is the story of his decay, consumed internally by illicit desire, externally by cholera. But, that’s not the person we meet in chapter 3. Heim’s translation preserves the nature and tone of that man.
Lowe-Porter 1 Heim 1

3) Zooming in on the vocabulary.  Would Aschenbach be so casual as to think of someone as a lad (Lowe-Porter)? I think not.
Lowe-Porter 1 Heim 2

4) I’m undecided about that “lieblichen Mund” and declaring it a draw. Is a mouth more winning (Lowe-Porter) than lovely (Heim)? Did people talk about lovely mouths in 1928? Do we now? Mann did and Heim sticks to it. But we just don’t say that in English. It’s lovely lips, isn’t it? Luscious even though that would be sexualising the text way too much.

5) “Ernst” has a lot more gravitas than serenity (Lowe-Porter). Heim’s call is the correct one.

So final score from just one sentence. Lowe-Porter 1 Heim 3.

Strangely enough that’s confirmation of my gut feeling star-ratings. I felt a bit meh when I finished Lowe-Porter’s version a couple of year ago and guilty for awarding only 3-stars to a German masterpiece. Much happier with Heim’s work and, therefore, 4-stars –  same as I’d give the original.

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The big news from Day 5 is that the sun was still shining – not quite as brilliantly as on days 1 and 2, it is true, and it rained a little but not enough to warrant getting the raincoat out or to deter the birds. Prince Albert, who presides majestically over proceedings in the garden, continued to be subjected to a seagull’s cheek.

The day began in the Spiegeltent/Moulin Rouge with Jon McGregor and perhaps the best author introduction I’ve ever heard. “Jon McGregor prefers to be an anonymous recluse, spreading misinformation and lies about himself as the only thing that matters is his body of work.” As you know, I was less than convinced about his writing, Even the Dogs not one of my favourite reads of the year so far and I found the first novel, unfinishable. Yet I came out of the event contemplating a reread of  Even the Dogs as the thought behind its craft became more evident.  McGregor read perhaps the most powerful passage – the absolute crux of the novel – dead centre pages 114 – 120 – the journey of the product from flower in Afghanistan to its seedy final destination, a UK telephone box and an addict’s vein.

I was very surprised at the chair’s and the author’s insistence that the book is not depressing.  An addict’s life is too resourceful and creative for that.  I remain unconvinced – this novel will continues to live on the virtual bookshelf next to Jude the Obscure.

A quick dash across the square – from the Moulin Rouge to the main theatre – and the delights of A L Kennedy who read a passage from her work-in-progress.  A witty, charming,  honest, cynical, sad and heart-warming passage about falling in love.  Yes really, all those things, all at once. She would not divulge the name of the novel but she did say that she likes to test her unpublished work in public readings to see if what she has written is well-crafted and understandable.  If she comes across a passage that is ugly, that she doesn’t want to read aloud, she will change it.  Interestingly she cannot bear to read her earlier work.  Recently she read one of her early stories to a group of university students. The rhythm was so chopped up, she said,  she felt like gagging!  No mention of the name of that story either!

Tucked away in a leafy corner of Charlotte Square is the smallest venue, The Writer’s Retreat.   I think it seats about 60. I had the feeling that my next event had been misplaced;  that many, many more readers would have happily purchased tickets for an opportunity to listen to the legendary Alberto Manguel and a new literary star, Miguel Syjuco, whose Ilustrado lifted the inaugural Asian Man Booker Prize.  Ilustrado and Manguel’s new novel, All Men are Liars have so many points of comparison that this was an obvious pairing.  Summarised by the chair, Stuart Kelly, as two of the liveliest novels with dead authors, they also feature characters named after themselves – a device, Syjuco explained  to further blur the lines between fact and fiction.  Manguel goes much further – his fictional Manguel is described as an “arsehole” by another character in the book.  Well, there we can identify misinformation and lies.  Manguel displayed such sincere generosity when talking of Syjuco’s book, at one point uttering the  “masterpiece” word.  Neither author cared for the post-modernist label.  Syjuco said he set out simply to write a book he would want to read and to make it as good as he could.  Manguel said that the only use the label had was to justify professors holding courses on it! 

The audience held its breathe when Manguel, a prolific reader with a personal library of over 30,000 books, was asked to name the one book he would want if stranded on a desert island.  Without a thought, he replied “a shipbuilding manual”.  His serious response – Dante’s Camelia or perhaps Alice In Wonderland.   Syjuco cheated opting for an e-book with a huge memory.

In the book-signing queue, I admitted to Syjuco that I was a little afraid of his book.  You know, he said, David Foster Wallace was convinced that readers are more intelligent than they think they are. 

And so the day came full circle.  Jon McGregor began the day eulogising about David Foster Wallace’s short stories and essays.  Yet another  reading trail to be picked up once the festival is over.

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Choosing what to read after a 5-star experience is always difficult.  What can possibly follow without being a disappointment?  Inevitably I pick a favourite/established author – preferably a dead one – so that the risk of readerly disappointment is minimised, harsh judgements from the keyboard tempered and the chance of a wounded literary ego eradicated.  It was in these circumstances, i.e following on from the superlative What A Carve Up! that I came to Royal Highness.

I don’t know if I can claim Thomas Mann as a favourite author of mine.  I certainly recognise the masterpieces that are Buddenbrooks and Death In Venice.  Others will cry “So too are The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus or Joseph and His Brothers.”   It’s here that my mixed feelings towards Mann begin to surface.  I waded through The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus while at university.    I suspect the musicality of Doctor Faustus to my tone-deaf ears was simply incomprehensible.  And The Magic Mountain was ruined for me by a jokster of a lecturer (I won’t name him) who once set the following translation exercise.  “Nice and easy this week” he said.  “Only one sentence” ,  forgetting to mention that at 3.5 pages (I think), it was possibly the longest sentence ever written in German  (it certainly felt that way) … and it came from The Magic Mountain.  So that was a masterpiece ruined forever but, now that I have a beautiful Folio Society edition, I may mount another attempt on its northern face.  The length of Joseph and His Brothers simply terrifies me.

Royal Highness was chosen as the first group read on The World Literature Forum.  I joined in because, published in 1909, it’s an early work and, therefore, I hoped, not as susceptible to the long intellectual asides (be it music (Doctor Faustus) or tuberculosis (The Magic Mountain) that spoil Mann’s later works.  What I can say is that the asides are there but they are controlled, not overly long and add to rather than detract from the story as a whole.

The novel is a study of duty vs freedom, tradition vs modernism and as such, it echoes the thematic concerns of  Buddenbrooks. Rather than dealing with the merchant classes, however, it is a study of royalty and its relevance in the modern world.   Prince Klaus Heinrich is the younger and most dutiful son of the Grand Duke.  His elder brother, Albrecht, inherits the duchy but, due to his nervous disposition and poor health, abdicates in all but name, to his younger brother.   Klaus Heinrich, then takes up his calling:

There was no workaday element about his life and nothing was quite real: it consisted wholly of a succession of exceptional moments.  Whereever he went it was feastday, the people glorified themselves in the person of their sovereign, the humdrum of existence became transfigured by an element of poetry.

How relevant is all this pomp and circumstance to the “snotty street urchins turned into mannerly little boys and girls in Sunday suits” , “the dim citizen in his frock-coat and top-hat”, the duchy that is almost bankrupt, without means to raise revenue apart from selling off its decrepit castles to rich American businessmen.  The country, symbolised by a red rose bush with a foul perfume,  is stagnating. 

Klaus Heinrich too suffers.  

How tiring life was, how strenuous!  At times it seemed to him as though he were constantly compelled to keep up something with enormous expenditure of energy which normally could not be kept up, save under the most favourable circumstances, and which taxed his elasticity to the utmost.  At other times his calling seemed to him sad and barren, although normally he loved it and gladly went towards his representtional duties.

The constriction of  duty is externalised by a physical deformity, a withered left hand, which in order to keep up appearances, he must keep out of sight at all times.

I have quoted from the chapter “A Lofty Calling” which is located at the midpoint of the novel.  Enter the rich American businessman, Herr Spoelmann and his daughter, Imma.  The name, Spoelmann (the rinser)  giving a clue to developments they are about to trigger in Klaus Heinrich’s outlook.  New world, new thoughts, new outlooks.  I won’t give the whole game away but the rose bush is eventually transplanted to sunnier ground and its perfume transforms accordingly ….  and a family rift developed between Thomas and his republican brother Heinrich!

The text is rich with Thomas – I cannot resist calling them – Mannerisms  The surnames of his characters often indicate the role they play in the story.  I’ve already mentioned the Spoelmanns – the rinsers.  The duchal family are the Grimmburgs – the fierce castles.  The government administrator is  – von Buehl zu Buehl – the man who smoothes the way, negotiting the duchal family from hill to hill.  Klaus Heinrich’s tutor is the intellectually superior Ueberbein.   Mann is also the master of the leitmotif .  Taken from music, this is a refrain that is repeated whenever the characters  appear.  So, for example,  Klaus Heinrich always hides his left hand behind his back and Imma Spoelmann continually purses her lips and turns her head from side to side.

Add in the rich symbolisms and the continuing relevance of the issues in our modern day world and you have the makings of literary merit.  And yet, I found it dull and that was not down to the curse of the previous 5-star read.  The pace is monotonous – an omniscient 3rd-person narrative for 75%  of the book.    While the observations are precise, the effect was a distancing of this reader from the fairy tale.  So, while I shed a tear,  it wasn’t joy at the happy ending,  it was the relief of turning the final page.


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